In Search of Libertarian Realism

How should anti-interventionism apply in the real world?


On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, then delivered a triumphant speech under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished." "In the Battle of Iraq," the president proclaimed, "the United States and our allies have prevailed."

For the next decade, that premature declaration gave way to insurgencies, sectarian warfare, troop surges, corrupt Iraqi governments, 4,000 U.S. combat deaths, even more Iraqi deaths, and $1 trillion in taxpayer money down the drain. The American appetite for war, occupation, and the concomitant surveillance state went on a steady and uninterrupted decline, culminating in the shockingly successful September 2013 public and congressional revolt against President Barack Obama's plans to attack Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. With the occupation of Afghanistan becoming the most unpopular war in recorded U.S. history, and with people telling pollsters they feared their own government more than they feared terrorists, it became possible to imagine a cross-ideological coalition against war, spanning from the progressive left to the constitutional-conservative right, and headed up by the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

But 2014 has complicated that narrative. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) within war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Libya halted the public's decade-long bear market on war, with more Americans favoring combat troops against ISIS in October than in September, in part because of the Islamic State's horrific beheadings of two U.S. citizens.

Land grabs by ISIS across the region gave rhetorical ammunition to hawks and anti-interventionists alike. The influential camp led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that the battlefield successes of ISIS demonstrated the folly of leaving Iraq too soon and of not toppling Assad when we had the chance. McCain's former campaign sparring partner Ron Paul—Rand's father—countered that watching the Iraqi army abandon its weapons after $26 billion worth of propping up by Washington proved the hopelessness of war and nation-building (see "Dr. Never"). Rand Paul, meanwhile, vacillated between those poles, arguing in one breath that the U.S. should "stay the heck out of [Syria's] civil war," and in the next that America should "destroy" ISIS, though only after congressional debate and vote. (For an interview with the younger Paul, see "The Conservative Realist?")

With Rand Paul at or near the top of GOP presidential polls for 2016, the principled noninterventionism of his father is colliding with the complications not just of the Islamic State but of Washington politics. If Ron's project is to spread the pure principles of anti-intervention, Rand's is to see how much anti-intervention he can sneak into the mainstream diet. These differing approaches—and the different men behind them—have triggered all sorts of fierce debates about what a libertarian foreign policy really looks like.

George W. Bush declares the mission accomplished in Iraq.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Hoover Institution's Richard Epstein, in a September piece titled "Rand Paul's Fatal Pacifism," criticized libertarians for being "clueless on the ISIS front," arguing that "In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal." Responding at Antiwar.com, reason Contributing Editor David R. Henderson countered that "whatever else libertarian non-interventionists believe, few of us have what Professor Epstein calls an 'illusion of certainty.' It is the exact opposite: we are positive that there is great uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that should, in general, cause us to pressure our government to stay out of other countries' affairs."

So who's right? And what should libertarian principles about foreign policy look like after colliding with messy reality? In the pages ahead, we have convened a forum of self-identified libertarians who have a range of informed opinions on U.S. foreign policy. The results are designed to start a debate rather than finish it, to take a thoroughgoing skepticism about intervention into the realm of the real. In short, it's a search for libertarian realism. —Matt Welch

The Case for Realism and Restraint

Will Ruger

What role should the United States play in the world? When we ask that question, we are talking about foreign policy: the sum of our defense policy, trade policy, and diplomatic relations with other countries.

The answer: The U.S. should adopt a foreign policy that is both consistent with a free society and aimed at securing America's interests in the world-in other words, libertarian realism. The goal must be to provide security efficiently without sacrificing other important goals that Americans hold in common.

An important caveat up front: There is no universal, one-size-fits-all foreign policy for the ages. A single, comprehensive policy cannot be applied uniformly to any state at any period in history. Geography, institutional constraints, technology, history, and strategic context will always shape how we conduct foreign policy. So the U.S. today might require a very different approach than it needed during, say, the early Cold War or the first years of the republic.

But today, American defense policy should be characterized by strategic restraint; its economic policy must be one of free trade, and its diplomacy ought to be focused on articulating-but not aggressively imposing-liberal values and the benefits of free markets.

Ends and means in politics and war are intimately connected. The primary goal of the state should be to protect the territorial integrity of the United States and the property rights—broadly understood, including throughout the global commons—of the people residing within it. The state is also tasked with securing the conditions that allow for a free people to flourish in America. These elements combine to form the national interest.

The state's role is properly limited to serving these interests rather than meeting the needs of outsiders or of the state itself. However, a libertarian realist foreign policy will have positive benefits for Americans and people of other countries beyond achieving these fairly limited ends.

Realism is important to this schema because, in order to secure our interests properly, we need to understand the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Realists recognize there are important limiting and complicating factors in politics, just as there are in economics. We can no more wish away the constraints that an anarchic world, the balance of power, and geography impose on statesmen than we can disappear the laws of supply and demand or comparative advantage. We need to understand and adapt to what realism tells us about the laws of international relations.

For example, we might wish we could rely on the rule of law internationally as much as we do domestically, and to maintain a very limited military, if any at all. However, this does not accord with what we've known about international life since Thucydides: The strong often do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must. If you doubt this, look at what is happening in Ukraine.

Realism teaches that power matters significantly in the world, and states can use force to meet a variety of goals, some of them malignant. But even great powers face constraints. As we saw in the Iraq War and aftermath, the world—including the comparatively powerless—also gets a vote, placing limits on what the U.S. can impose. Indeed, the application of power often brings negative unintended consequences and even outright failure.

Ultimately, the long-term security of America rests upon the foundation of a strong economy. Free trade is a key ingredient in the recipe for economic growth, and the U.S. should pursue it maximally. As individuals and firms leverage their comparative advantages in the global economy, the ensuing robust growth will allow Washington to better provide for the common defense at a relatively low cost as a percentage of GDP. There are some rare cases, such as specific strategic goods (missile and weapon technology, nuclear materials, etc.) where trade might be limited on security grounds, but we should be leery of rent seekers who use this rationale as a means to nakedly self-interested protectionism.

In the military realm, the watchword of U.S. policy should be restraint. The restraint approach harkens back to the traditional American thinking about defense that dominated from George Washington's Farewell Address to the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898. It finds its most important modern expression in the work of MIT-affiliated scholars such as Eugene Gholz, Daryl Press, Harvey Sapolsky, and Barry Posen, and in the political realm by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Restraint traditionally has two pillars. First, the U.S. should avoid permanent military alliances and be quite wary of making even temporary commitments in times of peace or war. That will maximize U.S. independence and ensure a free hand to avoid or choose engagements on its own terms. It also means that the U.S. ought to carefully wind down its many security commitments around the globe, including NATO. This pillar of restraint does not rule out wartime coalitions like the one that formed in World War II or that would have emerged after 9/11 to counter our enemies in Afghanistan in the absence of NATO.

Second, the U.S. ought to employ the minimal use of force abroad, consistent with the national interest narrowly defined above. Defense and deterrence will be the primary methods of meeting U.S. security needs. However, this is not the absolute noninterventionism or the functional pacifism often advocated by left-liberals and libertarians. Aggressive military action should be on the table where and when warranted, such as what might have been necessary had the French, in the early 1800s, been unwilling to sell New Orleans and threatened to forcibly close off our trade down the Mississippi. Moreover, defense includes pure pre-emption when necessary, as it was for Israel in the Six-Day War or might be in the future for the U.S. should we have absolutely solid intelligence of an imminent forthcoming attack against American soil or U.S. ships.

