What's the Proper Libertarian Voice on Iran?

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The Cato Institute is giving AEI's uberinterventionist Reuel Marc Gerecht the first word in a foreign policy debate about what to do about Iran at their Cato Unbound Web zine. Former Catoite Doug Bandow thinks this is fishy, noting

It's hard to imagine Cato leading off a debate on health care with an essay proposing nationalized health care, or a debate on Social Security with an AARP article demanding higher benefits, or a debate on taxes with a piece proposing confiscatory rates on the rich.

Cato's Ted Galen Carpenter reacts to Gerecht.

NEXT: What's the problem with a ceasefire?

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  1. It’s hard to imagine Cato leading off a debate . . .

    I mean, you wouldn’t want to give dissenting views a hearing or anything. Especially in a debate.

  2. Yes, but I paid Doug Bandow to say that, so I’m not sure it counts.

    (You knew that joke was only two minutes away.)

  3. R.C. Dean,

    No one is stating anything like that.

  4. Since when is there a single libertarian position regarding international affairs? Nonintervention (often of the style seen before WWI) may dominate but there have always been other strains of thought among our ranks — at least, during the 20 years I’ve been paying attention.

  5. Since when is there a single libertarian position regarding international affairs?

    A libertarian foreign policy based on preventative force seems unusual to me in that it sticks out from every other libertarian policy off the top of my head.

    How do libertarians generally feel about preemptive force as applied to recreational drug use? …or gang violence? …or the surveillance of bank records? Can anyone else out there think of another libertarian policy, domestic or otherwise, predicated on preemptive force?

    Is preventative force necessarily un-libertarian? …Perhaps not, but if it is libertarian, I can see why someone might think it uncharacteristically so.

  6. Charles Pe?a comments on this oddity in the “sidebar” at the bottom of this essay.

  7. The libertarian argument for pre-emptive war against Iran depends upon the degree to which Iran presents a true danger to the United States.

    If they already had nuclear weapons, as well as them means to deliver them to US soil, and a clearly batshit insane dictator with his finger on the button – oh, wait, that’s North Korea, isn’t it? Iran can only really claim the batshit insane leader; they’re still working on the rest.

    So Iran’s current threat to the US lies primarily in its more shadowy, “plausibly deniable” suport for terrorists who would seek to harm us here (a stretch) and in the Middle East (which folks like gaius would say we deserve).

    Given that, I do not currently see a compelling argument for war against Iran. (Nor North Korea at this moment, as their ICBMs seem mostly good for scaring fish… at this moment.)

    To use an analogy, I’m not aware of a libertarian principle that requires that a mugger pull the trigger on his gun before you can blow his brains out yourself. That’s not called pre-emption; it’s called self-defense.

  8. “To use an analogy, I’m not aware of a libertarian principle that requires that a mugger pull the trigger on his gun before you can blow his brains out yourself. That’s not called pre-emption; it’s called self-defense.”

    Ah, but in Iran’s case, it would be not so much a mugger as a neighborhood guy you don’t like who you once hit with a water balloon, who hit you back with a water balloon and has occasionally broken into cars on the block, who has a holstered, legal, open-carry handgun. But he’s not threatening you – you just don’t like the idea that that guy has a gun.

    And Iraq was an old homeless guy pretending the hand in his pocket is a concealed pistol.

    (Before anyone complains that I’m likening the Tehran embassy hostage crisis to being hit with a water balloon, note that the high end of threat we’re talking about is nuclear war / death by gunshot wound. Compared to *nuclear war*, the hostage crisis was nothing.)

  9. And what if they were working hard to develop nuclear weapons, as well as the means to deliver them to US and our alllies soil, and a clearly batshit insane dictator who would have his finger on the button?

    Where is the point where a clear intent and desire to be a threat meets the right to self defense? Do we wait until the have the bomb but haven’t worked out the missiles yet? Do we wait until they have actual nuclear armed missiles pointed at us?

  10. Clean Hands wrote: “I’m not aware of a libertarian principle that requires that a mugger pull the trigger on his gun before you can blow his brains out yourself.”

    That’s true, but he does at least need to start to draw the gun. If you shoot him while he’s still taking gunsmithing classes, I think that would be disapproved of.

  11. The bottom line is that these things don’t have easy answers that you can derive from libertarian axioms. The time for pre-emptive action is definitely after the bad guy acquires starts building an arsenal, but before you intercept the message ordering his soldiers to cross your border. The question is, where in that sequence of events (from acquisition to attack order) do you draw the line and conclude that it’s time to strike?

    There is no easy answer. It depends on a lot of circumstances, including your capabilities (best to strike when you have the best chance of succeeding), the enemy’s capabilities (better to hit them before drastic damage to your country becomes inevitable), and lots of other factors. Because it’s a judgement call based on circumstances, the best that libertarian principles can do for us is encourage some skepticism and care in decision-making. Even then, a skeptical person with a low tolerance for risk or a very dire assessment of the enemy’s capabilities could reach a different conclusion than a skeptical person with a higher risk tolerance or a different assessment of the enemy.

    There are no principled answers. The closest that principle can get us is “Only as a last resort.” But even then, how do you know the situation has reached that dire stage? It isn’t always obvious in the fog of a tough situation.

