More Libertarian Division on (Civil) War

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In the past couple of days here we've seen First Couple of libertarianism Milton and Rose Friedman divided on the libertarian approach to war, Robert Higgs quite certain that no one worthy of the name could be anything but staunchly anti-intervention, and Ilya Somin parsing out some of the charactertistics that might divide libertarian-leaning warriors from anti-warriors.

Now Reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey (an old boss and an old friend) presents vividly the foreign policy divide within himself: While he supported the invasion of Iraq–a position of great controversy within the Cato Institute, where he works–he now admits he might have been wrong. It is well worth reading in full, but here is a quick guide through his thinking:

[M]y support for the invasion was based on the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs. That assumption, of course, proved incorrect. I also failed to anticipate the Sunni insurgency that has been at the root of Iraq's post-Saddam problems. And, perhaps most egregiously, I placed my trust in the Bush administration to assess the Iraqi threat accurately and do all within its power to make the occupation of Iraq a success. That trust, however foolishly offered, was badly betrayed.

He still can't say for sure, though, that even knowing what he knows now that he would have opposed the forced overthrow of Saddam. But moving forward, what should happen?

For a long while I kept hoping that political progress in Iraq would lead to progress in subduing the insurgency. It hasn't, and now the country seems to be spiraling into sectarian civil war. I don't see any prospect for things to get better in the foreseeable future, and thus I see no U.S. interest in maintaining our presence there. So I'm in favor of getting out.

He's also reconsidered the practical benefits of some interventions on deck, thinking that an Iran invasion right now wouldn't be worth it, either. He stresses this doesn't represent any huge ideological sea change from "interventionist" to "noninterventionist"; he maintains he tries to suss out the proper thing to do in foreign policy conundrums based on specific circumstances, not ruling abstract theories. He concludes:

What has changed, for me, since the spring of 2003 is the weight I assign to the relevant risks. In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11….my best reading of the available evidence tells me that both the scale and the sophistication of anti-U.S. terrorist activity are currently rather limited. Consequently, I am less persuaded than before of the need for bold and risky moves against terror-sponsoring states. At the present time, I therefore prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with rogue regimes.

Brink was the libertarian pro-war voice in a Reason debate on the wisdom of U.S. war in Iraq; here is where he stood back in 2002.

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  1. “In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11.”

    I never considered the threat of islamist terrorism to be very grave even on 9/11.

    Look, if the terrorists had the capability to detonate a nuke or something, they would have done it, not hijacked planes and flown them into buildings. Terrorists have had a lot of practice hijacking planes, and they knew what the typical response would be: nothing, since all other terrorists before simply demanded some of their brothers in arms to be freed.

    Now that we know some terrorists got the idea of using the planes as a missiles, we don’t have to worry about terrorists hijacking planes anymore, because no one’s going to let that happen (the passengers, I mean).

    So tell me, why are warrentless wiretaps and other liberty-curtailing procedures needed again?

  2. It was enough to hear the rosy scenarios about what wonders would democracy bring to the Middle East to know that it would end badly.

    Lesson 1) Democracy is no panacea

    Lesson 2) Attempts at democracy can make things worse.

    Lesson 3) The arab Middle East is ruled by authoritrian regimes of all kinds. There is a reason for it.

    Lesson 4) Do not bring in refrigerators before you know if there is a reliable source of electricity

    (This one in memory of the Argentinian Jauretche who loved to tell the story of Cantaluppi, who bought a refrigerator to hold his slaugherted pig, and got a very stinky surprise when he opened it a couple months later)

  3. While he supported the invasion of Iraq–a position of great controversy within the Cato Institute, where he works–he now admits he might have been wrong.

    It seems to me that there’s nothing inherently un-libertarian about supporting a war you consider a war of self-defense. …and I suspect that there are a lot of true libertarians who supported the Iraq War as such–it just turned out that the Iraq War wasn’t a war of self-defense.