Restraint, rooted in realism, requires the maintenance of a very strong—but smaller and more focused—military, with the Navy and the Air Force having the most important roles and the Army sustaining the deepest cuts. Naval and air power will be critical to protect America far from shore should deterrence fail. They also provide power projection capability as needed. But restraint will entail less need for the type of large standing army the U.S. currently maintains around the globe. Of course, a highly professionalized, well-equipped Army (and Marine Corps) will still be needed and ought to be designed for expandability in the event of a significant threat. Restraint also requires a capable intelligence community, though one focused abroad and respectful of American civil liberties at home.

Restraint is particularly well-suited to the realities of the modern world. The U.S. is exceptionally safe today, despite what you see on Fox News or in The Wall Street Journal. The country has an extremely favorable geographic position, with two huge "moats" separating us from strong or threatening powers. It's continent-sized, with plentiful resources, the world's largest economy, and a large, growing population. The neighbors are friendly and comparatively weak, representing zero military threat.

Importantly, the U.S. also has a major military advantage that will remain unrivaled in the decades ahead, even if right-sized in accordance with a restrained realist strategy. Its superior Navy and Air Force together offer an exceptional deterrent capability and the ability to defeat attackers far from our shores. The U.S.'s secure second-strike nuclear capability in particular gives us virtual invulnerability from traditional threats. It is extremely unlikely that any other country would dare attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons or conventional forces.

Of course, the U.S. should be vigilant about the threat posed by explicitly anti-American terrorist groups, especially those that seek to use weapons of mass destruction. However, we also have to be realistic about the danger terrorism poses. It is rarely an existential threat and often best handled by careful intelligence collection, police work, and special operations forces. Nuclear terrorism is also a very unlikely scenario for a variety of reasons, though still something we should guard carefully against.

Appropriately, then, restraint does not a priori rule out the use of military force against terrorist groups and their state supporters when necessary. Afghanistan in 2001 was one such case where war was justified even within a restraint framework, since the regime in Kabul provided a safe-haven for the notorious terrorist group which carried out the deadly attacks of 9/11.

Another virtue of restraint is that the world today, and especially the balance of power, has changed in a way favorable to American security. Our traditional fear, an emergent Eurasian hegemon, is nowhere on the horizon, not least because any attempt at regional primacy will likely be resisted by neighbors and undermined by nationalism. Russia and China, to name two potential rivals, have internal challenges ahead that dwarf our own domestic problems. Lastly, economic and political developments over the last half-century mean that states such as Japan, South Korea, and our current European allies are plenty rich enough to defend themselves individually or as parts of regional alliances. The U.S. is simply not needed to play the central, stabilizing role it did during the Cold War. Indeed, its continuing deep engagement around the globe only makes it less likely that these countries will take responsibility for their own security, thereby releasing American taxpayers from the cost of their defense.

When your ends are "making the world safe for democracy" or other ambitious do-gooderism, your means are going to involve a permanent and expensive military/foreign policy establishment, always primed for aggressive interventionism. More restrained ends require much more limited means.

Restraint's incompatibility with do-gooderism does not mean that realism is immoral or amoral. There is morality to a realistic foreign policy, especially one connected to liberal values. The state acts justly when it serves its citizens' interests and limits itself to things that people would generally favor contracting out to government (foremost among these is protecting the homeland). But a state with an expansive foreign policy can do a great deal of harm in the world, even if its motives are pure.

A limited, realistic foreign policy is much less likely to require means that threaten the purpose of having government in the first place. State action taken in the name of an activist national security policy can have terrible domestic consequences: civil liberty violations, increased militarization of police, an unaccountable and bloated national security apparatus, more debt and larger deficits, and so on.

The United States, thankfully, can afford to pursue a significantly more restrained foreign policy, spending modestly to maintain forces more than adequate for defense and deterrence. We no longer need to support an extensive web of alliances like those of the early Cold War. Instead, the country can rely on its own economic and military strength, along with temporary alliances during wartime, just as George Washington counseled.

To quote John Quincy Adams, the U.S. needs to stop going "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Humanitarian crises in non-democratic/illiberal regimes do not automatically threaten U.S. interests. Americans should not have to spend their own blood and treasure policing the globe, even assuming that we could do so successfully (which recent history has demonstrated otherwise).

Given that war is the health of the state, and a reliable destroyer of domestic liberty, there are great costs to a free society in maintaining a massive military and using it for anything other than true defense of the homeland. A free society is better off opting for realist-inspired restraint, coupled with economic, diplomatic, and personal engagement with the world.

Libertarianism Means Noninterventionism

Sheldon Richman

A noninterventionist foreign policy is the natural complement to a noninterventionist domestic policy. Even setting aside the formidable anarchist challenge to the very authority of the state, we can see that government is uniquely threatening to liberty and that this threat warrants keeping the state on as short a leash in the international arena as in the domestic arena—or shorter, because foreign policy will inevitably be conducted covertly.

William Graham Sumner, an anti-imperialist classical liberal of the 19th century, noted that intervention translates to "war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery." He should have included conscription on the list. James Madison, who was nobody's libertarian, nevertheless got this right: "Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few." He goes on: "In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

That constitutes a daunting domestic case against military intervention in the affairs of other countries. But there's more. U.S. government policies and technologies developed to efficiently carry out the occupation of foreign societies eventually "boomerang" on Americans at home, as George Mason University economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall convincingly argue in a paper published in the fall 2014 Independent Review. As the late Chalmers Johnson, author of three books on American imperialism, used to say, we either dismantle the empire or live under it.

On the foreign side, wars and occupations immorally threaten noncombatants, vital infrastructure, and social institutions, sowing the seeds of despotism and humanitarian disaster.

The ambivalence that some libertarians feel toward strict noninterventionism stems, I believe, from faulty thinking about "national defense." Intervention is often presented as defensive in order to conceal geopolitical and economic objectives. Yet some libertarians defend intervention with a simple bully-on-the-schoolyard model: Anyone would be justified in defending a victim and retaliating against a bully. The problem is that we cannot move seamlessly from individuals on a jungle gym to states in the international arena.

States are comprised of individuals, of course, but as the public choice school of economics teaches, these people face vastly different incentives than private citizens do. Governmental decisionmakers can impose the financial and other costs of their policies on a captive population through taxation, regulation, and (potentially) conscription. Those decision makers rarely suffer personally for their misjudgments. The mystique of the nation-state makes many people credulous about and vulnerable to patriotic appeals for support of "their" government and troops in times of crisis. While heroes on the schoolyard are responsible for their actions, essentially irresponsible political personnel have a dangerously broad range of action that is unique in society.

