TCS Daily

Sparring with Libertarian Doves

By Max Borders - September 24, 2004 12:00 AM

When I dashed off the TCS article "Flying with Libertarian Hawks" that afternoon in late August, I didn't necessarily expect it to be published -- much less to bring down the wrath of so many libertarians. Since then, I've learned a lot of important lessons: the blogosphere is vicious, don't paint with broad strokes, and don't expect anyone to be charitable about the fact that you are constrained by a word limit. In any case, I will take this opportunity to address some of the best (and worst) of the criticisms.

First, the Best

Tactical blunder -- One of the best criticisms came in conversation with one of my colleagues, the blogger for Totalitarianism Today. While I never intended my article to be a lengthy discussion of the Iraq conflict specifically, she was correct in saying that I did open that door. Moreover, her criticism involved the issue of tactical rightness in going into Iraq. She makes a strong point in saying that we may have exhausted much of our political will, as well as military and financial reserves, on Iraq. Places like Pakistan (fundamentalist population) and Iran (fundamentalist leaders) are already armed with nukes, and are perhaps graver threats to us now than Iraq could have been.

As an empirical matter, she may turn out to be right, though I think these facts would have been somewhat more difficult to appreciate as we began to contemplate the Iraq adventure early in 2003. At that time, it was important to give teeth to 1441 -- the UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq -- as well as our own unilateral ultimatums -- essentially to shred the "paper tiger" image of the US that seemed at one time to embolden our enemies.

Could our presence in Iraq have been a strategic move by the Pentagon for the longer term, putting troops squarely in the region in case other security threats arose? I could not say. But Norman Podhoretz, in a recent Commentary article, cites Haim Harari who makes the following observation:

"Now that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are out, two-and-a-half terrorist states remain: Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, the latter being a Syrian colony ... As a result of the conquest of Afghanistan and Iraq, both Iran and Syria are now totally surrounded by territories unfriendly to them. Iran is encircled by Afghanistan, by the Gulf States, Iraq, and the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Syria is surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. This is a significant strategic change and it applies strong pressure on the terrorist countries."

I also agree with my colleague that much of the Iraq conflict has been a series of strategic miscalculations, but I will leave that for now.

In tandem with our current strategic position in the Middle East, the neo-conservatives of foreign policy hold that Middle Eastern states are capable of sustaining liberal democratic institutions. Again, this approach may be turn out to be a failure in practice. But I don't believe it is inherently or theoretically impossible for liberal institutions to flourish in the region. While daily acts of barbarism cause one to navel-gaze with respect to this belief, the hope that freedom is of value to everyone is, at its core, both a strategic and humanitarian vision.

Bellum justum -- Tom Palmer, while needlessly employing the smugness of the pedant, makes a couple of good points that I would like to address. First, he reminds his readers that there is a very rich and deep tradition of just war theory that I apparently overlooked in the context of my article. In this, he is correct.

However, I will say that just war theory has a long way to go in adapting to the dangers of weapons proliferation, terrorism and asymmetrical warfare. As it stands, for me to have gone into lengthy exposition of just war theory, I would not only have had to write a lot, but to treat ideas devised in the Age of Augustine and refined in the Age of Muskets. Still, even as recently as the Cold War when there was some rational calculus involved (e.g. mutually assured destruction), we might have been able successfully to apply some of the ideas of just war. But the world has changed to the point of leaving much of the doctrine on the dusty shelf of obsolescence.

Tom Palmer also believes that questions about the ascription or non-ascription of rights are largely irrelevant to the question of Iraq, which was ultimately my point. The real issue, he thinks, has to do with whether there were WMDs, whether there was collusion with Al Qaida leading up to 9-11, etc. Allow me to quote another -- very respectful -- critic who wrote me personally to say something along the same lines:

"Even if weapons of mass destruction did exist in Iraq, the policy of massed invasion pursued by this administration was an extremely stupid way of addressing the problem.

"We telegraphed months in advance what we were going to do. It is no surprise that Hussein made plans to hand off any materials and equipment he had to the terrorists, Syria, Iran, and anyone else. IF the weapons of mass destruction were our concern, a much more reasonable and wise policy would have been to have lulled Saddam Hussein into a sense of complacency and sent in the spies and covert operations people. That way, the weapons of mass destruction and related materials, if there were any, could be pinpointed and destroyed at a time of our choosing. As it is now, the situation is worse with terrorists, Syria and Iran having any of Hussein's WMD materials..."

This is a fair criticism of the administration. In fact, the US should never have gone to the United Nations in the first place -- a course due to what is known as the "Powell influence." We should have acted swiftly and not given time for anyone to blink, much less hide weapons, or mull over the "moral rightness" of it all. And had there still been no WMDs in actual fact, we would still have had every reason to believe they existed. Saddam Hussein had been given every opportunity to come into full compliance with the directives set out in all those years following his defeat in the First Gulf War, including demands for a WMD paper trail.

However, the writer of the email goes on to say: "At least Saddam Hussein could be controlled like [others] we had in the past. Please note that we brought down the Soviets, a much more dangerous and murderous foe, without firing a shot, basically by deterrence alone." To that, again, I say: "not in a post-911 world." And for once, the President himself said it best:

"New threats also require new ways of thinking. Deterrence -- the promise of massive retaliation against nations -- means nothing against shadowy terrorists networks with no nations or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons or missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies. We cannot defend America or our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the words of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them. If we wait for these threats to materialize, we will have waited too long... The war on terror will not be won on the defensive."