    Once the truth about WMD and terrorist links became painfully clear to almost everyone, I think a lot of otherwise well meaning libertarians said a lot of silly things in support of American imperialism (A rose by any other name…) as some kind of justification for long term self-defense.

    I maintain that infectious democratic imperialism is a crock as a means of self-defense, and that at it’s heart, the theory really is imperialist, by which I mean it’s as incompatible with a libertarian foreign policy as central planning is incompatible with a libertarian domestic policy.

    …but it’s hard to publicly support a war and then reverse course and say you were wrong on the facts. …regardless of whether you’re the President or a pundit or the lunch room loud mouth. …but I’ve got some respect to give to people who, based on the facts, change their minds in public.

  4. It was enough to hear the rosy scenarios about what wonders would democracy bring to the Middle East to know that it would end badly.

    Lesson 1) Democracy is no panacea

    Lesson 2) Attempts at democracy can make things worse.

    Lesson 3) The arab Middle East is ruled by authoritrian regimes of all kinds. There is a reason for it.

    Lesson 4) Do not bring in refrigerators before you know if there is a reliable source of electricity

    (This one in memory of the Argentinian Jauretche who loved to tell the story of Cantaluppi, who bought a refrigerator to hold his slaugherted pig, and got a very stinky surprise when he opened it a couple months later)

  5. For a more objective analysis we must stop focusing on this particular war and try to look at war itself. Specifically – under what circumstances is the US justified in going to war? For all but die-hard pacifists, the default answer would seem to be “in self defense.”

    This, in turn, raises the question: what type of threat justifies the use of force in self defense? Must the US wait until it is attacked, or may it use force to prevent an attack from occurring? The imprecations hurled at the government for not “connecting the dots” and thereby preventing the 9-11 attack shows us that waiting for an attack to occur is not a politically viable option (leaving aside the question of whether it is a moral one).

    Therefore, it appears that there are some circumstances in which the US would be exercising a legitimate right of self defense by striking a potential attacker before being attacked itself. Since no intelligence system in the real world is perfect, and since it is impossible to be 100% certain of another person’s intentions, such an attack would have to be carried out with information that, by its nature, will be undependable to one degree or another. The final question, therefore, is what type of information would justify such an attack?

    Your thoughts?

  6. Curse you, Red Baron Serve Squirrel!!!

  7. In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11.

    This reminds me of all those articles decrying the high rate of incarceration while crime rates are going down.

    I mean, there couldn’t possibly be a connection between (a) the US kicking the living shit out of two Middle Eastern regimes known to support terrorists and be hostile to the US after an attack on US soil and (b) terrorist groups supported by the surviving Middle Eastern regimes declining to attack on US soil?

  8. A really excellent article. Lindsey’s thinking on the subject mirrors my own as a fellow hawk now harboring doubts about the Iraq adventure and he expresses the dilemma presented much more eloquently than I could.

  9. In the case of Iraq, I think we had many more creative options for responding to the imagined threat of Saddam’s WoMDs. Assuming he did possess such weapons, did he possess a means to deliver them? Maybe to Israel, but not to the U.S. He could have used a shipping container.. Ok, so secure the ports. Don’t try to execute regime change in an unstable and hostile nation.

    I’m not a big fan of the U.N., but I remember thinking that the whole Iraq push was rushed, and I was ready to support it if Bush had done more to work with the U.N. and Arab allies to bring in support and legitamacy. It seemed, however, that he prematurely declared the U.N. as ineffective and rushed us off to a war we weren’t prepared for.

    RC:
    There might be a connection, and there might not be. Are you implying that there is and you have evidence? I’d be interested in some concrete examples.

  10. Jeff Shapiro wrote: “The imprecations hurled at the government for not ‘connecting the dots’ and thereby preventing the 9-11 attack shows us that waiting for an attack to occur is not a politically viable option (leaving aside the question of whether it is a moral one). Therefore, it appears that there are some circumstances in which the US would be exercising a legitimate right of self defense by striking a potential attacker before being attacked itself.”