It's tempting to sum up the public choice case for nonintervention by saying that people in the private and political spheres are similarly self-interested, with different incentives leading to different kinds of behavior. But the economist and historian Robert Higgs adds an important amendment: "Whatever its merits as an operating assumption in positive political analysis, the proposition that the people who wield political power are just like the rest of us is manifestly false," he wrote in The Independent Review in 1997. "Lord Acton was not just expelling breath when he said that 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Nor did he err when he observed that 'great men are almost always bad men'—at least if 'great men' denotes those with great political power. Among the most memorable lines in Friedrich A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom is the title of chapter 10, 'Why the Worst Get on Top.' Hayek was considering collectivist dictatorships when he noted that 'there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous' and that 'the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power.' But the observation applies to the functionaries of less egregious governments, too. Nowadays nearly all governments, even those of countries such as the United States, France, or Germany, laughably described as 'free,' provide numerous opportunities for ruthless and unscrupulous people."

The upshot is that even if a well-intended, risk-free interventionist foreign policy could be conceived in the abstract (leaving aside the problem of taxation), its chances of being carried out correctly by any real-world government are virtually nonexistent.

In addition to these incentive and character problems, there is a knowledge problem. Libertarians appreciate the seriousness of this issue in the economic realm: Those who would modify free market outcomes or abolish the market altogether cannot possibly acquire what Hayek called the requisite knowledge of time and place, much of which is tacit. This systemic ignorance guarantees the loss of welfare for society even if the planners have the best intentions.

We find an analogous problem in the managing of foreign affairs. Interfering in a foreign land is likely to bring chaos, thanks to the imperial administrators' ignorance of the target society's complex political, social, religious, sectarian, and tribal dynamics. Invading and occupying another country is like playing Jenga—"the classic block-stacking, stack-crashing game"—while blindfolded and intoxicated. A seemingly innocuous move can produce catastrophic consequences.

There is no better example of these pitfalls than the recent U.S. experience in the Middle East. Before noting some recent lowlights, a word of caution: In viewing the government's record, it can be difficult to distinguish incentive/character problems from knowledge problems. When the same apparent error persists decade after decade, it may not actually be an innocent error, but rather the pursuit of perverse interests. After all, people tend to learn from mistakes. We cannot rule out the possibility that military quagmires represent successful pursuits of geopolitical and economic advantage for particular political and "private" interests.

To pick an arbitrary starting point, in March 2003 President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. The intent was to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S. government had helped place in power and then later helped to make war on Iran. Officials told the public that decapitating the Iraqi government would not only safeguard Americans—remember those phantom weapons of mass destruction?—but would also win the gratitude of the Iraqis and usher in a liberal democracy.

It did no such thing. With the devil-may-care attitude of that soused Jenga player, the U.S. invasion and occupation plunged Iraq into chaos, which cost many Iraqi and American lives, disrupted Iraqi society, and produced a new authoritarian regime. Nearly a dozen years later, Iraq is threatened by the Islamic State, a violent organization that grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which did not exist before the U.S. invasion.

In Saddam's Iraq, minority Sunni Muslims dominated the majority Shiites (and Kurds) in a secular regime. Was it ignorance or the pursuit of a hidden agenda that accounts for the U.S. policy makers' seeming obliviousness of the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq? Why did the U.S. government carry out a pro-Shiite policy pleasing to Iran, the American foreign-policy establishment's favorite bête noire? (That strained relationship is another product of U.S. foreign policy: In 1953, the CIA ousted a democratic Iranian prime minister and reinstated the despotic Shah, which led to the 1979 Islamic revolution and the U.S. embassy hostage taking, producing the Iran-U.S. cold war that persists to this day.)

The Islamic State is in Syria too. That country became prime real estate for an extremist Islamic insurgency the day President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad illegitimate and announced that he "has to go." This set the stage for a bizarre new U.S. war in which Assad's most formidable enemy is now America's target. Whatever our (mis)leaders may say, U.S. ground troops in Syria and Iraq are on the table.

It takes an interventionist foreign policy, devised by ignorant and perfidious politicians, to make such a godawful mess. This does not mean that nonintervention would have brought the world only sweetness and light. To slightly modify Adam Smith: "There's a great deal of ruin in the world." But a free American people (we would have to get free first) could better defend themselves without a global empire, which is both bloody and bloody expensive. At least America wouldn't be creating its own enemies, which is what U.S. foreign policy seems best at doing.

Don't Underestimate the Costs of Inaction

Fernando R. Tesón

Current events in Syria and Iraq have rekindled talk about humanitarian intervention. The amply documented atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) range from public beheading to rape, forced conversion, and expulsion. The United States and a few other countries are already attacking ISIS from the sky and giving some aid to resistors on the ground. But these bombings will not be sufficient to stop ISIS' crimes. By all appearances, only a full invasion with ground troops could get the job done. And Americans are weary of invasions.

Most libertarians oppose intervention on principle. But let us take a moment to focus not on principles but consequences. Arguments for or against intervention should always consider costs; the problem lies in calculating those costs. We know that every war kills and destroys. We also know that sometimes war produces a positive result. How do we measure and weigh the outcomes?

I do not have enough information to say with any confidence whether the costs of a full invasion to defeat ISIS would be acceptable. But I can propose two guidelines to help policy makers think through the problem.

First, when contemplating military action, leaders should consider the price of inaction as well. Second, the more distant effects—such as future unrest, wars, and massacres—must be evaluated alongside immediate results. These sound like simple things, but they are neglected surprisingly often in public debate over foreign policy.

Here's the tricky part: The effects of intervention, like those of any contemplated human action, have to be evaluated ex ante, that is, from the standpoint of the person who is considering whether to act beforehand, and not only ex post, that is, when all the effects are known after the fact. Especially when you consider that inaction, too, could have led to unforeseen miseries. In other words, hard though it may be to accept, a disastrous outcome is not itself proof that a decision to go to war was the wrong one.

People who defended the 2003 Iraq War (myself included) did not accurately predict all the bad things that the invasion would enable, including the prolonged insurgency and the continued inability of the Iraqi leadership to preserve the gains of Saddam Hussein's ouster. The stronger predictions about the short- and mid-term effects of the war came from noninterventionists, who correctly argued that the invasion would open a Pandora's box in the region. It might therefore be tempting to say that those who make the case for inaction most often (or even always) have the facts (and justice) on their side.

But those who blast the Iraq War are looking at the consequences ex post, that is, after a number of bad things are known to have happened. There's nothing wrong with trying to learn from your mistakes, but it's easy to criticize the Iraq decision in hindsight. If events had unfolded differently—if there had been no Baathist insurgency, if the Arab Spring had consolidated some liberal reform, if the democratic institutions in Iraq had taken root—then we would regard the 2003 invasion differently today. Perhaps betting on those outcomes was foolhardy from the start. But because we are human, we tend to believe retroactively that what actually happened was inevitable and what didn't happen was unlikely. But history is not that linear, and acting as if it is can lead to bad decisions in the future.

So how do we go about measuring the most serious immediate costs of proposed intervention? Defeat is obviously the most costly scenario. Runner-up, arguably, is the killing of civilians. Many wars that might seem justified are nonetheless troubling because they will predictably cause the death of a high number of innocent persons. If there is an acceptable level of collateral damage, then a war that exceeds that level is unjustified because it is disproportionate: The harm caused is greater than whatever good the intervention brings about. If defeating ISIS will bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of persons, then many would conclude the United States should not act.