    Personally, I think a lot of libertarian hawks are way too paranoid, but they think I’m way too wussy. I say that a real libertarian shouldn’t trust the state to get this shit right, and they say that liberty means nothing if you’re dead, and that we shouldn’t wait until it’s too late. I think they need to drop the buzzwords calculated to make it sound like they attended the War College, and they think I need to get a clue about what a dangerous world it is.

    Bottom line: Libertarians have a lot in common regarding domestic policy, but foreign policy really depends on just how dangerous you think the situation is.

  12. ” Do we wait until the have the bomb but haven’t worked out the missiles yet? Do we wait until they have actual nuclear armed missiles pointed at us?”

    Well, by that standard we should bomb Pakistan first, on the off chance that their existing nuclear weapons and missiles could fall in the hands of the many Al Qaeda sympathizers and terrorist supporters in their government.

    After all, the odds of a government falling in a coup are *far* greater than the odds of a government – even a batshit government like Mao’s China or Bush’s America – using a nuclear weapon.

  13. thoreau writes: “Bottom line: Libertarians have a lot in common regarding domestic policy, but foreign policy really depends on just how dangerous you think the situation is.”

    That said, the libertarians like thoreau have a far better record when it comes to realistically appraising the situation.

    Somehow, that doesn’t count for much. The paranoids are certain that *this* time, they’re right.

  14. The paranoids are certain that *this* time, they’re right.

    I don’t think that’s quite true. It’s more that they don’t think they can afford to take any chances.

  15. Maybe an even better way to say it is that libertarian hawks worry that we’ll be seriously fucked if I am wrong even once. My response is that there isn’t a binary choice between do something drastic right now or doing nothing ever. We can always watch a situation and be ready to move if it reaches a high threshold, instead of acting right now when it’s only at a low threshold.

  16. The basic idea of libertarianism is to not initiate the use of force. This creed, however, does not help us decide what to do in the case that force has been initiated (as it has in many ways in Iran). Libertarianism in its pure form is really irrelevant to the such a debate.

  17. RC Dean writes: “I mean, you wouldn’t want to give dissenting views a hearing or anything. Especially in a debate.”

    Because those neocons have a hard time getting their views a hearing?

    And in the grand scheme of things, the neocon view is the establishment view, not a dissenting view.

  18. The basic idea of libertarianism is to not initiate the use of force…. Libertarianism in its pure form is really irrelevant to the such a debate.

    Libertarianism in its properly understood form is irrelevant to such a debate.

    The “do not initiate force against others” axiom makes perfect sense when taken in context. That context is, “within the boundaries of our own country where we have imposed this as the rule that everyone must follow”.

    I know many libertarians have a hard time digesting this, but international relations are an entirely different context. Within the boundaries of our own nation we can impose a play ground monitor. On the international stage there isn’t one.

    When you create a nation, you are defacto creating a context. You cannot forget the fact that this context is limited and has boundaries. The United States has not expanded to fill the known universe.

  19. thoreau writes: “We can always watch a situation and be ready to move if it reaches a high threshold, instead of acting right now when it’s only at a low threshold.”

    Yep. And of acting right now when we are far from ready (few translators, few troops trained for the occupation, etc.)

    If we hadn’t invaded Iraq, we’d still be able to if necessary, and would hopefully have used the intervening time to recruit, prepare, and arm for the job. Whereas, we can’t undo our massive bloody failure.

    (A thought occurs to me. It may well be that a big, well-publicized increase in recruiting and the overall size of the army, with publicized reports of increased training in skills necessary to occupy Iraq, would probably have been a good early-stage bargaining chip with Saddam rather than jumping straight to deployment to the Gulf region. That kind of a buildup would have shown long-term commitment, whereas going with “the army we had” could have been taken as a sign of a lack of interest in sticking around, or even a sign that we weren’t serious about invading on the ground.)

  20. It seems to me that there’s a pretty clear standard that one could derive from the noninitiation of force principle about this sort of action: intent. If Iran intends to use force against the US, then the US is justified in preemptive action (see mugger example above). This is particuarly practical though, since it is impossible to know what the intent of another person is. So from a practical standpoint you have to guess at intent, which is where the grayness comes in. This doesn’t really preclude the fact that there is a governing princple though, even if such a principle cannot be put into practice.

    I would argue that the governing factor should be a reasonable perception of the intent to cause harm on the part of the defending party. For example, if a mugger pulls a gun and threatens to shoot you, it is reasonable to assume that he intends to do so. If someone who doesn’t like you gets a gun because you already have one and he feels he should have one too, then that, in my mind, does not constitute a clear intention to use that gun against you.

    I would further argue that this applies pretty directly to Iran. The United States has no pretense of moral superiority here. Iran is trying to obtain a weapon that we already have and refuse to get rid of. If this, in and of itself, constitutes an intent to use that weapon, then Iran would already be justified in attacking the United States. Iran would not be justified in attacking the US and similarly the US would not be justified in attacking Iran.

  21. It says on page 51 of the libertarian manual.

    “Nuke Iran”

    I know it surprised me too. But there it is, so all y’all get to writing congress to make this happen as soon as possible.

  22. It says on page 51 of the libertarian manual.

    kwais, old boy, I think that’s the page everyone else ripped out of their copies to roll a big fat doobie. 🙂

  23. Rule Number One of the Libertarian Manual: We don’t talk about the libertarian manual.

    Rule Number Two of the Libertarian Manual: See Rule Number One.

  24. It just occurred to me: How can you argue against someone named “Gerecht”?

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