WASHINGTON, July 26, 2013 – Speaking at an Aspen Institute gathering of Republican governors earlier this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said libertarian thinking could have negative implications for America’s security posture.
“On the libertarian side of things, as a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on September 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious because of this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Christie said. “President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush Administration in the war on terrorism and I mean practically nothing. And you know why? Cause they work.”
Characterizing the libertarian streak as marked by “esoteric, intellectual debates” Christie challenged opponents of the Bush and Obama policies to speak to widows and orphans of the 9/11 attacks, but added “they won’t because that’s a more difficult conversation to have.”
“For those of us who are on the front line of that in the years after that – the U.S. attorneys, the FBI, the CIA, the people who are on the front line of trying to keeping this country safe – I just say it’s not a debate not worth having, but I think we need to be very cautious about how joyful we are over the idea that somehow we’re gonna shift this baby way back, because the next attack that comes that kills thousands of Americans as a result? People are gonna be looking back on the people who are having this intellectual debate,” Christie warned.
Libertarianism and national security: A historical perspective
Can libertarian thinking actually weaken America’s national security? Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters once wrote in 1994 that America would encounter enemies “who do not behave rationally according to our definition of rationality, who are capable of atrocities that challenge the descriptive powers of language, and who will sacrifice their own kind in order to survive.”
As Christie’s comments allude, the 9/11 attacks demonstrate America has enemies unhindered by traditional Western concepts of morality and who are determined to inflict mass destruction. The problem with Christie’s reasoning however is that nearly every major attack on American soil since World War II was the result not of legal interference by libertarians but a failure of the existing security apparatus.
When Imperial Japanese Navy fighters raided Hawaii bases on the morning of December 7, 1941, the attacks happened because radar operators who detected the incoming wave of aircraft were told “not to worry” because of faulty information that the signature detected was a flight of friendly B-17 bombers. No pursuit aircraft were scrambled to positively confirm the identity of the incoming tracks. In addition, the U.S. Navy destroyer Ward caught a Japanese midget submarine operating in Hawaii waters and engaged with depth charges, yet the attack report failed to trigger a sufficient defensive alert for the islands.
Ironically, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the force protection emphasis of Hawaii military units was focused on preventing domestic Japanese terrorist attacks, not a conventional air-sea attack. Preparation against asymmetric attacks led to aircraft infamously being parked wingtip to wingtip with weapon stores unloaded.
When reports reached the Philippines that Japanese forces had attacked Hawaii, Gen. Douglas MacArthur locked and isolated himself in his office for hours, communicating only through his chief-of-staff, Gen. Richard Sutherland as his command staff begged for authorization to retaliate against the Japanese forces in Formosa with a B-17 strategic bombing strike.
By the time MacArthur saw fit to finally emerge from his chambers, Japanese planes struck the Philippines and demolished most of the Philippines-based USAAF B-17s while still on the ground. The failure of MacArthur to scramble on alert the B-17s meant that when the Japanese landing forces attacked the Philippines on December 22, 1941, U.S. forces had insufficient airpower to repel the invasion. These strategic failures of WWII were not the result of libertarian policy hampering U.S. national security, but rather a lack of the existing security apparatus to take appropriate measures to protect American interests.
Half a century later in the run-up to the al Qaeda 9/11 attacks, on December 4, 1998 the CIA included a memorandum in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) with the subject line “Bin Ladin Preparing To Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” warning “members of the Bin Ladin network have received hijack training” and that attacks against American targets could be imminent. By January 11, 2000 the NSC warned then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger that al Qaeda attacks were not a matter of “if” but “when” and “where.”
After George W. Bush won the election, President Clinton met with him in December of that same year and warned “I think you will find that by far your biggest threat is Bin Ladin and the al Qaeda.” On January 25, 2001 Richard Alan Clarke submitted a memo to Condoleeza Rice urgently requesting a principals-level review of the al Qaeda threat. The meeting did not occur until September 4, 2001 and Clarke told Rice “Decision makers should imagine themselves on a future day when the [Counterterrorism Security Group] has not succeeded in stopping [al Qaeda] and hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the US.”
Seven days later, al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with hijacked planes.
According to the 9/11 Commission, prior to the attacks there was a failure to properly act against al Qaeda forces: “As early as 1997, one CIA officer wrote to his supervisor: “All we’re doing is holding the ring until the cavalry gets here.” Military measures failed or were not applied. Before 9/11 the Department of Defense was not given the mission of ending al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan.” The report also warned that the U.S. Air Force barely had any bases with interceptor alert capability and that the U.S. had poor radar coverage. All of these factors are considerations that were well under the purview of the government and are a failure of bureaucracy and politics, not libertarian ideology.
While Gov. Christie is correct that the horror of another 9/11-style attack is worth taking adequate precautions against, the real question he should grapple with is why Americans must pay for the consistent failure of politicians and bureaucrats with the loss of their liberties.
History shows the biggest threat to national security is not the libertarian activist but an incompetent government.
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