But this way of thinking about consequences may be too narrow. What if military intervention causes great harm now but improves the lives of millions in the future? Even if invading and defeating ISIS would cause a troubling number of civilian deaths, it is possible that failure to intervene would mean death and suffering for millions of more people for years to come. Balancing present certain harm against future uncertain harm is always problematic. But leaders must evaluate the immediate and remote effects of both action and inaction when making foreign policy decisions.

I understand that for the U.S. government, the lives of Americans are more important that the lives of foreigners, and the lives of people alive today are more important than the lives of people who will be born later. This is because the U.S. government has a fiduciary duty to protect its current citizens. But that does not mean that the lives of foreigners are irrelevant in the calculus, particularly when we think about the consequences of inaction.

Consider the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994. If the U.S. had intervened, at a comparably low cost of American lives and money, maybe 800,000 people would be alive today. Many made a principled case for inaction at the time, arguing that it was not the proper role of the United States to act in other nations' affairs. But the cost in human lives—foreign lives, to be sure, but lives nonetheless—received insufficient weight in the discussion, leading to a bad decision.

Assume for a moment that the United States government had ruled out even air strikes against ISIS over understandable fears of short-term costs. ISIS, in that scenario, would be free to solidify its own totalitarian state. In all likelihood, the chances of war and other ills in the region would increase, because the new state's harsh and expansionist worldview would mortally threaten its neighbors. And it's quite possible that the United States would eventually be dragged into the very war it sought to avoid.

All indications are that the Islamic State would be militantly committed to violent strikes against United States' interests everywhere, including on American soil. If a handful of modestly financed individuals could pull off the 9/11 attacks, imagine the damage that a sovereign state exponentially more rich and powerful could inflict.

As Richard A. Epstein wrote in a September essay for the Hoover Institution, one of the classical functions of government is to defend citizens against foreign aggression. It is thus surprising, Epstein argued, to hear many libertarians "unwisely demand that the United States keep out of foreign entanglements unless and until they pose direct threats to its vital interests—at which point it could be too late." An invasion to defeat ISIS, in other words, might be necessary to defend us effectively against future attacks emanating from the Islamic State. I know that similar arguments were made in the lead-up to the Iraq war. But the fact that those arguments were wrong then (if they were wrong) does not mean they are wrong now.

What are the consequences that the U.S. government can reasonably expect would follow from an invasion against ISIS? There are so many possible scenarios that any prediction would be no more than an educated guess. While some would argue that our lack of information one way or the other is an argument against war, my claim is that there is equally an argument against inaction. Our imaginations necessarily fail to conjure all the ways things might go horribly wrong if we expend American blood and taxpayer dollars on war, but are equally lacking when we try to envision the way things might go wrong if we do not act.

The terrible consequences of inaction are as hard to gauge as the terrible consequences of invading. I confess not to know where the consequential calculus leads. But it is simply false to assert that in the face of uncertainty it is invariably best not to act.

Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy

Christopher Preble

In domestic policy, libertarians tend to believe in a minimal state endowed with enumerated powers, dedicated to protecting the security and liberty of its citizens but otherwise inclined to leave them alone. The same principles should apply when we turn our attention abroad. Citizens should be free to buy and sell goods and services, study and travel, and otherwise interact with peoples from other lands and places, unencumbered by the intrusions of government.

But peaceful, non-coercive foreign engagement should not be confused with its violent cousin: war. American libertarians have traditionally opposed wars and warfare, even those ostensibly focused on achieving liberal ends. And for good reason. All wars involve killing people and destroying property. Most entail massive encroachments on civil liberties, from warrantless surveillance to conscription. They all impede the free movement of goods, capital, and labor essential to economic prosperity. And all wars contribute to the growth of the state.

An abhorrence of war flows from the classical liberal tradition. Adam Smith taught that "peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice" were the essential ingredients of good government. Other classical liberals, from Richard Cobden and John Stuart Mill to Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, excoriated war as incompatible with liberty.

War is the largest and most far-reaching of all statist enterprises: an engine of collectivization that undermines private enterprise, raises taxes, destroys wealth, and subjects all aspects of the economy to regimentation and central planning. It also subtly alters the citizens' view of the state. "War substitutes a herd mentality and blind obedience for the normal propensity to question authority and to demand good and proper reasons for government actions," writes Ronald Hamowy in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He continues, "War promotes collectivism at the expense of individualism, force at the expense of reason, and coarseness at the expense of sensibility. Libertarians regard all of those tendencies with sorrow."

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman stated the issue more succinctly. "War is a friend of the state," he told the San Francisco Chronicle about a year before his death. "In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do."

The evidence is irrefutable. Throughout human history, government has grown during wartime, rarely surrendering its new powers when the guns fall silent.

Some might claim that a particular threat to freedom from abroad is greater than anything we could do to ourselves in fighting it. But that is a hard case to make. Even the post-9/11 "global war on terror"-a war that hasn't involved conscription or massive new taxes-has resulted in wholesale violations of basic civil rights and an erosion of the rule of law. From Bush's torture memos to Obama's secret kill list, this has all been done in the name of fighting a menace-Islamist terrorism-that has killed fewer American civilians in the last decade than allergic reactions to peanuts. It seems James Madison was right. It was "a universal truth," he wrote, "that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad."

But surely, some say, the United States is an exceptional nation that serves the cause of global liberty. The United States pursues a "foreign policy that makes the world a better place," explains Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), "and sometimes that requires force, a lot of times, it requires a threat or force." By engaging in frequent wars, even when U.S. security isn't directly threatened, the United States acts as the world's much-needed policeman. That's the theory, anyway.

In practice, the record is decidedly mixed. This supposedly liberal order does not work as well as its advocates claim. The world still has its share of conflicts, despite a U.S. global military presence explicitly oriented around stopping wars before they start. The U.S. Navy supposedly keeps the seas open for global commerce, but it's not obvious who would benefit from closing them—aside from terrorists or pirates who couldn't if they tried. Advocates of the status quo claim that it would be much worse if the U.S. adopted a more restrained grand strategy, but they fail to accurately account for the costs of this global posture and they exaggerate the benefits. And, of course, there is the obvious case of the Iraq War, a disaster that was part and parcel of this misguided strategy of global primacy. It was launched on the promise of delivering freedom to the Iraqi people and then to the entire Middle East. It has had, if anything, the opposite effect.

Libertarians should immediately understand why. We harbor deep and abiding doubts about government's capacity for effecting particular ends, no matter how well intentioned. These concerns are magnified, not set aside, when the government project involves violence in foreign lands.

These doubts are informed by Hayek's observations about the "fatal conceit" of trying to control an economy. Throughout his career, the economist convincingly argued that government is incapable, over the long term, of effective central planning. Attempts inevitably fall short of expectations, because human beings always have imperfect knowledge.

This knowledge problem contributes to unintended consequences. These can be serious enough in the domestic context; they're more serious still in foreign policy. Even well-intentioned wars—those designed to remove a tyrant from power and liberate an oppressed people, for example—unleash chaos and violence that cannot be limited solely to those deserving of punishment. And wars always cost us some of our liberty, in addition to blood and treasure.

