Paradoxes of the War Debate

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Paradoxes of the War Debate

by Ari Armstrong, April 10, 2003

How comforting must be the simplistic world views of the Hollywood leftists and the pop-radio rightists. The war in Iraq is black and white. Either the war is evil, because its perpetrators are evil and only after the narrow economic interests of "stupid white men," or the war is good because the valiant George W. Bush is protecting us from foreign terrorists and defending American values from their detractors, foreign and domestic.

But I am a libertarian, and the debates about the war are not so easy to navigate. Almost all my Objectivist friends have sided with the religious conservatives at National Review in calling for decisive military action. Not surprisingly, many fans of Murray Rothbard (who split acrimoniously with Ayn Rand) at the Ludwig von Mises Institute disfavor the war. LvMI leader Lew Rockwell has joined "paleoconservative" Pat Buchanan in countering the "neoconservative" expansionist agenda. But how seriously should a libertarian take this conservative in-fighting?

One of my friends in the local Libertarian Party quit over foreign policy and joined the Republicans. At the state LP convention April 4-6, I sat uncomfortably as participants applauded criticism of the war. The April LP News features two stories: "Libertarians speak out against Iraqi War" and "Another viewpoint: Why the U.S. must go to war with Iraq." Angry letters in the publication speak for and against the war.

David Kopel, whom I consider the greatest libertarian scholar in Colorado even though he works at the Republican-leaning Independence Institute and writes for National Review Online, is a big supporter of this war and subsequent wars. While some of Kopel's associates at National Review have called on the conservative movement to purge those who oppose war, Justin Raimondo and Thomas Knapp have asked libertarians to purge the neocon sympathizers.

I've always been skeptical of the necessity of the war, but I've acknowledged reasonable arguments exist on both sides of the debate -- which means I get critical letters from both sides. The major problem, from a libertarian perspective, is that libertarians simultaneously believe the proper role of government is to protect the lives and rights of citizens, and that government power should be strictly limited and prevented from engaging in "foreign entanglements" not directly related to the nation's security.

The debate, then, boils down to alternative judgments of empirical facts. Is (or was) Saddam Hussein actually a threat to United States citizens? If so, was war necessary to stop the threat? Will war have a lot of nasty side-effects that will offset any benefit? But instead of focusing on the empirical debate, I find most participants instead lambasting the motives of their opponents.

This, then, is the first paradox of the war debate. If both sides are so convinced they're right, why do both sides obfuscate the real debate by maligning the opposition?

I will pick on Justin Raimondo, even though his April 9 column offers only a recent example of a widespread problem. Even though Raimondo rightly complained previously about the neocon slander of paleocons, he too has engaged in ad hominem attacks. Part of the subtitle of his recent article reads, "pro-war immigrants want an American Empire." While he's right to express concern about the tendency toward empire, what does the fact that some neocons are immigrants have to do with it? I hope he isn't attempting to harness the right-wing aversion to immigrants to promote his point, but I fear he is doing precisely that.

Raimondo writes, "[A]dding to the suspicion that the whole idea [of imperialism] is inherently un-American -- the most vocal are immigrants: Krauthammer, Ignatieff, and Mark 'imperialism is the answer' Steyn, all hail from Canada. Historian Paul Johnson, who poses colonialism as the solution to the terrorist challenge, is British: D'Souza, who pines for the days of 'jodhpurs and pith helmets,' was born in India."

I am concerned as any libertarian should be about the increasing ease with which the neocons call for American imperialism. But the neocon case is correct or incorrect regardless of where its advocates were born. Similarly, factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation are absolutely irrelevant to the debate. If Raimondo has a sound case against imperialism, let him state it -- without poisoning the well against the opposition. Raimondo's fear mongering is hardly an improvement over Rod Dreher's libelous charge that critiques of war are rooted in anti-Semitism. (Both sides need to remember a position is not disproved simply because somebody attempts to buttress it with a bad argument.)

Perhaps the libertarian debate over war is so tightly tied to the conservative debate between paleocons and neocons because libertarians don't have much of a foreign policy to offer. It may be more accurate to say the libertarian foreign policy depends on such radically different institutions that today it is basically irrelevant.

Libertarians (including Objectivists) want to replace coercive taxes with voluntary contributions. Once that happens, libertarians can have no principled opposition to military interventionism (though they still may argue against such measures on pragmatic grounds). There is a direct analogy between using force to defend a neighbor against a criminal and using force to defend oppressed people in other regions. If the guy next door is beating the hell out of his wife or child, the libertarian may even have a moral responsibility to intervene, so long as intervention is practical. Similarly, I'm thrilled the Iraqis have been liberated from the rule of a brutal thug. The question is, is it the job of the U.S. government, which does fund military intervention with coercive taxation, to defend the oppressed people of other lands? If so, where does that task end?