    In other words, because the government will be blamed for failing to timely stop an attack, it’s entitled to launch preemptive attacks???? That does not compute, Will Robinson. (Particularly since, as you might recall, George W. and the rest of his crew politically *benefitted* from the attacks despite the criticism they received.)

  11. Thoughtful analysis from Brink. If a relatively stable democracy can’t be established in Iraq by the 08 election, I’ll be prepared to admit that my analysis of costs and benefits was pretty far off. If something like a stable democracy can survive absent US troops supporting it by that time, I’ll feel pretty good about the whole thing.

    I say this with the understanding that a couple of things were accomplished here – confirmation of the WMD situation and the direct harm to a regional despot that lets everyone know that there is a limit to what such actors will be permitted to do.

    Like Lindsey, I don’t think the current state of affairs has anything specific to say about justifications for intervention. What we do know is something specific about the costs of intervention in the region.

  12. As one who never supported the U.S. misadventure in Iraq (who nevertheless ALWAYS supports our troops, including fully providing for our physically wounded and all other Veterans), I would remind all that many of the current dire consequences were forseen and voiced by people far more eloquent than I before the invasion of Iraq. It is amazing to see so many voicing complete surprise at the turn of events.

    As long as tit for tat war continues, the violence will daily create future die-hard combatants. The only long term solution lies in finding alternative methods of contol and making war a truly Last Resort. I would venture that, considering all of the outcomes, containment of Saddam rather than invasion looks much better to all, in hindsight.

    Perhaps the recently converted could now apply the lessons toward finding alternatives to the current problems. This will undoubtedly take the brainpower and political action of many more of us working toward a common goal.

  13. Containment of Saddam means what? No one was worried about another ground attack into a neighbor’s land, mostly because of our last intervention. How do you contain state actors who might want to engage in support of non state actors who are commited to doing harm? Come to think of it, how do you contain non state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas, or Al Qaeda?

  14. No discussion of those who got it wrong on the Iraq war would be complete without a mention of those who got it right: the paleo-cons. To a man, not only were they able to predict the war would be a failure, they were able to say why it would be a failure. So what did the paleo-cons account for that the libertarians didn’t? Easy. Culture. That thing that libertarians can’t acknowledge has more significance than superficial lifestyle choices. Philosophically lacking any meaningful cultural context with which to interpret events, libertarians were entirely unable to recognize that the deterioration of Iraq into sectarian violence wasn’t merely a possibility, but an inevitability. Instead, they were left with debating whether preemptive wars were an unjust initiation of force or a violation of the NAP. The more prescient paleo-cons recognized it didn’t matter: just or unjust, cultural considerations doomed the adventure to failure.

    Not for the first, nor the last time, the libertarian inability to recognize the influence of any factors not tangible to an economist come back to bite them in the ass.

  15. I mean, there couldn’t possibly be a connection between (a) the US kicking the living shit out of two Middle Eastern regimes known to support terrorists and be hostile to the US after an attack on US soil and (b) terrorist groups supported by the surviving Middle Eastern regimes declining to attack on US soil?

    So you’re saying that you know the Iraq War was a great success because there hasn’t been an Islamic terror incident on US soil in the five years since the World Trade Center attack?

    Back around 1997 or 1998 Bill Clinton could have honestly said the exact same thing.

  16. For a more objective analysis we must stop focusing on this particular war and try to look at war itself. Specifically – under what circumstances is the US justified in going to war? For all but die-hard pacifists, the default answer would seem to be “in self defense.”

    This, in turn, raises the question: what type of threat justifies the use of force in self defense? Must the US wait until it is attacked, or may it use force to prevent an attack from occurring? The imprecations hurled at the government for not “connecting the dots” and thereby preventing the 9-11 attack shows us that waiting for an attack to occur is not a politically viable option (leaving aside the question of whether it is a moral one).