For all of these reasons—the expansion of state power, the problem of imperfect knowledge, the law of unintended consequences—libertarians must treat war for what it is: a necessary evil. "War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible," writes the Cato Institute's David Boaz in Libertarianism: A Primer. "Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism." The obviously desirable end of advancing human liberty should, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, be achieved by peaceful means.

The United States is in a particularly advantageous position to adopt foreign policies consistent with libertarian principles. Small, weak countries might not have the luxury of avoiding wars, but the United States is neither small nor weak. Our physical security is protected by wide oceans and weak neighbors, and augmented by the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. We get to choose when and whether to wage war abroad, and we could do so by assessing the likely costs against the anticipated benefits.

Instead, as the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer notes, "The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989," and U.S. policy makers show little regard for how such wars advance U.S. security. Large-scale military intervention is usually irrelevant when dealing with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, and the U.S. government has no magic formula for reordering Iraqi or Syrian politics, the true breeding ground of the so-called Islamic State.

Although there may be occasions when military force is required to eliminate an urgent threat, thus necessitating an always-strong military, our capacity for waging war far exceeds that which is required in the modern world. Despite the ostensible end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military's non-war budget remains extraordinarily high. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Americans annually spend more now than we did, on average, during the Cold War, when we were facing off against a global empire with a functioning army and navy, a modern air force, and thousands of nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States in a matter of minutes. Al Qaeda and all of its copycats combined can't muster even 1/1000th of the destructive power of the Soviet Union.

If the United States used its military power less often, might that be OK for Americans but worse for everyone else? What if the cause of freedom needs the United States as its champion? People living under a tyrant's heel deserve liberation; the threat of U.S. intervention might convince the petty despot to step down; if not, the sharp end of American military power could deliver him to a prison cell, or the gallows.

Such a view unfairly privileges U.S. military power, and the power of the American state, over the power of ideas. Freedom has many champions; it betrays a curious disregard for other freedom fighters' work to suggest that liberty can only flourish under the covering fire of American arms. The question, therefore, isn't whether we should wish to see freedom spread worldwide. The real issue is about how best to do it.

Toward that end, U.S. policies have often been counterproductive, sometimes having the perverse effect of eroding the very concept of individual liberty. Quite a few oppressed people have watched in horror as Iraq has descended into civil war and anarchy. If that is what freedom and democracy look like, they might reasonably conclude, we'll happily opt for something else. Similarly, the United States' entangling alliances with illiberal Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia make a mockery of Washington's claim to be an advocate for freedom.

This is not an argument against either military power or alliances per se. It is an argument against allowing the world to become overly reliant upon the military power of a single nation. Who's to say, for example, that a more militarily capable European Union would not have proved better able than the United States to deter Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, and now in Ukraine? Could even modest military capabilities (e.g., a functioning coast guard) better defend Philippine claims to the Scarborough Shoals in their ongoing dispute with China? Might Turkey be fighting the ISIS threat on its border if the Turks didn't believe the United States would do the fighting for them? An international order that is less dependent upon the U.S. military as a vehicle for promoting liberty, and based instead on the presumption that all governments have a core obligation to defend their own citizens, could be a safer one and also a freer one.

Libertarians have traditionally been reluctant to support foreign military interventions. We still should be. We will defend ourselves when threatened. When there is a viable military option for dealing with that threat, and when we have exhausted other means, we may even reluctantly choose to initiate the use of force. Such instances are rare, however, because most of today's threats are quite modest. Libertarians have a very clear sense of the risks associated with military operations. We retain a sober sense of the certainty of unintended consequences and the possibility of failure. We should therefore be skeptical of any claim that preventive war will turn a suboptimal but manageable situation into something much better.

The experiences of the past decade have reaffirmed these truths, and taught us some new lessons, too. Although we marvel at the professionalism and commitment of those who serve in our military, we have been reminded of war's unpredictability, and that the military is always a blunt instrument. Above all, we have learned that the costs of waging wars are rarely offset by the benefits we derive from them.

That does not mean that military intervention is never warranted, or never will be in the future. It does mean that we need to more clearly define those infrequent situations in which war is the last best course of action.

The United States should and will participate in the international system. It must remain engaged in the world. But it is wrong to equate engagement with global military dominance and perpetual warfare. Human liberty exists in spite of, not because of, the power of any one nation, and it is dubious in the extreme to presume that freedom's flame will be extinguished if the United States adopts a more discriminating approach toward the use of force.

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  1. """"securing America's interests in the world"""

    There is the real question mark. Is there an American interest and what is it.

    40 years ago I was told that the freedom of Vietnam was one of the most important interests America had. Today I am told to ignore the Vietnamese communist dictatorship because some people can get a good deal on sweatshop labor there.

    1. *Today I am told to ignore the Vietnamese communist dictatorship because some people can get a good deal on sweatshop labor there.*

      That's because the patron of all these commie states went tits up and the dominoes stopped falling.

      But you knew that already.

  2. Well this should be fun.

    Potential problem #1 =

    "Realism" is an approach to Foreign Policy making that specifically aims to avoid any over-arching theory or principle or set of ideas that aren't based in the specific power-relations of the relevant parties in question.

    Under realist approaches, nothing that matters in one situation necessarily matters in another. There is no 'supra'(Bo?)-theory other than the presumptions that:

    - States are the primary actors;

    - "States arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity" (the UN is nothing more than a pantomime of consensus that lacks any power not willingly abrogated by members)

    - States ultimately seek mainly to perpetuate and empower themselves and will adopt whatever ideology/theory/posture is believed necessary to do so;

    Everything is based on the disparity-of-power-relations and the material conditions of the situation = not any moral or ethical premises which apply above and beyond the material concerns.

    in short - you're going to have a hell of time trying to stick in any "NAP"-type ideas and keep your 'realism'.

    1. You're mixing up two senses of "realism": a tool of IR analysis and a foreign policy philosophy. As the former, realism has no moral content; it's a scientific paradigm. As the latter, it may have moral content, like: government should be based on protecting the rights of its own citizens above all.

      1. "may have moral content" isn't to say that "moral content" ever pre-empts or super-cedes the points already made =

        that the basis for realist-reasoning must rely on the material conditions and relations of specific parties

        "protecting the rights of its citizens above all", for example, is just meaningless 'moral content' if, say. your citizen has been arrested by North Korea for violating their religious speech laws

        Clearly, that 'US Citizen' had his 'rights' (as understood under the US constitution) violated. Are you suggesting ANYONE would then 'go to war' with Nuclear Armed North Korea over *that*?

        The 'moral content' is horseshit if it is simply papering over the material issues which define the situation.

  3. Will Ruger =

    "The goal must be to provide security efficiently without sacrificing other important goals that Americans hold in common."

    Way to get so *hard-nails*-specific there bro. I've had chunkier mayonnaise.

    Each subsequent statement there takes bounding leaps away from his initial caveats about 'no overarching, universal, one-size-fits all strategy'

    'Strategic restraint'? What does that mean? In 'Realist' terms, its just a bullshit cop-out that reveals that you're 'restrained' where action isn't warranted, and 'less restrained' when it is. The core problem there being the 'Strategy'. Which he doesn't mention. At all.