This brings us to the second paradox in the war debate. Is this a war to root out terrorists, or is it a war to promote "Iraqi Freedom?"

A recent article by David Kopel brings out this tension. The piece is subtitled, "Some thoughts on the liberation of Baghdad." The first three-fourths of the article explains why the war was so great -- for the Iraqis. He's right about that, but is that really a good reason to permit American casualties and spend scores of billions of American dollars?

In the last part of the article, Kopel invokes an entirely different argument:

The liberation of Iraq is a tremendous victory in World War IV. There's still a long way to go until final success. There are still terror-masters and their enablers in Pyongyang, Tehran, Tripoli, Riyadh, Jenin, and Damascus who will inflict on America a blow a thousand times worse than September 11, unless we stop them first. We've made a great beginning-perhaps equivalent to pushing the Germans out of Africa and the Italians out of the war in 1943. Let's finish the job.

At least Kopel is explicit about his foreign policy goals. (AEI also pushes an expansive military campaign.) But are his concerns really warranted? The picture about possible "weapons of mass destruction" and terrorist training camps in Iraq remains murky. Whatever is found there, though, we still have to ask whether Hussein posed a credible threat to the U.S., and a threat that could have been prevented only through war. Regardless, Kopel's article reflects a general shift: before the war, the focus was on 9/11 and terrorism. Now that the war has seen some success, the focus is on the liberation of the Iraqi people. Is this, as has been charged, a "bait and switch?" Or is it simply invoking two compatible reasons for war?

Conservative-libertarian syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock wrote in an article filed April 7, "Confirming that Operation Iraqi Freedom is an integral part of the War on Terror, soldiers of the 7th Marine Regiment destroyed a suspected terrorist camp early Sunday en route to Baghdad." Then on April 10 he added, "Iraqis and American Marines... made a once-fearsome statue of Saddam Hussein tumble head-first onto Baghdad's Paradise Square. Equally demolished is the credibility of those who disparaged this triumphant mission for human freedom." But which is it: a war on terrorism or a war to liberate the Iraqis?

The obvious answer is "both." Or perhaps that answer is simplistic.

In Critical Review Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1998), editor Jeffrey Friedman writes an article titled, "The Libertarian Straddle." He argues many libertarians support their views with two tenuous lines of argument, moralistic ones and consequentialist ones. This bifurcated approach allows libertarians to dodge pointed criticism. When their moral arguments come under attack, they resort to consequentialist claims, and vice versa. In Friedman's words, "[C]onscientious libertarians... find themselves unable to stop straddling because neither consequentialist research nor nonconsequentialist philosophizing succeeds in credibly delivering the libertarian conclusions they desire" (364). Is this same phenomenon taking place in the pro-war camp?

Conservatives are reluctant to argue the U.S. should go to war to liberate other peoples. After all, the majority of people on earth are oppressed, and liberating them is not a job the U.S. could handle. Conservatives are reluctant to increase taxes and government spending, something war necessitates. As gratifying as it is to see the Iraqis rejoicing the fall of a dictator, is that a justification for the war? But, when pressed on the matter, conservatives resort to the argument that war is necessary to fight terror.

Similarly, when neocons are pressed on the relative weakness of the claims of an Iraqi threat, they point to the glories of liberating the oppressed, of waging a "mission for human freedom." Dreher explicitly invokes the depravity of Hussein to beat up his opponents. Neocons eagerly report the latest findings in hopes significant WMD will turn up. And they may turn up. But is it really a good idea to start a war because we think such things *may* exist and *might* conceivably be used against us? Is there a "war straddle?"

I have already argued motives are irrelevant when attempting to demonstrate war is justified or not justified. However, looking at motives does help us understand how the current debate came about. For instance, it's pretty clear many on the left are motivated by a distaste for "Western" values like technology and global free markets. They are also motivated by a hatred of Bush and the Republican Party. Kopel has a point when he writes, "Too many naive Americans swallowed the propaganda invented by communist-run front groups which weren't really anti-war -- just anti-American and anti-freedom."

In other words, the problem with the leftist critique of war is that it's reactionary. But aren't many on the right simply reacting to the left in favoring war? If the left opposes the war because it is supported by bad right-wingers, don't rightists support the war because it is opposed by the Marx-influenced left?

War, then, has become a proxy issue. The evidence for one's position is that one's opponents disagree. (Of course, Kopel ignores the non-leftist critiques of war.)

I am not arguing that such motivations are universal. But I do think they're something each participant in the debate should watch for. Here's a good test: if you cannot acknowledge that at least some people on the other side of the debate make a reasonable case, you may need to reexamine your motivations.

The foreign policy decisions we make in the next months will deeply impact our nation and the world for decades to come. We are all damned fools if we allow such weighty decisions to be made on the basis of character attacks and emotionalized arguments.

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