Libertarians And The War

Randy Barnett has an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal explains why there is no correct libertarian position on the Iraq War:

First and foremost, libertarians believe in robust rights of private property, freedom of contract, and restitution to victims of crime. They hold that these rights define true “liberty” and provide the boundaries within which individuals may pursue happiness by making their own free choices while living in close proximity to each other. Within these boundaries, individuals can actualize their potential while minimizing their interference with the pursuit of happiness by others.

When it comes to foreign policy, libertarians’ severe skepticism of government planning in the domestic arena carries over to the government’s ability to accomplish anything positive through foreign aid, whether economic or military–a skepticism they share with most Americans. All libertarians, I suspect, oppose military conscription on principle, considering it involuntary servitude. To a libertarian, any effort at “nation building” seems to be just another form of central planning which, however well-motivated, is fraught with unintended consequences and the danger of blowback. And, like most everyone, libertarians oppose any war of aggression. In all these regards, Mr. Paul is a mainstream libertarian.

But like all libertarians, even Mr. Paul believes in the fundamental, individual right of self-defense, which is why libertarians like him overwhelmingly support the right to keep and bear arms. And most also believe that when the territory of the U.S. is attacked militarily, the government–which claims a monopoly on providing for national defense and extracts billions of tax dollars for this purpose–is justified in using the military in self-defense. For this reason, many libertarians (though not all) who now oppose the war in Iraq supported U.S. military actions against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had aided and harbored the al Qaeda network that organized the 9/11 attack.

But here is the rub. While all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory, libertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.

So where does Iraq fit into this ? Barnett comes up with two alternative libertarian positions:

Many libertarians, and perhaps most libertarian intellectuals, opposed the war in Iraq even before its inception. They believed Saddam’s regime neither directly threatened the U.S. nor harbored or supported the terrorist network responsible for Sept. 11. They also feared the risk of harmful, unintended consequences. Some may also have believed that since the U.S. was not attacked by the government of Iraq, any such war was aggressive rather than defensive in nature.

Other libertarians, however, supported the war in Iraq because they viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government. They viewed radical Islamic fundamentalism as resulting in part from the corrupt dictatorial regimes that inhabit the Middle East, which have effectively repressed indigenous democratic reformers. Although opposed to nation building generally, these libertarians believed that a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East, as was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, might well be the best way to take the fight to the enemy rather than solely trying to ward off the next attack.

The problem with the pro-war position as Barnett advances it, though, is that there was no evidence before March 2003, and even less today, that Saddam’s regime was in anyway involved in the broader pan-Islamist movement that calls itself al Qaeda. The opinions of some Americans notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Saddam was involved in September 11th. In fact, if involvement in acts of terrorism is the criteria, then Iran would present a more justifiable target than Iraq, whether it be in 2003 or 2007.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a libertarian argument that can be made for war, just that the war in Iraq is a very bad candidate for advancing that position.

  • cfountain72

    I understand there may be some differences between the party line and rank and file Libertarians. But straight from the website:
    “While American public opinion has radically changed about our continued occupation in Iraq, the President wants to send a “surge” of troops to Iraq, while adding nearly 100,000 new members of our armed forces to the ranks. The Democrats don’t seem poised to do anything which will substantially change our presence in Iraq. It is time for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible in a manner consistent with the safety of our troops.”

  • UCrawford

    I don’t think it can be effectively argued that invading Iraq meets any libertarian goals or is compatible with libertarianism. The case for Saddam’s Iraq being part of some “pan-Islamist” movement involving al-Qaeda is sketchy at best and contradicted by most of the evidence we do have, so the self-defense argument is compromised. However, most of the people I’ve heard advancing that idea also tended to believe that the lack of evidence of a Saddam/al-Qaeda link just meant that Saddam was good at hiding it. Same with the WMD argument…the common refrain I’ve tended to hear is that any chance that Saddam was pursuing WMD, no matter how infinitesimal or unsubstantiated was sufficient justification to go in and the complete lack of WMD found does nothing (in their minds) to weaken that justification. Solid evidence (or the utter lack of it) doesn’t factor into the equation because the people who were for invading Iraq on the grounds of “self-defense” generally advocated that position out of irrational panic and ignorance based on what the President told them. So any libertarian arguments supporting the invasion are likely to be fatally flawed.

    If people were looking for a libertarian case for pre-emptive war, I think a better example would have been Afghanistan pre-9/11 (since bin Laden was there and had already attacked us twice), or Pakistan now (since al-Qaeda is operating in their territory relatively unmolested). But Iraq is pretty much a non-starter to have a discussion about libertarianism and pre-emptive war.

  • A Rocket Scientist,

    His premise about pro-War libertarians is blatantly false. There were zero Islamic fundamentalist of any consequence in Iraq before the War. There would still be zero Islamic fundamentalist in Iraq today if we had not invaded Iraq. And, there would be zero Islamic fundamentalist in Iraq in the future, as long as Saddam had been in power.

    There are now more “new” Islamic fundamentalist in Iraq and several other “new” terrorist groups in Iraq (ref. President’s State of The Union address where he announce there creation), which is a direct consequence of our invasion. Maybe I don’t understand the big picture, and why it is a good thing to create more Islamic fundamentalist.

    Pre-emptive War, is not self-defense. Just think about how much more like War is in a world where everyone believes in preemption. Neither side waiting to see if it comes to blows, so they both start swinging and claiming self-defense. And both are right, in a preemptive world.

  • UCrawford

    Pre-emptive war could be considered self-defense if an attack from an enemy was actually imminent…not potentially imminent (like with the USSR during the Cold War) or theoretically imminent (like 5-10 years down the road as with Iran or Iraq). But for a pre-emptive strike to qualify as self-defense, the evidence of an imminent attack would have to be solid not just beyond a reasonable doubt but beyond any rational doubt. Clearly Bush’s attack on Iraq did not fit that criteria…either in hindsight or at the time…but that’s not to say that it’s impossible for a pre-emptive attack to be an issue of self-defense. The instances where it would qualify as such, however, are likely to be very, very rare.

  • Thane Eichenauer

    I just wonder if there is a list of these “pro-Iraq war Libertarians” (it pains me even to type that phrase). I seem to remember that Eric S. Raymond apparently was one of them – but he hasn’t posted online in quite a while.

  • UCrawford

    I’d be willing to bet that it’s a very small list. I mean, even if there was a convincing libertarian-friendly argument for going in originally, I just can’t imagine any rational libertarian arguing now that it was a great idea.

  • Radical Times

    Al-Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan and our military is stuck in a civil war in Iraq. Unlike Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. 45% of the foreign fighters in Iraq are said to have come from Saudi Arabia.