    Therefore, it appears that there are some circumstances in which the US would be exercising a legitimate right of self defense by striking a potential attacker before being attacked itself. Since no intelligence system in the real world is perfect, and since it is impossible to be 100% certain of another person’s intentions, such an attack would have to be carried out with information that, by its nature, will be undependable to one degree or another. The final question, therefore, is what type of information would justify such an attack?

    Your thoughts?

  17. “[M]y support for the invasion was based on the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs.”

    I still don’t understand how anyone could have believed the WMD and Al Qaeda ally stories by the time the war started. The evidence the administration put forth on these matters was disproven before the war began! The aluminum tubes, the yellowcake, the unmanned drones, the Prague meeting – each of these stories had been demonstrated to be false. After you catch the car salesman in his fourth of fifth lie, you just have to say “No deal.”

    “I placed my trust in the Bush administration to assess the Iraqi threat accurately and do all within its power to make the occupation of Iraq a success.”

    And I absolutely did not. For a while, even after the WMD and Saddam/bin Laden kissey-face stories had been definitively disproven, I still considered the question of whether to go to topple Saddam to be a tough call. Saddam really was that bad – not just a hostile dictator, but a monster of historic proportions. I supported guarding aid convoys in Somalia, I supported bombing the Serbian militias in Bosnia, and I wished we had done something about Rwanda; as a humanitarian mission, the invasion of Iraq had a strong argument going for it.

    But what ultimately swayed me was my certainty, based on watching Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the team during the election and the first couple of years of his presidency, that these people lacked the brains, honesty, character, ability, and respect for democracy necessary to pull off such an ambitious undertaking. I judged them to be much more likely to create a disaster of global proportions.

    For making this judgement, I was derided (hi, RC!) as a blinded partisan, incapable of making objective judgements about the president.

    I was told I had “Bush Derangement Syndrome” for concluding that the administration was incapable of pulling this off. Because all sane people, you see, recognized what a great leader he was, and to conclude otherwise could only be explained by prejudice and mental illness.

    Seriously, the guy knows how hard it is to put food on your family. What did this shumuck ever do, or say, that would lead anyone to believe he was capable of making this work? People looked at the task of invading, occupying, governing, and fixing the oldest place in the world, they looked at George Bush, and they said, “Yeah, sure, that’s a great idea.” I can only conclude that it was partisanship on the part of those who could not admit to themselves that Democrats and peace activists could be on the right side of a question.

  18. “I still don’t understand how anyone could have believed the WMD and Al Qaeda ally stories by the time the war started.”

    It depends on your starting point, I think. Given that there were unaccounted for WMDs, given that Saddam obfuscated Blix all the way up to the last day, given the amount of time since we knew what Saddam was doing, and given that Saddam was Saddam, I think many people, myself included, strongly suspected that something was being hidden before Bush ever opened his mouth. Lending support to this was that not a single intelligence agency would go on record saying the place was empty of wmd stockpiles or programs. Saddam even issued desert troops chem suits and masks.

    Even when yellowcake and aluminum tubes were rolled out and disproved, from that standpoint, it reduces the case to ‘we can’t prove it’ and not ‘there’s nothing there’.

  19. Jason Ligon mentions unaccounted for WMDs as a justification for the war. The Bush administration made claims for massive stockpiles and development programs far in excess of what could have been left over from the first gulf war, and these stories were in fact shown to be lacking in evidence before the war started.

    As for blocking Hans Blix, there were UN weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq at the time Bush ordered the bombing of the country.

    It is not known whether Hussein issued chemical protection gear to his troops. The chemical protection suits that were found were in storage. Iraq had founght and 8 year war against Iran – the US supported Iraq at the time – and chemical weapons were used by both sides. The suits were presumably left over from that war.

  20. Gene:

    I don’t want to get into a nit pick fight over what ‘massive’ means here, but that is the thrust of our difference on the first point.

    “As for blocking Hans Blix, there were UN weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq at the time Bush ordered the bombing of the country.”

