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Columnists Remarkable Providences

Fearing the bullies

Fearing the bullies

Once before military cutbacks exposed the United States to attack

This week's cover story points out the way that a president irresponsible in his private life has not been faithful to his public responsibilities either. Lay aside the blundering concerning Yugoslavia, the blinders concerning Chinese spies, and the bluffs that Saddam Hussein has called again and again. Concentrate instead on the way that Americans pay taxes for a Department of Defense that now concentrates on purportedly humanitarian efforts (which end up making the situation worse) instead of concentrating on the defense of America.

One study published last year-The Proliferation Primer, produced by the subcommittee on international security of the Senate committee on governmental affairs-concluded that the spread of ballistic missile technology around the world can be slowed but not stopped. Without a deployed missile defense capable of protecting itself from dictators with ICBMs, "we can be assured only that rogues will continue to seek these long-range missiles to threaten America and American interests." But Bill Clinton, by opposing any missile defense system throughout most of his White House years and only recently giving a grudging, partial OK, has put the United States at risk.

The last time the United States had a president so negligent in the face of serious threats from abroad was almost two centuries ago. Thomas Jefferson was a much finer president than William Jefferson Clinton, but both came into office with a desire to hatchet the defense budget. Jefferson in 1801 believed that a militarily strong America would prompt a response by European superpowers; our best bet was peace through weakness. He promptly cut army and navy expenditures, and British leaders soon had so little regard for U.S. power that its sea captains started stopping American ships and seizing any sailors suspected of desertion from the Royal Navy.

Since it was hard to distinguish British subjects from Americans, thousands of New Worlders found themselves back in the holds of the old. But even when forced British impressments of sailors ran at about a thousand a year, Jefferson did not respond. One congressional critic, John Randolph, said the administration had "the policy of yielding to anything that might come in the shape of insult and aggression." By 1807 Jefferson was still unwilling to prepare for war, so he had Congress pass an Embargo Act that prohibited any American exports to foreign ports, and even any foreign travel by American citizens.

Jefferson was like a parent locking up a child in his room for fear of the bullies outside, but his actions had dire economic as well as psychological consequences: Unemployment grew among American shipbuilders, sailors, and would-be exporters. Many Americans disobeyed the law and began smuggling. Jefferson demanded a stop; ironically, he was willing to use force against American citizens to uphold an embargo established to avoid using force against foreign oppressors.

Soon, an armed mob in Massachusetts prevented customs officials from detaining a ship about to sail. Four thousand citizens met in Boston' s Faneuil Hall to vow that those who tried to enforce Jefferson's policies "ought to be considered as enemies to the Constitution of the United States and of this State." Town meetings throughout New England warned of a possible "dissolution of the Union." Governors said they would resist federal officials.

Jefferson tried to push on, but Congress took over. The House of Representatives voted 81-40 early in 1809 to turn its back on the president and repeal his embargo. Jefferson left office in disgrace. Only after several decades, when memory of his last years in office faded but the words he had penned still burned in the souls of Americans, did the reputation of the Declaration of Independence' s author make a comeback.

In the meantime, an undernourished army had almost lost a country. Most congressman had not agreed with one Jeffersonian who presented this defense strategy against British invasion: "When the enemy comes, let them take our towns, and let us retire into the country." But when war did come in 1812, that's exactly what happened, as American soldiers were unable to prevent the British from burning the White House.

Obviously, differences between then and now are great-but extremism in the defense of pacifism is never a good idea. Clinton officials do not speak of giving up urban areas and retiring into the country, but they might as well if they refuse to defend cities against rogue nations or groups of terrorists. A recent video game, Nuclear Strike, plays on real concerns while noting at the end of one ad, "Remember: it' s only a game." Alas, on Memorial Day, we can remember the casualties of war that become inevitable when those who are supposed to be adults think like children.