Blogs > Liberty and Power > Weighing in on a Foreign Policy Debate, Again

Jul 29, 2004

Weighing in on a Foreign Policy Debate, Again

I've been following the debate over libertarianism and foreign policy and applaud the many points made by my colleagues here.

I was struck particularly by this exchange between Matt Hill and Gene Healy. Matt agrees with the principles that Gene enunciates, but asks:"what do you say to the argument that the government is taking the money anyway, so it is just a question of how it is allocated—and perhaps, one could argue, allocating it to wars in defense of other people's rights is a more worthy use of the money than funneling it into subsidies or some other government bureaucracy. This argument would seem to hold as long as taxes aren't raised to cover the cost of war."

Gene responds:"It's not like the deal on offer is 'we'll abolish HUD if you let us use the proceeds to fund wars of liberation.' If that was the deal, I'd still oppose it, for a number of reasons, not least of which is at least HUD doesn't kill thousands upon thousands of people (at least not directly)."

But this speaks to a fundamental problem with too much libertarian analysis. That analysis becomes an almost thoroughly detached rationalistic discussion of floating abstractions with no bearing on the concrete context within which we live. This is a context that can only be understood as a system of state interventionism, one that Ayn Rand and others have called"the New Fascism." This is a system that has evolved over time; I have discussed the implications of that system over and over again, in essays here and here and in countless L&P posts.

What Gene says about HUD is precisely the point, therefore. And what the pro-Iraq war libertarians seem to sidestep completely is this: There is an"organic link" between"HUD," between the forms of domestic interventionism and the forms of foreign interventionism. That is: these forms of intervention are all part of one system of interventionism, where the"domestic" and the"foreign" policies become reciprocal reflections and mutual implications of one another.

And if one traces the ways in which domestic and foreign interventions have been conjoined throughout the history of the United States, one begins to understand why war can never be taken lightly. Indeed, it becomes"politics" by other means—nay, politics incarnate, if one understands that modern politics is founded, as such, on initiatory violence.

I and many others have continued to point out how the history of US policy in the Middle East has provided, at least partially, the context for the current problems with Islamic terrorists. That is not a justification for Islamic terrorism against innocent American civilians; but it does provide, at least partially, an understanding of the context within which such terrorism has taken root and flourished. There is a difference between explanation and justification.

I say"partially" because the vast array of problems in that region cannot simply be reduced to a pure product of US intervention. There are tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts fomenting in the Middle East, which long predate US intervention—and which have now become deeply intertwined with the US presence. The US has stepped into a minefield of historical complexities, which can only generate explosive unintended consequences over the long-term.

Of course, we don't live in a perfect libertarian world. Waiting for everything to change radically before one can do anything to combat threats to life, liberty, and property is a lethal prescription for disaster... for national suicide.

Given that interventionist states are the only game in town, therefore, I can understand why such political units must be used—in this context, under the current conditions that exist—to defeat imminent threats (or even"grave and gathering threats" as President Bush once claimed) to the rights of the citizens who reside within a state's territorial boundaries. This puts aside, for the moment, the fact that most states, even within"minarchist" Nozickian guidelines, are illegitimate. But it does require that one carefully weigh the costs and benefits of acting in response to, or in preemption of, clear threats. And because this often entails an epistemic issue, the problem of having sufficient knowledge, it is essential to acquire accurate intelligence, something I've addressed here and here.

I opposed the war in Iraq because I didn't believe that the Hussein regime was that kind of threat. That doesn't mean that I saw Hussein as a benevolent despot; he was a murderous thug, one whom the United States once emboldened in the Iran-Iraq war. And while I didn't believe the US or any nation should have taken any of his denials on faith, concerning the possession of WMDs, I did believe that it was possible to contain his actions by threat of the use of overwhelming military force. Be that as it may: the US is in Iraq, and debating the same points over and over again is, I think, counterproductive at this juncture. Those who wanted the war, got it. Those who didn't are saddled with its unintended consequences, whether we like it or not.

By contrast, however, I was for"taking out" the Taliban in Afghanistan because Al Qaeda was clearly in bed with that regime (" collaborative operational relationship" indeed), and it was responsible for the devastation of 9/11. But I could have easily predicted how poorly the US would have functioned even in that sphere, and I did, in fact, foresee many, if not most, of the problems that US military intervention would generate by extending itself into Iraq. Note, I'm not talking about the purely"military" campaign, which was a" cakewalk"—considering that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq was militarily formidable. I'm talking more about the course of events thereafter, and the overall problems inherent in democratic"nation-building." I'm talking about the fact that my own analysis was conditioned by my understanding of the system within which we are all embedded.

All the more reason for right-thinking, principled libertarians to advocate ruthlessly delimited military actions that focus on destroying specific terrorist targets, while crushing financial and other networks of terrorist support.

In the long run, in my view, a substantially redefined US role in the Middle East will be necessary—but I sincerely doubt that this will happen in any fundamental way, until or unless we achieve a substantially redefined role for the US government at home. At base, the 9/11 commission is correct: this is an ideological and cultural war. And it can only be won, ultimately, by ideological and cultural means. It is a victory that must come both at home, within our borders, and abroad—within the borders, hearts, and minds of those who live in the Islamic world.

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More Comments:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 7/31/2004

Jason... my heart is all a flutter. I don't think it's palpitations... just... shock. :)

Thanks for your comments, as always.

Jason Pappas - 7/30/2004

I’m surprised there has yet to be a response to this post (in this comments section). Chris’ summary of his position is superlative in scope, balance, and above all, respect for context. In regard to the last, Sciabarra shows respect for both absolute principles and temporal contextual constraints. It’s a masterful synthesis.