    In the Bi-polar Cold War, the strategy was to 'maximize US power at the expense of the Soviet Union'.

    In a multi-polar world, we should be able to articulate our "strategic interests" more clearly than this Feelgood-Word-Soup

    Example =

    -Do we maintain any shared security interests with the EU or not? End Nato?
    -Does China present a near-or-longer term security Threat, or are they our most important security partner after we abandon Europe?
    - Africa and Latin America remain resource-rich disasters of governance; is it not in our interests to improve their lot and maintain access to resources?


    what i find laughable about the attempts at 'faux realist' approaches here are their habit of immediately launching into 'big-idea' platitudes and generic affirmation of 'goods' (restraint!) sans any actual goal

    1. My sentiments exactly. I think Gilmore should have written the article.

    2. Additional to the examples of actual 'realist approaches to counter-party nations/regions' listed above that seem (mostly) missing from these pieces =

      the obvious elephant in the room is 'What to do re: the Middle East'

      ... where hand-wringing about past/current failures seems to underlie a great deal of the thinking of some of the contributors

      (rather than any particular insights into what the future posture should be, we get a false and un-helpful 'engaged vs disengaged' debate)

      The 'realist' in me sees it thusly =

      - "Disengagement" is a fictional option;

      - The most powerful regional actors (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel) don't even fucking talk to one another without trying to stab each other in the neck

      - The current situation is highly unstable and has the potential for turning into a widespread regional conflict that could take decades to resolve and even then result in an undesirable status-quo

      - The best we can probably hope for is a 'low-intensity' Sunni-Shia conflict that results in the partition of Iraq into muliple smaller-states and the reconstitution of Syria into something other than a launching pad for global Jihad/goading Israel into attacking them.

      If you don't have any good ideas, don't worry = neither does the current administration.

      1. """"- "Disengagement" is a fictional option;""'' So lets turn it into reality. My entire life the US government has been involved in the Middle East and have accomplished nothing but waste US lives and US taxpayer money.

        """""- The most powerful regional actors (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel) don't even fucking talk to one another without trying to stab each other in the neck""" And this after 60 years of the US being involved

        """""The current situation is highly unstable and has the potential for turning into a widespread regional conflict that could take decades to resolve and even then result in an undesirable status-"""" Great, we can make lots of money selling weapons to all sides!!!!

        """"The best we can probably hope for is a 'low-intensity' Sunni-Shia conflict that results in the partition of Iraq into muliple smaller-states and the reconstitution of Syria into something other than a launching pad for global Jihad/goading Israel into attacking them.""" Sounds like time to ignore them. Notice I don't say time to ignore them and see what happens. No, we ignore them even if something happens. Maybe China would like to get involved, let them waste their time and money on that mess.

        1. It should be apparent that the foreign policy you are constructing has nothing to do with realism, especially with sentences like this one:

          Sounds like time to ignore them. Notice I don't say time to ignore them and see what happens. No, we ignore them even if something happens.

          There are many presuppositions here which contradict the framework of realism as an IR view; your post simply confirms Gilmore's statement RE: "non-interventionist" realism being a contradiction in terms.

        2. Speaking of "Realism in Action", and the communications-skills of Israel/Iran

          It appears they find rare common ground when it involves bombing shared enemies

        3. *No, we ignore them even if something happens.*

          Yeah, you do that for a few years and suddenly a few of them have toppled a couple skyskrapers in NYC.

  4. "On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln ...."

    No, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed in a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.

    Bush was not the pilot of the plane. The real pilot stayed inside while George made his triumphal descent to the carrier deck. Bush was never trained as a carrier pilot and in fact stopped flying about two-thirds of the way through his NG hitch and has never piloted any craft since then.

    But, hey, lovin' this libertarian foreign policy free for all!

    1. You misspelled your first name.

      1. His name is Morty, right?

    2. But, hey, lovin' this libertarian foreign policy free for all!

      Is the discussion bothering you, madam? I'll tell them to lower the intellectual tone down for you, so you can go back to sleep.

  5. Here's the fundamental problem of this alleged "realism":

    "The primary goal of the state should be to protect the territorial integrity of the United States and the property rights ? broadly understood, including throughout the global commons ? of the people residing within it.

    What this asserts is that "national interest" extends to every private citizen's interest everywhere in the world. That isn't realism, it's hallucination. To imagine that the U.S. government can and must protect every citizen's investment, involvement, or chosen risks in every nation, irrespective of that nation's laws or presumed sovereignty, is a recipe for disaster.

    There's no harm in pursuing good policies in foreign government by diplomacy, but committing every resource of the U.S. - including military - to the protection of every citizen's interests will certainly bankrupt our country and encourage every form of intervention that might be contemplated.

    1. If you read what follows from that statement of "defining interests", he actually defines 'realism' as the recognition of the 'limiting factors' to those ends.

      IOW, you're arguing with a straw man.

      Actual Realism/Realpolitik

  6. Great discussion everybody.

    One issue that I don't think was discussed enough here is the fact that hawks simply lie when debating foreign policy. Here is an excellent dialogue between a libertarian and a sociologist (from a business school in the Silicon Valley) where the libertarian catches the sociologist in a lie and the sociologist refuses to man up to his dishonesty.

    The whole dialogue captures the basic essence of US foreign policy debate today.

  7. How can you explain the fact that russian ruble is falling down like crazy? Russianes dont see the point! I had to hire a personal essay writer to write a paper 4 me about it and guess what he did? He supported Vladimir Putin, is not that weird?

  8. How should anti-interventionism apply in the real world?

    Eaasy. Mind your own fucking business.

    What is it about it that is so difficult to understand?

    1. Wouldn't it be fascinating to see what the world would look like today if the U.S. didn't meddle? Not just the ME, but the Phillipines, Japan, WWI, etc.

      1. Re: Libertarian,

        Wouldn't it be fascinating to see what the world would look like today if the U.S. didn't meddle?

        For instance, there wouldn't have been a Treaty of Versailles and thus a Second World War. The British Empire would most likely not pursue the war with the same zeal had it been made clear by the US government that the only help it would receive would be in the form of sales of weapons and cartridges from US private companies - cash in advance, please. No IOUs.

        1. And perhaps the Middle East, as we know it today, wouldn't even exist -- there would be no reason to be meddling there now.

    2. Apparently, everything.
      When was the last time you saw anyone 'minding their own business'?
      Smoking, drinking, child-rearing, schooling, drugs, you name it, people will get all up in arms about *what other people might be doing*, even when there is no conceivable impact on them.
      We are a world of moral [sic[ busybodies, too concerned with managing the faults of others to see or manage our own. Perhaps intentionally so.

      1. Re: Shirley Knott,

        When was the last time you saw anyone 'minding their own business'?

        I grant you that for some it is difficult not to meddle. That says more about their lack of character or their narcissism than a true concern for their fellow men.

        But if you want examples of non-interventionist doctrines, how about Mexico's? For decades, the foreign policy doctrine followed by our government was non-interventionist (called the Estrada doctrine)

        How about Switzerland? There are plenty of examples.

        I believe that a lot of people do get it.

        1. "How about Switzerland? There are plenty of examples."


