Is Reason's Foreign Policy "Morally Vacuous" and "Historically Ignorant"?


Over at the excellent site Mediaite, the right-leaning Noah Rothman (watch him in this Reason TV interview) lays into libertarians generally and Reason folks specifically for their/our foreign policy. By which he means our lack of out-of-the-gates bellicosity.

Rothman notes that it is precisely the libertarian wing of the GOP that has kickstarted necessary and proper debates within a Republican party that needs a thorough reboot. And yet he titles his post, "The GOP Must Not Adopt The Moral Vacuity And Historical Ignorance Of A Libertarian Foreign Policy." Here's a snippet:

Libertarianism as a governing philosophy does, however, have its limits. The nearly two-year-long humanitarian and geopolitical nightmare unfolding in Syria has exposed one of those limits. The brand of libertarianism that rejects America's role in the world cannot be adopted by the Republican Party writ large. Why? Because it is incumbent on the United States to maintain the stewardship of a global order which has resulted in relative peace and stability since the end of the Cold War. The bulk of this great responsibility, which rests on the shoulders of America's lawmakers, cannot be shrugged. Libertarians outside the closed-door classified security briefings, to which the nation's elected officials are privy, do not have to confront the sobering reality of the many threats to global security. As such, they are free to proselytize for the most amoral, egocentric form of non-interventionism couched in the moralistic language common among peace activists….

This is a passingly strange paragraph to be writing on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—and a dozen years into America's occupation of Afghanistan. And a bit on from the President Obama's plainly unconstitutional intervention into Libya. You can argue that the since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, things have been relatively stable in the world (and that's even kind of a stretch) but to pretend that things have been peaceful is a bridge too far, I think.

Two days ago, for instance, on the 10th anniversary of the invsasion of Iraq, Reason.com published a "libertarian forum on the lessons of the Second Gulf War." It pulls together a bunch of Reason staffers as well as other voices and in most ways, it doubtless confirms Rothman's negative assessment of what a libertarian foreign policy would look like. I won't speak for other participants, but in my contribution I stressed two things that are relevant to Rothman's take.

First, we are already forgetting just how piss-poor the Iraq War—now expected to cost $6 trillion!—was both conceived and executed. Who knows? Maybe a generally libertarian, non-interventionist foreign policy would prove to be as big a disaster as what we've experienced since the end of the Cold War under both Republican and Democratic regimes (I noted that Bill Clinton dispatched more troops more times than Ronald Reagan did). What we do know for sure is that precisely the sort of knee-jerk, reactionary foreign policy exemplified by both George W. Bush and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Barack Obama has been an abject failure in securing peace or stability in our time. Rather than pooh-poohing out of hand an untried alternative, perhaps Rothman would be better served by explaining exactly how a less-interventionist policy could possibly be worse than what we've seen over the past dozen years.

Second, the one national politician who is talking about the need to build a consensus for an actual framework for the projection of American power in the 21st century is Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican from the land-locked state of Kentucky and a suspected non-interventionist. Paul's February speech at the Heritage Foundation pointedly embraced the need for American engagement in the world but it stressed economic and cultural engagement over military actions (though it did not rule those out either). If such a common-sensical formulation—derived from Cold War theorist George Kennan's original containment theory—seems morally vacuous or historically ignorant on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, I suspect that Rothman is simply not interested in having a serious debate about America's role in the world. Indeed, he shifts subjects quickly from Syria to potential threats from China and Russia, the better to boost the tempo of the drums of war.

When it comes to the Middle Eastern hotspot of the moment—the Syrian civil war—Rothman writes,

What is the libertarian response to this imminent and rapidly unfolding crisis? If one were to peruse the preeminent libertarian intellectual publication Reason Magazine as of this writing, the answer is nothing. Save for a few aggregated news reports regarding the disaster in Syria, that magazine's stable of bright, capable, and deductive authors have yet to weigh in. Doubtless, like the intellectuals on the left, when they do get around to addressing the crisis, their focus would be on the potential pitfalls that Western intervention in Syria would present for the intervening power, and not the suffering inside Syria and the threat that nation's civil war poses to the region as that conflict spills over Syria's borders.

Reason's recent coverage of Syria—currently topped by a March 21 post titled "How America Will Enter the Syrian War"—is here. I leave it to individual readers to decide whether our coverage amounts to "nothing" (and as the editor in chief of Reason.com and something of a slave-driver, I will also rush to say that we can and should always be doing more and better work on every possible subject). Again, I won't speak for other Reason staffers much less all libertarians, but I'll note this much: I know that the Assad regime is evil and rotten; I know that many innocent people are being killed, tortured, and oppressed simply because they had the terrible luck of being born in the wrong time and the wrong place; I figure that many of the regime's opponents are true liberationists who are trying to create a better, freer Syria; and I'm certain that others would likely create a regime that would be even worse than the current one (this happened not so long ago in nearby Iran and places such as Cuba and Russia way back when). And I know that I don't off the top of my head have a workable idea of how to parachute into a foreign country and fix what's wrong with it and help it out in a way that doesn't ultimately cause more damage than good.

I suspect that even the nation's elected officials who are, Rothman observes, "privy" to "closed-door classified security briefings" don't have good ideas either. If they did, they probably would have tried them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Certainly, when you hear supposed foreign-policy experts such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and various folks at The Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute attack Rand Paul as "wacko birds" and latter-day Neville Chamberlains, it's hard not to conclude that many in the GOP are more interested in maintaining the status quo than in producing effective foreign policy. As of this writing, the U.S. government has not even been able to communicate whether chemical weapons were used in Syria and by whom. Most news accounts stress that very little is known about the various factions jockeying for power in a post-Assad Syria, though everyone assumes that various Iranian, Russian, al Qaeda, and other agents are spread throughout the resistance. It's easy to moralistically castigate libertarians for not calling for immediate military intervention, but such sentiments seem both misplaced and cheap.

Recognizing the United States' impotence when it comes to fixing Syria via a military solution doesn't make me (or libertarians or non-interventionists on the right and the left) morally vacuous or historically ignorant. It does mean that on at least some occasions I bow to reality and recent events, including battlefields whose human wounds are still soaking the ground all around us. Which is far from the worst thing a journalist can do.

Related: Earlier today, in response to a New York Times op-ed, I suggested that libertarians are not nihilists.