    So, you’re saying that at some point Blix must have said that Saddam was complying with inspections, right?

    “It is not known whether Hussein issued chemical protection gear to his troops. The chemical protection suits that were found were in storage. ”

    Negative. They were found in trenches too. And on the road itself into Baghdad once Republican Guard forces fled their positions.

  21. Jason asks:
    “So, you’re saying that at some point Blix must have said that Saddam was complying with inspections, right?”

    Are you disputing the fact that Iraq let the inspectors in and they were in Iraq for several weeks leading up to the U.S. attack on the country?

  22. “In other words, because the government will be blamed for failing to timely stop an attack, it’s entitled to launch preemptive attacks???? That does not compute, Will Robinson. (Particularly since, as you might recall, George W. and the rest of his crew politically *benefitted* from the attacks despite the criticism they received.)”

    No, Jack. My point was that any government that failed to stop an attack because it had an avowed policy of “no first strike” would not last very long. Therefore, a government will not launch preemptive strikes because it is “entitled” to, but because if it does not it will be thrown out and replaced by one that will as soon as there is an actual attack.

    My question is, given this reality, is there some objective standard that can be applied to determine when a preemptive strike is justified?

    BTW: I’m not trying to justify preemptive war or to make a point through the Socratic method. This is a genuine question on which I’d like to hear people’s thoughts.

  23. “Are you disputing the fact that Iraq let the inspectors in and they were in Iraq for several weeks leading up to the U.S. attack on the country?”

    I am noting that in the same week the invasion started, Blix reported more dissembling and lack of cooperation from Saddam’s goons.

  24. Jeff,

    My question is, given this reality, is there some objective standard that can be applied to determine when a preemptive strike is justified?

    This is worse than trying to write a constitution. And if you tried to write the answer you came up with into a constitution it would never get all the way written.

  25. Genghis,

    If you have no standards, then on what basis can you argue that a preemptive strike should or should not be launched? It may be difficult to come up with standards but that does not mean that there should be none.

  26. Pig Mannix: You said it right. It was the paleo-cons who got it right from the start. You may dislike Buchanan – for a lot of right reasons, but he predicted a quick, successful war, leading to a very long and painful occupation where we could not get out easily..

    Here’s a study on the same subject from a distinguished political scientist.

    http://www.mises.org/journals/jls/19_4/19_4_1.pdf

  27. Jeff,

    I didn’t say there shouldn’t be any standards. What I mean is that a once-and-for-all, hard and fast definition is exceedingly difficult to arrive at.

    Aristotle said something to the effect that one must not expect more precision of any given subject that it naturally admits of.

    This doesn’t mean we should make no attempt at definition. It doesn’t mean you aren’t right for delving into it. But my gut instinct when I saw your question was, this is going to have some grey areas no matter what you do.

    They wrote our constitution in hopes of constraining the government. But between the loop holes people later found (or created) and the fact that circumstances change over time, things have gotten to where they are today. Today we probably couldn’t even agree on what’s better and what’s worse than in the beginning.

    In the end, no written document can be a substitute for the intentions of the rulers. I think the same applies to the problem of defining a just war.

    It should be a matter of self defense, but how can you define it more clearly than that? How can you wrap every possible situation and context into one definition?

    So, you’re asking a good question. But it will still demand judgement calls and you can’t substitute a definition for either human intelligence or intention. The subject matter is not that precise.

  28. Genghis:

    I agree almost 100%. However, just because a standard is imprecise does not mean that it is not useful. The federal Constitution prohibits “cruel and inhuman punishments” without providing a definition of the term. However, the fact that no one in over 200 years has been able to give a definition applicable in all cases does not mean that we should scrap it and have no standard at all.

    In this case, merely saying “it should be a matter of self-defense” begs my questions. Is a nation’s right to use self-defense triggered (no pun intended) only by a physical attack? If not, what standards do we apply to determine if military action is justified before an attack?

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