Raimondo Versus the Objectivists
by Ari Armstrong, October 13, 2003
Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com doesn't like the Objectivist position on foreign policy. I, on the other hand, am increasingly persuaded the Objectivist position is (mostly) correct, and I plan to review it at length in the near future. For now, though, I will limit the discussion to responding to Raimondo's October 12 essay, "The Objectivist Death Cult." In brief, Raimondo is, as his web page suggests, against war, while the Objectivists favor strong military action to defeat verifiable threats.
What first leap out from Raimondo's essay are nasty ad hominem attacks. In Raimondo's 2,200-plus word essay, I count around 30 gratuitous ad hominems, including "death cult," "clearly crazed," "pure evil," "thuggish," "maniacal bloodthirstiness," "sounds eerily like Elmer Fudd," "living in a fantasy world," "pure psychopathology," "daffy," and "warmongering demagogues, blinded by narcissism and hubris." Now, I'm no prude, and I appreciate an occasional bout of name-calling as a humorous aside or as an evaluative conclusion to a long train of evidence. Unfortunately, Raimondo uses ad hominems as a substitute for arguments against the Objectivist position.
Having heard both the talks Raimondo addresses -- one by Leonard Peikoff (which I heard via the internet) and the other by Yaron Brook (which I heard live in Boulder) -- I can attest that Raimondo's description of the Objectivist position is almost entirely wrong. Raimondo easily topples the position he attacks, but that position is a straw man.
Raimondo wishes us to believe that Peikoff "faithfully echoes" the views of the neoconservatives. That would be convenient, given the flaws of neoconservative ideas, except for the minor detail that the Objectivists vigorously denounce the neoconservatives. Brook does so explicitly in his "Morality of War" talk (at least in the version I heard). (Peikoff is voting for Kerry.) The Objectivists believe the neoconservatives pick the wrong wars for the wrong reasons and fight them by the wrong tactics. Both movements are superficially similarly in that both are in some sense "pro-war," but the ways in which they are pro-war are so radically different that further comparison is impossible.
Raimondo calls the Objectivist method "daffy," yet he totally distorts the substance of that method. Raimondo claims Objectivists ignore the data, refuse to read newspapers, and exclude empirical facts from their analysis. In Raimondo's words, Objectivists "derive the answers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the how to defeat Al Qaeda, or what position to take on the Iraq war, from knowing that 'A is A'." Yet all Objectivists explicitly and strongly oppose the sort of methodology Raimondo attributes to them. True, Objectivists advocate thinking in principles, but not in an empty rationalistic way. Rather, Objectivists explicitly endorse building principles inductively from one's knowledge of reality.
Raimondo urges us to look at empirics, but he totally ignores the enormous work Objectivists have put into evaluating the realities of the Middle East. Peter Schwartz (who, with Peikoff and Brook, also works at the Ayn Rand Institute) conducts in his new book precisely the sort of empirical investigation Raimondo claims he's looking for. John Lewis has pursued extensive research about terrorist attacks. Robert Tracinski offers daily analysis of key news stories. So Raimondo's description of Objectivists is completely false.
Raimondo chooses not to take on the Objectivist view on fundamentals -- indeed, he doesn't even discuss the fundamental tenets of the Objectivist view. Instead, Raimondo takes a couple details from the Objectivist position, drops the context of those details, distorts their substance, and then proceeds with his ad hominem attacks.
The grain of truth in Raimondo's review is that both Peikoff and Brook would allow military action that results in civilian deaths and the limited use of torture of enemy soldiers. Raimondo distorts this view and claims Objectivists "think it's okay to torture and kill six-year-olds." In fact, Raimondo's description is false, Objectivists oppose torturing children, and Raimondo seems to be intentionally misrepresenting the Objectivist position in order to demonize it.
As Brook made clear, any gratuitous use of violence is totally out. That is, any military action must have clear strategic benefits. A captured soldier, in Brook's view, can be tortured only if that's necessary to obtain important information to save American lives. As he noted, generally the proper strategy is to treat captured soldiers well in order to encourage enemy soldiers to surrender. The inclusion of such details would apparently obscure the horns Raimondo is trying to paint on the Objectivists. Anyway, one can reject Brook's position on torture and still accept the general Objectivist view. (My default position is to oppose any use of torture, but the matter requires further evaluation.)
The matter of civilian casualties must be broken into two parts. First is the matter of incidentally killing civilians while targeting enemy soldiers or military targets. Second is the matter of killing civilians intentionally for the purpose of breaking the will of the enemy. Peikoff and Brook support military action in both cases, again only for the purpose of saving American lives.
