Thursday, former U.S. Rep. and Lt. Col. Allen West discussed his take on the meaning of freedom in a speech to 90 students and members of the Evanston community. In the talk, sponsored by NU College Republicans as part of Freedom Week, West spoke about the role of the armed forces in promoting liberty.
“The mission of the armed forces is to fight and win the nation’s wars,” West said. “It cannot be used to spread democracy, but it can be used to fight against the enemies of freedom.”
West focused on the need to project strength as the primary means of ensuring security in a world no longer dominated by superpowers. He underlined the importance of information in the modern age and the growing power of social media.
According to West, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked a turning point in U.S. foreign policy when the effort to construct an Iraqi democracy faltered.
“Any time soldiers go into harm’s way, they’re not spreading freedom, but they can be ambassadors. However, any time you make that the specific mission, that’s where you get Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Although that invasion was not the only nation-building exercise attempted by the U.S., West said its lessons are important in a world no longer overawed by American military might.
West also addressed the changing meaning of national security in an age where the rapid development of technology has transformed foreign policy.
“The battlefield today is the most challenging one I’ve ever seen,” West said. “In [Operation] Desert Storm, it was pretty easy to see who was fighting who and what we were fighting for. Now, it’s non-state actors that are in the conflict, and the military needs to be able to handle it.”
These non-state actors require a new understanding of the world, according to West. “We need to understand the new global environment,” he said. “Our men and women in the armed services are doing six, seven, sometimes eight combat tours of duty. We’re grinding them down to death, which is why we see so much suicide.”
After the speech, NU Economics professor Mark Witte moderated a discussion between West and the audience.
Mark Weyermuller, who writes for The Illinois Review, a conservative blog, noted West’s emphasis on national defense as the main function of the government. “We should not be fooling around in other things,” Weyermuller said.
Weinberg freshman Lauren Thomas said she found West’s extensive knowledge of history surprising. “I expected him to be a little more interventionist, considering his military service," she said. "I thought it was really interesting how he looked at cutting spending as soon as he got to Capitol Hill.”
West also touched on economic issues, saying that the government should not overextend itself during this time of economic hardship. Instead, he said, politicians should "understand the roles and responsibilities of the government, which was founded on the idea of individual freedom." In this effort to secure individual freedom, West identified the limitations of federal government as a vital but often ignored framework for policy.
“People believe that the government can legislate equality,” West said. “Big government is failing; it doesn’t work. The economy grows because people have resources for investment, not because the government decides where to invest.”
Throughout the talk, West drew on his experiences representing Florida’s 22nd district in Congress. In particular, he critiqued education policy as a sphere of domestic policy in need of major reforms.
“We need to make education relevant to our young people,” he said. “In public schools, they teach test-taking tricks when they should be teaching critical thinking and applying skills to real life situations. What the education system needs is change from the bottom up, not the top down.”