Social contract -- Many of the criticisms came from those who thought it "bizarre" to use the social contract tradition justification for preemptive war. That wasn't exactly my aim, but I think such a justification exists, however indirectly. While I have deep affinities for contractarian thought, I only wanted to use the theory to describe, generally, what I see as a real split in the libertarian movement:

Simply, there are those who believe in Natural Rights (Lockeans), and those who don't (Hobbesians). While I grant this dichotomy amounts painting with broad strokes, some of my critics would argue (rather tenuously I think) that even social contract theory presupposes belief in rights. This is not only wrong from an ontological point-of-view, but against the spirit of our need to contrive both freedom and security from the moral void that is the basic condition of humanity. In short, we can either conceive of rights as some kind of mutual agreement -- whether actual, tacit, or hypothetical -- or we can go around ascribing so called "human rights" willy-nilly at the expense of both freedom and security at home. And while I think we can afford decency in the way we conduct war, it should never be transmogrified into some universal moral principle that guides our actions at every turn.

Strategy v. Morality -- Another way of putting all this is as follows: in times of real danger, a nation must act as a unified whole (i.e. decisions must be made from the top). We must in some sense rely on our leaders to protect us and make the right decisions on our behalves. As a matter of strategy, sometimes these leaders get it right and sometimes they don't. This is a fact. And on this score, there is a lot of room for argument among libertarians.

But with respect to national security, we cannot rely on boilerplate moral theories of self-defense to judge our leader's actions, especially in an era of grave geopolitical uncertainty -- and since whatever we can call right and wrong depends not on Kantian wishes or Utilitarian dreams, but on the constitutional order. Many libertarians want to lament the "expropriation" of their property for causes they don't support or adventures they think are ill-conceived. Much of this has to do with genuine concerns about whether or not such costly actions make us safer -- which are legitimate concerns and represent a good check on both bellicosity and government bloating. But some actually think that anything short of a purely defensive night-watchman state is unjust. And this is where I depart from them. In fact, arguing from mostly from incredulity, one blogger says:

"[T]he notion that anything even remotely resembling libertarianism could underwrite an effort to conscript huge quantities of resources from the American public and deploy them in an attempt to wholly remake the social and political order in a foreign country is too absurd to merit a rebuttal... As long as the conversation is supposed to be proceeding on the shared basis of libertarianism, however, one hardly needs to say anything. It's coercion, it's planning, it's every non-libertarian thing under the sun."

The problem with this (unsubstantiated) assessment is that -- like most inside-the-box libertarianism -- it doesn't take into account the geopolitical realities our leadership has been forced to confront. In the international arena, we live in an era of pragmatism, not ideology. I used to be deeply troubled by the idea that libertarianism can't consistently be applied when it comes to national security. However, as I came to realize that individual liberty is a construct that exists internal to a nation, I came to see the light. Liberty is the reason we would want national security at all. And the nation is the reason we have liberty at all.

While it seems paradoxical that national security measures appear to cannibalize liberty on the periphery (e.g. in war), the truth is, liberty begins to dissipate at the periphery. The further away from the nucleus of the free nation-state one gets, the less freedom he'll find. It is at this limbo between the national (internal) and international (external) that the individual/collective dichotomy also breaks down. We are individual, autonomous nodes. True. But we exist in a collective, networked system. It is by virtue of both security and the rule of law that we are both free and united as a people. Sometimes these forces -- i.e. national security and the rule of law -- appear, at times, to come into conflict -- much like human cells and the immune system. But one can't exist without the other.

That is why I find it even more curious that some libertarians advocate a private, decentralized protective apparatus. When such a system is worked out properly, I might be convinced. Until then, I'll pay my taxes and pray that my leaders keep me safe to the best of their judgment, using the best available information. This is the nature of the collective security apparatus, as it stands. We really have no choice but to rely on the strategic gambles of those we've elected to power -- and it's really not very useful to criticize them on moral grounds, if such there be.

Now, at the strategic level, critics may be right in saying that the Iraqis may not be able to sustain a liberal democracy. But it will be worth it to find out (despite the bellyaching of anarcho-capitalists who don't want to underwrite such measures). A long term strategy to plant the seeds of liberal democracy in places where serious threats would otherwise fester in the status quo is a necessary evil -- and I should add doesn't require "wholly remaking the social and political order." (I believe that all people prefer freedom to tyranny and the process emergent order can follow after they get some momentum.) And while it may seem un-libertarian to use tax revenues for adventures that some people just don't get is, well, the nature of the beast -- that is, the actions of an imperfect nation-state, doing what it has to do in an age of deadly weapons proliferation and terrorism.

Finally, other libertarians believe that invasions like Iraq run afoul of the rights of those we would attack. Indeed, some critics of my article claimed that my brand of libertarianism "denies a right not to be killed to people who are not liberal democrats or who do not live in liberal democracies." Ultimately, I think rights -- as such -- are conferred by constitutions at home and to a lesser degree by international alliances abroad. Beyond that, human rights are just words we can afford to use when we're certain about our safety. To think otherwise is to be willing to die and expect fellow citizens to die for what are little more than libertarian flights of fancy.

Max Borders is a libertarian with distinct views about war and his open-minded colleagues tolerate him nevertheless.


1 Comment

The Iraq war I believe was unnecessary, the Afghanistan war is mismanaged I feel, when you want to wipe out some savages like the Taliban I think all out war would be best with carpet bombing, and all weapons available. Not hit and run tactics. These suicide bombers don't care if they die all they think is 72 virgins not realizing that when the virgins are no longer it's back to zero. If you want to conduct a war then do war.
The real enemy, the dangerous one is Iran but everyone seems terrified at the idea of attacking Iran. Again I will say: not just air strikes but major air strikes, carpet bombing with ferocious bombs for days or weeks if needed and wipe out their airports, ports, industrial zones and major cities, wipe out all military targets. Not invade but at the first sign of move carpet bomb again, we get one suicide bomber they get a city wiped out. War is war.

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