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Independence Day's Lessons for the Conflict with Iran

By Robert Tracinski

One day before the July 5 deadline for Iran to say yes or no on whether it will halt its drive toward a nuclear bomb, Americans will celebrate the 230th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--just in time to remind us of some crucial lessons for our nation's confrontation with Iran.

Americans think of the Declaration of Independence as the intellectual foundation for our government's domestic policies, for example, the fact that the Constitution protects individual rights and ensures the government's dependence on the "consent of the governed." But the Declaration of Independence was America's first foreign policy document, outlining the causes and principles that led us to fight our first war.

Two hundred years ago, when we were a small fledgling nation and our opponent was the "superpower," note that our leaders had no qualms about acting "unilaterally"--or, as they put it, independently. Though they showed "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," this required only that they "declare the causes which impel them to the separation" from Britain--not that they seek the legal permission from the unanimous vote of an international council. In short, our right to wage war was based, not on an international consensus, but on "the laws of nature."

Today, America is far more capable of independent military action, yet we are far more cowed by the demands for global consensus, allowing the confrontation with Iran to stall for years in a quagmire of "multilateral" negotiations. We need to look, instead, to "the laws of nature" to guide our action.

When the Founders cited the "laws of nature," what did they think those laws said? They all accepted as an established truth the idea that men have "unalienable rights"--and that the only legitimate governments are those which recognize and protect individual rights: "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The message of the American Revolution is that no government has any "just powers"--or any legitimate political and diplomatic claims--if it violates individual rights. This is a radical challenge to today's conventional "realist" diplomacy, which is built on moral equivalence and a cynical tolerance of tyranny. How else can international negotiators debate about the "right" of Iran's brutal Islamic theocracy to experiment with nuclear technology? On the principles of the Founders, the Iranian regime has no right to exist--and the only debate should be about whether and how our interests can be served by toppling it.

War should not be our first resort in dealing with a tyrannical regime, nor was it the Founders' first response to Britain's assaults on their liberty. But they were not satisfied with open-ended negotiations, or with talks about the conditions for potential future talks--as if talking were an end in itself. The Americans expected the British government to respect their liberty. By 1776, they concluded that "our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury."

A year earlier, in his immortal "liberty or death" speech, Patrick Henry had given a blunter assessment: "Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation." The only remaining option, Henry concluded, was "an appeal to arms."

Could there be a better summary of the American and European diplomacy with Iran?

The Americans cited "a history of repeated injuries" against them by the government of Britain--and they wrapped up the Declaration's list of grievances by concluding that they were justified in waging war because the British king was already "waging war against us."

Again, could there be a better summary of America's relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran? Our "history of repeated injuries" begins with the hostages in 1979, continues with a long series of Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks against American targets, from Beirut in 1983 to the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, to Iran's active support for attacks on American troops in Iraq.

When the Iranians are providing weapons and training to Iraqi insurgents and sending their agents to fight alongside Shiite militias, why haven't we drawn the conclusion that Iran is already waging war against us?

Some have recognized the Iranian threat but hoped that the people of Iran will act to overthrow their oppressors. Many educated Iranians are aware of the American example and of our theory of government, so it is not entirely vain to hope that they will act on that inspiration. But what if the Iranian people fail to fight for their liberty--or even rally behind their own oppressors in a confrontation with America? If the Iranians fail this moral test, they may have to pay the price in a war with the United States.

We have reached the point at which Iran's "history of repeated injuries" leaves us no other choice. As the time comes, then, we should adopt toward the people of Iran the attitude stated in our nation's first foreign policy document: "we...hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends."

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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