War Isn't Justified

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War Isn't Justified

by Joe Johnson, February 5, 2003 (posted)

[Joe Johnson replies to Ari Armstrong's article about Bush's State of the Union address. Then Armstrong replies to Johnson.]

You writes, "If American troops invade Iraq, it should be to protect American citizens from physical harm."

Being Libertarian, as well as knowing you as I believe that I do, I'm assuming that you mean Americans in America. However, you were not clear. One of the justifications made for war is to protect Americans (and American interests) outside of America. This is never acceptable theory in my mind. After all, America's authority ends at her boarders. A businessman pursuing business in a foreign land does so at his own risk (and thus should be free to keep ALL of the rewards from such adventures). Again, I assume we agree on this, but you were not clear on this issue.

Next, you write, "If going to war with Iraq would likely prevent American citizens from being murdered, then war is probably justified, regardless of the motives of some who support the war."

Sorry, but this is akin to "we need to outlaw guns because it is reasonable to say that today someone will be killed with one. I disagree with the old sports adage "a strong offense is the best defense" when it is used to justify war. China is clearly a greater threat to America than Iraq. She has the means and the military where-with-all to do great harm to the US. If it's 'human rights' we all saw that man run over by the tank in Tienanman Square. Are we discussing going to war with China? No. Now ask why.

A preemptive war is never a libertarian idea. This of course does not mean that I am a pacifist, or that I think a military build up in an attempt to persuade our potential enemy that the costs are too high to attack us is wrong. Quite the opposite. Clearly, being the toughest guy on the block will keep you from getting your ass kicked, but that does not justify going around and giving a beating to every person who has ever dreamed of punching you.

Lastly, you write, "I agree, though, that libertarians have yet to work out a complete foreign policy. If it's right to help your neighbor in distress, if it's right to save a stranger down the street from violence, isn't it also morally acceptable to save somebody further away?"

The answer to that is simply 'NO' as you stated earlier in your arguments against forced welfare, it's - as you said 'elitist' - to force someone else to fund your good idea, in this case defending a neighbor country. Remember, wars are funded by the citizens. Making your neighbor pay to help out another country whose citizens might be repressed is wrong from the libertarian perspective. So, I disagree with your view that the LP does not have a clear policy here. If I am not mistaken, the policy is Jefferson's "friends of all nations, entangling alliances with none." You of course are free to disagree with this policy, but it is a policy nonetheless - as I understand it.


Armstrong Replies

I generally agree that the U.S. government ought not be in the business of using the military to protect Americans overseas. I'm not ready to call for an outright ban on such actions, though. For instance, a rescue mission might be warranted in some circumstances. I suppose there's also the possibility of American businesses overseas contracting with the U.S. military for protection.

I don't buy Johnson's analogy to outlawing guns. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are fundamentally different than guns, in that the former can only be used to kill innocent people, whereas the latter may be used discriminately to target criminals. In addition, it is totally acceptable to disarm a person who is handling a gun in a way that poses an immediate danger to others. A better analogy would be to describe Saddam as a drunk walking down the city streets firing off his pistol randomly.

I do not believe China currently poses a threat to the United States. Yes, China has much more potent weapons than Iraq has, but I am aware of no evidence that China is attempting to transfer these weapons to those who would use them in the U.S. No, China does not have a good human rights record, but I don't see that as relevant to the discussion about war.

Colin Powell has now claimed that Saddam has direct connections with al Qaeda. I do not know if Powell's claims are correct. I am not attempting to justify war with Iraq. I am merely stating some of the conditions that would have to be met to justify such a war. I also described a lot of reasons to fear a war with Iraq. I think it makes as little sense to claim the U.S. under no circumstances should ever go to war with Iraq as to claim the U.S. definitely must now go to war.

Johnson writes, "A preemptive war is never a libertarian idea." I don't think that's true. Go back to the example of the drunk walking down the street firing off his pistol. Is it acceptable to disarm the drunk even before he kills somebody? I think the answer to that question is obviously yes. Is that a "preemptive" action? Yes. As I argued in my original article, the important distinction to make is whether the threat is "imminent."

Here's another example. Let's say the U.S. government obtained reliable information that an evil dictator was about to smuggle a nuclear bomb into New York City and detonate it. Could the U.S. government properly intervene before the fact? Again, I think the answer is obviously yes. Not only does the government have the moral authority to intervene, it has the moral responsibility to do so.

Let's take another domestic example. Let's suppose the local sheriff got wind of a bank robbery about to go down. Must the sheriff wait until the robbery has been carried out, or may he act "preemptively" to stop the robbery? I think that, with the appropriate evidence and a warrant, the sheriff can arrest the suspects before they carry out their crime. Further, I think the suspects may be tried and convicted on strong enough evidence that they intended to rob the bank.

I originally wrote, "libertarians have yet to work out a complete foreign policy. If it's right to help your neighbor in distress, if it's right to save a stranger down the street from violence, isn't it also morally acceptable to save somebody further away?"

Johnson replies, "The answer to that is simply 'NO' as you stated earlier in your arguments against forced welfare... So, I disagree with your view that the LP does not have a clear policy here."

It is improper to conflate libertarian political philosophy with the LP. The LP is only one part of the much broader libertarian movement. Hopefully the party will consistently adopt libertarian policy prescriptions, but that is by no means guaranteed. Regardless, neither libertarians nor the LP have worked out a complete theory of foreign policy.

Johnson assumes I am writing about "forced welfare," even though in the same paragraph I refer to "voluntary organizations" that might "pursue their own foreign policy goals, within prudent limits."

Nevertheless, Johnson's argument doesn't show the U.S. government should never attempt to protect the rights of people outside U.S. borders. If it's "forced welfare" to require American citizens to protect the rights of Iraqi citizens, then isn't it also "forced welfare" to require some Colorado residents to fund a police force that protects other Colorado residents? Johnson's position would seem to commit him to libertarian anarchy. That doesn't imply the view is wrong, but it's one I doubt Johnson is ready to adopt.

The best argument against foreign entanglements is simply that they tend not to work out very well. The U.S. government can't even competently handle domestic affairs; why should we believe it can handle the affairs of foreign lands? To me, these prudential types of arguments are good reason to oppose an activist foreign policy by the U.S. government.

That still leaves open the option, however, of voluntary organizations taking (some) foreign policy goals into their own hands (though such efforts would have to be tightly regulated). It also leaves open the very large theoretical matter of how foreign policy might be handled under market governance, in which the structures of defense are funded through entirely voluntary means.

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