The official end of U.S. operations in Iraq last week calls to mind controversial issues from the past decade. One of the most important intellectual and policy battles, which remains relevant today, is over how to defend both civil liberties and security in time of war. In other words, how should America defend itself from enemies at home and abroad while also preserving the freedoms that we enjoy and that make our country great?

People often say that we need to balance liberty and security. This implies that the two are opposed and that the more we have of one, the less we will have of the other. That’s an understandable way of talking, but it’s wrong. The truth is that neither liberty nor security can exist without the other. They are equally important to the United States and, indeed, are the twin reasons why this nation was founded.

Protecting individual liberty does not invariably hobble the nation’s defenses. Rather, as the Constitution recognizes, security and liberty are reinforcing: We “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Thus, we do not want, or need, to trade off freedom to achieve security. Nor should we assume that security, the first duty of government, is the enemy of liberty. As Cully Stimson and Andrew Grossman write in the latest installment of Heritage’s Understanding America series, “A threat to America’s security is also a threat to Americans’ liberties.”

Awareness of this fact runs deep in American history. The Declaration of Independence was inspired partly by British abuses, committed without regard for the rule of law. Britain’s rule denied the American colonists both their natural rights and reliable security. As John Jay wrote in The Federalist, “It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

And that is what the Founders did, creating a system that has worked for over 200 years. It is a system that recognizes liberty and security as friends, not opponents to one another. It’s important for Americans today to recognize that as the world changes, we must adapt if we are to continue to preserve both liberty and security.

The American system places its faith not fundamentally in specific guarantees of rights. The Bill of Rights is vital, but it came later. The Founders relied first on the separation of powers among the three branches of government on the federal level and on the division between federal and state government. This arrangement provided both flexibility to ensure security and restraint needed to safeguard liberty.

In the Cold War, the U.S. fought enemies who relied on planning and state control. These ostentatious displays were created by governments that were at war with their own people, denying them both security and liberty. Today, the U.S. should maintain a strong national defense against enemies both known and unknown. It relies on many tools to achieve this, and when these programs work well, they serve our need for liberty and security alike. The Founders did not anticipate the precise challenges we face now, but the system they created was strong and flexible. It will continue to work if we understand it and apply it rightly. For example, the use of military tribunals to try terrorists dates back to the Revolutionary War and continues to be appropriate today.

Stimson and Grossman note:

Maintaining a strong national defense secures liberty against threats known and unknown, from rogue states to terrorist organizations. This is the paramount and vital responsibility of the federal government.

As we look forward to 2012, all Americans should bear the importance of a strong but limited government in mind.

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