          Just for fun, how about 3 more examples *just like Switzerland*

        2. When your locker is next to the biggest kid in school, you benefit (Mexico and Canada).. Switzerland is small and surrounded by mountains. If you don't think that greatly assists isolationism you probably haven't studied the issue. Hannibal is a legend because he went over the alps, I doubt he'd be immortalized for crossing a flat border. The Real world is cruel brutish and short..it's ugly. Reality isn't as easy as declaring yourself Mexico. .

  9. Sadly, the debate between realism and strict non-interventionism (while interesting) is kind of beside the point at this point in time. Pretty much the whole political establishment has drunk they hyper-interventionist, neo-conservative kool-aid. On the list of questions currently under debate and discussion, I think the two positions would arrive at remarkably similar records of where they stand.

    1. Sad, indeed. A parallel is the federal budget. I want to tell people, "let's just cut the budget by 75% and see what happens. If things get better, let's cut it another 75%." We could do the same with foreign policy: let's cut the DoD and State Dept by 75%. If things get better, let's cut it another 75%.

      We are so far off the charts when it comes to spending and foreign meddling that almost all public discourse today is window dressing.

      1. But, as a practical matter, how much of a fight do you think you're going to have the opportunity to have with someone who just wants to cut it 30%?

        In a world where not growing it as much as you would otherwise is considered a "cut", your disagreement is purely theoretical.

  10. the ensuing robust growth will allow Washington to better provide for the common defense at a relatively low cost as a percentage of GDP.

    The only responsibility that the Congress has under the Constitution is to provide for a navy. That's it. Whether the cost of maintaining said navy represents a low proportion of GDP or not is for Congress to discuss and decide.

    The defense of the territory is supposed to be carried out by an armed militia composed of all able-bodied citizens. That is the stated purpose of the special protection for the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights.

    Anything else beyond the boundaries of the Constitution is not pursuant to the articles and limitations thoroughly expressed in the Constitution; for instance, having standing armies quartered in a hundred different countries around the world.

    1. Article IV, Section 4 does require the Federal Government guarantee the States from invasion.

      """armed militia composed of all able-bodied citizens. ""'

      The armed miiitia was destroyed after the US goverment found that the militias were not very good fighting for colonines in the Spanish American War. Of course they were not meant to be good at fighting colonial wars and were actually created so the US would not fight colonial wars

      Legislation after the Spanish American war was used to increase the federal role in the army and WW1 sealed that by totally reorganizing the army based on fighting overseas. So two of our worse wars set up our present army system.

      1. I have a theory that the real problem is that the only people in the military (today) are people that signed up specifically to murder other people, letting everyone with a conscience skate by with little consequences for their (in)actions.

        Give everyone some skin in the game, and I bet we suddenly don't randomly bomb quite as many brown people.

        1. *Give everyone some skin in the game, and I bet we suddenly don't randomly bomb quite as many brown people.*

          Right, because the first peacetime draft in this country wasn't instituted specifically to bomb WHITE Germans.

  11. Will Ruger: Sorry, but when you invoke Israel as an example of positive militaristic behavior, you're not going to get a lot of applause (er, outside of Congress).

    Fernando Tes?n: A Brown University study estimates that the Iraq War cost the USA $4 TRILLION--money we didn't have and never will. Our inevitable default on the war debt incurred in the past 15 years will probably start World War III. NOTHING is worth that price, short of a ground invasion of the 50 states and U.S. territories.

    Sheldon Richman: Gracias, Se?or, for defending nonintervention on principle. "Isolationist" is one of those taboo words that people use like a Hogwarts student's "Expelliarmus!" spell: you're supposed to be disarmed by the mere sound of it.

    P.S. I'm still waiting for my peace dividend and my kinder, gentler America.

  12. War against massive states isn't possible without virtual annihilation. So intervention at that scope is nothing more than perpetual nit-picking. I guess that requires professional nit-pickers so, fine- intervene and waffle on. Leaders of huge states aren't necessarily perturbed by the might of the others.

    Then we have diminutive states that host and sponsor terrorism and violent military objectives. Intervention here is costly, chaotic, and achieves few discernible goals aside from those encapsulated and disseminated purely as political and military fodder into the minds of the ceaselessly terrified masses here in America.

    Unless a state has very specific and realizable targets set for world domination where direct military involvement is absolutely vital interventionism is something of a right-wing, feel-good missionary project.

    Rush and his ilk rant on and on and on and fucking on about left-wing emotionalism and its direct ties to Progressive policies (about which they are partially correct) but fail to be circumspect about right-wing emotionalism and ITS direct ties to military objectives.

  13. How Should Libertarians Apply Anti-Interventionism In the Real World?

    If you're asking this question, you don't adequately understand the premise of "anti-interventionism."

    1. Are you the same guy as the "Everyone in the military is a murderous psychopath"?


      "anon|12.10.14 @ 12:14PM|#

      I have a theory that the real problem is that the only people in the military (today) are people that signed up specifically to murder other people"

      Or is the "anon" thing just a common handle?

      Just trying to get a little context

  14. I've been arguing for a libertarian realism here at Hit & Rn for...ten years now. I'd say there shouldn't be any orthodoxy in terms of when we should and shouldn't use force--but that's pragmatic realism, which is probably where I am.

    If we want a libertarian realist foreign policy, there are a few rules we can cling to:

    1) Any commmitment of ground troops must be authorized by Congress.

    2) The purpose of our military is to defend our rights from foreign threats--any foreign action in self-defense is justifiable by definition from a libertarian realist perspective.

    3) Foreign military engagements should only be engaged in when it's in our best interests to do so.

    That may seem like a silly claim to make, but how many times have people tried to justify an American military intervention on the basis that it's what's best for the people of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Rwanda,...

    Again, the libertarian justification for a military force is that it exists to defend our rights from foreign threats--not that it's meant to defend the Iraqis!

    1. "1) Any commmitment of ground troops must be authorized by Congress."

      In the modern context of asymmetrical threats from non-state actors, this is basically allowing for endless 'unilateral war by executive authority'

      Because the "forever war" can certainly be perpetuated without requiring the elusive 'ground troops', which are apparently only defined as 'conventional US infantry', and not SOF or CIA/OGA/paramilitary or otherwise 'NOT Big Green-Army'

      Non-stop arbitrary war by airpower, drones, cruise missile, cyber-war, whatever, seems completely possible under this framework. And this is more likely to be the way conflicts are engaged.

      '2) The purpose of our military is to defend our rights from foreign threats--"

      ? rights. please to clarify

      How about 'access vital resources'?. say Iran decides to close the Straits of Hormuz (or tries to).

      How about our 'allies'? Norks pre-emptively nuke Seoul, etc.

      I'm not offering *likely* scenarios, but simply pointing out what might not fit in your term.

      "3) Foreign military engagements should only be engaged in when it's in our best interests to do so."


      Well, that's the trick, isn't it? And its usually something we start to think about much harder only when we're neck deep in a pile of shit.

      1. "Non-stop arbitrary war by airpower, drones, cruise missile, cyber-war, whatever, seems completely possible under this framework. And this is more likely to be the way conflicts are engaged."

        From a quagmire perspective, that kind of war really isn't a big problem.

        No one expects us to remake another society in our image from the air.