Some positions expressed by Peikoff and Brook are disturbing to many modern Americans -- even though, as Peikoff points out, the military strategy of bombing civilian centers was seen by most as obviously correct during World War II. Simply the fact that some find a position disturbing does not make the position wrong. Peikoff and Brook are both obviously motivated by a desire to win swift victory in any given conflict, in as short a time as possible, with as few American deaths as possible, only for the purpose of thwarting a verifiable threat to Americans, and with the goal of deterring future acts of aggression. Arguably, the Objectivist strategy in the long run saves more civilian lives than the neoconservative strategy does, precisely because the Objectivists refuse to drag things out and advocate force only for defensive purposes. Also arguably, the Objectivist strategy would best protect American lives, whereas Raimondo's strategy would endanger Americans by ignoring real threats.
Raimondo's complaint about the alleged Objectivist penchant for rationalism is ironic, given Raimondo's familiarity with Austrian economics. While I've not read Raimondo's biography of Murray Rothbard, I assume Raimondo is familiar with the Austrian critique of the concrete-bound historical school. Random empirical facts outside of an integrating theory are worthless, at best. The historicist critics of Austrianism make the same sort of complaints that Raimondo makes against Objectivism. The proper answer in both cases is that principles do not run counter to empirical investigation, but rather are necessary for any meaningful empirical work. Thus, I conclude that Raimondo's complaint about Objectivism is ad hoc, and his faux empiricism isn't serious.
Also strange is a complaint about rationalism coming from somebody who helps run a web page called "antiwar.com." Isn't the antiwar position an a priori opposition to American military force in most cases? Is there any amount of empirical evidence that would persuade Raimondo the U.S. should use military force outside the continental U.S.? I'm tempted to suggest Raimondo is projecting his own methodology onto his Objectivist opponents. Peikoff describes another concept that Raimondo might find interesting: misintegration. As Schwartz rightly points out in his essay against libertarianism, the view expressed by Raimondo that the U.S. government can do no right stems from anti-state reactionism. Thus, the point is not that the Objectivists have principles while Raimondo doesn't, but rather that Raimondo's principles are wrong.
The shallow empirical research that Raimondo invokes consists of a few of the claims made by Islamist terrorists and a few quotations from Westerners who believe those claims. Raimondo states his reductionist theory: "They are over here, because we are over there." Now, I do not completely doubt Raimondo's case that terrorism is the result of faulty U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the Objectivists share Raimondo's concern that the U.S. government has assisted terrorists and tyrannical regimes at many times in the past. An Objectivist foreign policy would in many respects reflect the sort of non-interventionism that Raimondo is looking for. Until we verify a threat against American lives. Then the Objectivists want to take decisive military action, while Raimondo wishes to pretend it's all our fault and all we have to do to protect ourselves is -- absolutely nothing.
Does Raimondo doubt the empirical fact that a large number of militant Islamists hate Americans because of our secular culture? Perhaps Raimondo could try writing Satanic Verses II and see what kind of reaction he gets from the Muslim world. Perhaps Raimondo could reveal how many Islamists think he's okay with Allah. As the 9/11 Commission summarizes, the goal of Usama Bin Ladin (the Commission's spelling) is "to destroy America and bring the world to Islam."
To the extent the terrorists are angry because of improper American policies -- even though I think such complaints are mostly pretexts for violence -- what does that mean? If a threat exists now, we have to deal with the threat now. Total retreat would simply communicate to the terrorists that they're winning, so they might as well step up their activities.
Have the terrorists promised to stop their violence, if only we meet some clear set of demands? No. Bin Ladin is not remotely rational. Raimondo would have us trust violent, murderous religious zealots to abide by some sort of ambiguous agreement -- a contract that exists mostly in the minds of blame-America-firsters. Militant Islamists, like the Nazis, scapegoat select groups to deflect attention away from their own faults. Such irrational hatred cannot be appeased.
I suspect some of Raimondo's defenders will here want to insert an argument about moral equivalence. If it's wrong for militant Islamists to kill innocent Americans, why is it okay for the U.S. government to kill innocents in the Middle East, either incidentally or intentionally? The main difference is that 9/11 was a clear act of aggression, whereas the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are defensive wars. (I've always been skeptical of the need to go to war in Iraq, and even Brook said "Iraq was the wrong war.") The purpose of the Objectivist foreign policy is to eliminate verifiable threats to American lives, and the sole (potential) justification for killing civilians is to accomplish that goal. Whereas some Islamists want to convert Americans by force to Islam, Objectivists don't care what people in the Middle East think -- so long as they don't threaten us.
Granted, the Objectivists get into some thorny problems. There does seem to be an element of "collective responsibility" in the Objectivist theory, as Raimondo puts it. Yet there is some basis in reality for assigning collective responsibility in some cases. For example, in law those who harbor and assist criminals are also criminally liable. Nazis who themselves did not murder Jews, but who espoused racist doctrines and turned a blind eye to atrocities, were morally culpable. Yet it's not clear to me how this notion plays out in the context of foreign policy and military action. I'll try to explore this later.
But Raimondo is not interested in a sophisticated debate that seeks to refute the Objectivist arguments by logic or evidence. Instead, Raimondo wants to smear any idea that doesn't fit with his prior attachment to the antiwar position. Raimondo may call me crazy, but I don't trust his army of insults to defend my life against terrorists.