A Few Thoughts on Foreign Policy and Libertarianism

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A Few Thoughts on Foreign Policy and Libertarianism

by Ari Armstrong, October 21, 2004,

A former writer for the Libertarian Party asked me via e-mail if I was serious when I wrote, "It's obvious that Iraq posed a threat to innocent Americans, but how great was that threat?"

The Libertarian noted no weapons of mass destruction were found, Saddam Hussein "had no ties" to the September 11 attacks, and he "posed no imminent threat to the United States."

I responded that, while I agree the threat Hussein posed did not warrant going to war, he nevertheless threatened and helped kill Americans. I pointed to Dave Kopel's discussion of Hussein and the conclusion of the Duelfer Report that Hussein sought "capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted." I also forwarded a link to HUSSEINandTERROR.com, a new web page created by Deroy Murdock.

The debate went back and forth, though the Libertarian's main argument was, "Terrorism is a self-made problem." That is, decades of interventionism in the Middle East have propped up dictators, enraged Islamists, and destabilized the region. I agreed the U.S. has often made horrible foreign-policy decisions that have indeed contributed to our current problems.

What I find peculiar is the tendency of Libertarians to downplay or even totally ignore the role of militant Islamism in creating the terrorist threat. I pointed out the goal of Usama Bin Ladin and his followers, in the words of the 9/11 Commission Report, is "to destroy America and bring the world to Islam." My Libertarian correspondent dismissed this as a biased source. Thus the standard Libertarian view blames terrorism on America and advocates complete withdrawal from the Middle East, with the possible exception of sending out small parties to capture known terrorists. (While Libertarian Michael Badnarik supports capturing terrorists, I don't know what he would do if foreign governments refused to let us send in military parties or if our military faced armed opposition.)

There seem to be two main Libertarian arguments against American use of military force to remove terrorist threats. First, we can't use military force unless a threat is "imminent." Thus, even though Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction in the past to murder innocent people, had clear ties to terrorist organizations, and likely would have renewed his WMD program in the future, he didn't pose an "imminent" threat and thus was not an appropriate target. Second, because terrorism is a "self-made problem," the appropriate response is to disengage from the Middle East, not use military force there. I believe both those Libertarian arguments are wrong.

In criminal law, we recognize that a threat may be countered before it manifests in a direct attack. Here's an analogy I sent to my Libertarian critic. Let's say somebody seriously threatens your life. (Perhaps you're going out with his ex-girlfriend.) He tells you he's going to buy a gun from his gang-lord buddy, then return and blow a hole through your head. Do you have to wait until he actually buys the gun and points it at you, or are you justified in calling the police to take preemptive action against a verifiable threat?

The point is that defensive action may properly be taken against a verifiable threat, even if that threat is not expected to become an immediate danger until some point in the future. The key point is not when the threat is expected to materialize, but how serious is the threat. We don't have to wait until bank robbers blow the safe; we can properly arrest them when we can verify they have serious intent to rob a bank and plans to do so. We need not wait to arrest a hit man until after he or she fires a bullet into the skull of a victim; we can arrest the hit man as soon as we learn of the intention to commit murder. Similarly, we do not have to wait till there's blood running through American streets before we remove a verifiable threat. (Many Libertarians oppose the further use of U.S. military force even though thousands of Americans were already slaughtered by terrorists.)

Saddam Hussein's regime was a verifiable threat. Hussein had the means and the intent to kill Americans, and in fact he has helped kill Americans. I continue to think the war was the wrong strategy because Hussein was not the most serious threat we faced and he could have been neutralized in less-costly ways. I don't believe the Bush administration went to war primarily to remove a verifiable threat, but rather to establish a "democratic" nation in the heart of the Middle East.

Is terrorism our fault? Again, I agree that U.S. policy has helped create the problem. But the major cause of terrorism is militant Islamism, and individual terrorists bear the moral responsibility for their crimes. Even if we assumed the ridiculous position that the U.S. bears the blame for the September 11 attacks, that doesn't imply the U.S. should now take no action against verifiable threats.

Here's another analogy. Let's say we live in part of the world where criminal organizations run wild. In our neighborhood, we are very concerned that Criminal X is psychotic and he threatens innocent people. Thus, we decide to meet with Criminal Y, whom we regard as relatively more sensible. We give Criminal Y guns and other supplies with the understanding that he'll take out Criminal X. We also give Criminal Y a new house and the money to fortify it. But then Criminal Y lets his new power go to his head and decides he wants to expand his influence. We created a monster. Now what? The common Libertarian response is something like, "Well, this is a self-made problem, and it is our interventionism that put Criminal Y in power in the first place. Therefore, the proper action is to withdraw into our house and take no further action." Clearly, that makes no sense. The fact that we helped create the problem does not imply we should take no new action to eliminate the problem. What we should do, if we're able, is kill or imprison Criminal Y and establish the rule of law.

But there is a more sophisticated argument that goes something like this: "Granted, the mere fact that previous mistakes helped create current problems does not by itself establish that we shouldn't aggressively use military force against terrorist threats. However, the long history of foreign-policy blunders by the U.S. proves that any sort of interventionism is likely to fail to achieve its goals and instead create new, larger problems." This is roughly the Harry Browne "government doesn't work" school of thought. But I just don't buy it.

Peter Schwartz's criticism of libertarians -- which I partly accept -- is that they tend to eschew philosophical foundations. Instead, many libertarians argue that any philosophy whatsoever is compatible with a libertarian politics. The fact that many libertarians believe core philosophy is unimportant may explain why they don't take militant Islamism seriously, as it is "just" an ideology. Anti-philosophical libertarians also tend to be anti-state reactionaries, so they tend to blame any problem whatsoever, including the problem of terrorism, on the actions of government. This also helps explain the usual Libertarian reaction to 9/11. (However, a recent article about Badnarik in the Oregonian is titled, "Candidate's war views irk some Libertarian colleagues.")

The Objectivists plausibly argue that the foreign-policy mistakes of the past are the result of appeasing and coddling dictators and terrorists. We should stop doing that, certainly, and instead use strong military might only for the purpose of removing verifiable threats against Americans. The Objectivist position has the advantage of not simply letting terrorists operate freely in other lands as we hope our retreat earns the good will of mass-murdering religious zealots.

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