        Besides, quagmires generally only happen when American troops are killed--and that's much more likely when they're on the ground.

        Once Americans die, they can't be allowed to have died in vain--so society, the military, the president, the voters, everyone starts to behave differently. I suspect it has its cultural roots in Christianity or something; regardless, even when a new president is elected to carry on an ex-president's war (see Vietnam, Iraq, and others), once Americans die on the ground, there, what they died for has to have been worth the sacrifice. ...but sometimes it's better to just cut our losses.

        1. Didn't more Americans die in Europe during WWII than died in Vietnam? WWII was a heroic victory, and the GIs that died there died as heroes--in the public imagination. The soldiers who died in Vietnam? People don't think of that as a heroic victory--they think of it as a tragedy. ...because they didn't die for victory. People still don't understand what they died for, and until they did, presidents had a hard time pulling out.

          Hell, Nixon tried to get more funds for a Vietnam at the last minute! Congress blocking the funds for it is why it finally died.

          If you want to avoid those kinds of mistakes? Keep the damn troops off the ground. Americans don't feel like we're responsible for Libya or Yemen or anywhere we've used drones because we used drones. If Americans feel responsible for Libya at all, it's because an ambassador and a few soldiers died on the ground afterward.

      2. "I'm not offering *likely* scenarios, but simply pointing out what might not fit in your term."

        I'm talking about bringing libertarianism to realism.

        To a small state libertarian like me, if government has any legitimate purpose at all, it's to protect our rights.

        We have police to protect our rights from criminals. We have criminal courts to protect our rights from the police. We have civil courts to protect our property rights. We have a military to protect our rights from foreign threats.

        Because of ICBMs, nuclear weapons, etc., we can make a case that various threats to our rights exist all over the world, and there are conflicting legitimate arguments about how best to meet those threats to our rights. Having bases all over the world, troops in South Korea, etc. could be justified that way. Alliances are perhaps the most effective means of self-defense in history--and there are things that could be justified in the service of an alliance that might not be justifiable otherwise.

        For instance, we joined the European theater in World War II because the Nazis attacked our allies, and becasue an ally of the Nazis attacked us in the Pacific. Meanwhile, we wouldn't have won the Cold War the way we did without the support of our allies--and has there ever been a bigger foreign threat to our rights than the Soviet Union?

        1. Again, this just reenforces the idea that serving an alliance can be seen in terms of how effective it is at protecting our rights from foreign threats--and what I'm trying to say is that if those kinds of security arrangements are justifiable from a libertarian standpoint, then they should be justified in libertarian terms.

          Again, I'm talking about a libertarian realist policy. That's what a libertarian realist policy does--effectuates a realist policy according to libertarian principles.

  15. 4) Bring back the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine(s).

    Any test of whether we use ground troops should meet those tests--including that there is a clear exit strategy.

    I know a lot of people see those tests as enabling rather than limiting engagements--those people are wrong. For instance, We wouldn't have invaded Iraq in 2003 if we'd stayed by those doctrines--and that's why realists like Scowcroft opposed invading Iraq in 2003.

    5) Constant revaluation of the whole mission after troops are deployed.

    This is like the old libertarian House of Repeals scenario. We need to actively evaluate ongoing engagements and when they fail the cost/benefit analysis, it's time to leave.

    It's very much like any other investment. Investments make sense given the risks, and they either work or don't and after a certain period of time, if being invested there is no longer in our interests, the solution isn't to stay invested until our investment defies gravity. Sometimes, the best thing to do is sell short.

    So, anyway, those five points are what libertarian realism looks like to me. That's what I've been arguing for, here, since the beginning of this site. And I expect that if we have any chance of seeing a foreign policy like that anytime soon, it will be because Rand Paul was elected to be POTUS.

    1. Why not just add unicorns to that list?

      1. This was the actual foreign policy of the United States for a very long time.

        We never followed it religiously.

        Also, sometimes people miscalculated what was or wasn't in the bests interests of the U.S.

        The beauty of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrines is that you can make some mistakes like that and not have much in the way of serious consequences...

        Maybe we shouldn't have gone to Somalia in the first place--but at least we left! Thank God we didn't get dragged into a War in Lebanon in 1982!

        I don't know how much of a threat Grenada or Panama were, but making sure we had an exit strategy and used it saved us from suffering much if those were mistakes.

        So, anyway, point is that what I outlined above is more or less the guidelines we used (sans Congressional approval) before the Bush the Lesser Administration. It isn't impractical. It isn't imaginary. It's a big part of how and why we won the Cold War.

    2. You don't think GWB would have argued that the War in Iraq satisfied all five of your conditions?

      1. Think of it this way: the reason we didn't depose Saddam Hussein in 1991 was because of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine. All those reasons were still valid in 2003. The reason we invaded in 2003 is because we tore the Powell/Weingberger doctrine up and flushed it down the toilet.

        And I know that Scowcroft and others who supported the Powell/Weinberger doctrines actively opposed Iraq in 2003.

        They did so on the a few observations--among them, it not being in the best interests of the U.S. and there not being an exit strategy.

        You may remember Scowcroft warning us that removing Saddam Hussein would remove a check on Iranian power in the region.

        Also, you may remember Powell warning us about the Pottery Barn rule in terms of an exit strategy.

        The Bush Jr. Administration made an explicit point of the fact that there didn't need to be an exit strategy because once we implemented American style Democracy, there didn't need to be an exit strategy.

        It should also be noted that the U.N.'s most useful purpose is/was as an exit strategy for Americans. If we couldn't have avoided the damn thing, oh, if only we could have handed Iraq off to an international peace keeping force! Bush Jr. burned that UN bridge behind him on purpose--like Cortez scuttled his ships when he landed in the New World.

        No way home but forward? The Weinberger/Powell Doctrines were all about avoiding quagmires (like in Vietnam). And if we had stuck with it, no, we wouldn't have invaded Iraq.

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  17. How Should Libertarians Apply Anti-Interventionism In the Real World?

    They shouldn't because it is impossible. Non-interventionism is not compatible with reality.

  18. I agree with much of what's been said here. Will Ruger makes the mistake of separating the USMC from the Navy. They are interlinked, the marine corps should definitely have a larger role. Especially given the fact that they are dollar for dollar the most efficient and most feared of the services. I agree with his assessment of looking at the reality of the world, not what we wish it should be. . It's a little disingenuous then for him to carefully craft what if's scenarios (French and the Mississippi). Reality isn't that easy. The aspect of deterrence is not mentioned/ or not given it's rightful weight. Deterrence is the biggest thing our military does. It's an abstract argument, but vital to understanding military matters. I believe one would do well to listen to Richard Epstein and Victor Davis Hansen, when considering this important subject. I would put a strong efficient military at the top of a nations priorities. I agree with reducing the army. Do it in lieu of better funding to the 4 other branches. The special interests and military contractors do need reigned in... thank you Reason and Cato for keeping this important issue alive... back to work

  19. A libertarian should be opposed to open borders. Certain nations have a bad or barbaric populace who manifests more public service's and high crime rates. Especially immigration from majority Muslim nations. How about we have an immigration policy based on level of education and the laws of the individual the people are coming from. Otherwise, liberty in the United States is threatened.

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