An Open Letter to Libertarians Who Support the War on Terror

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Like many libertarians,
I go through alternating periods of isolation from and engagement
with my fellow believers. After several years of being out of circulation,
I started attending libertarian events again in 2002. Having cut
my libertarian teeth on opposition to Jimmy Carter's reinstatement
of draft registration, I've always thought of non-interventionist
foreign policy as a staple of libertarian thought. Now, having awoken
like Rip Van Winkle from an extended slumber, I was startled to
find pervasive support for George W. Bush's War on Terror among
self-identified libertarians.

A number of
libertarians who've adopted this view are both well-informed about
the issue and well-versed in our political philosophy. While I strongly
oppose their position, I think the ideal of liberty is better served
by friendly debate rather than ostracism of one side by the other.
After all, given the very small number of libertarians in this country,
a split would only serve to further reduce our already limited impact
on public discourse. Hence I offer this contribution to the libertarian
debate over the War on Terror.

Many arguments
about the war get bogged down by debates over facts: "Did Iraq
have WMD? Did other Western governments think that Iraq had WMD?
Are former regime elements still hiding WMD in Syria or somewhere
else? Was there a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda?"
Anyone can find "facts" to support his position by surfing
the web for a few minutes. Since most of us don't really understand
how intelligence services operate and what goes on in the minds
of young Arabs, any "facts" introduced into this debate
must be treated with skepticism. Consequently, I suggest we start
from principles, and then wade into the facts, and that we emphasize
those facts about which proponents and opponents generally agree.

ideology rests on a single pillar: the non-aggression axiom. Reasoning
in a wholly consistent manner from this one principle, we derive
an economic system that fosters widespread prosperity and a legal
system that comports with man's nature as a rational being. To me,
the beauty of libertarianism is that it's consistent, utilitarian
and moral — all at once.

Since libertarianism
cannot be forcibly imposed, it can only be realized through consensus.
In contemporary America, this consensus is not forthcoming, so our
ideology cannot be implemented for the time being. Despite this
fact, many libertarians –including me — would like to have an impact
on the current political debate. In doing so, we're likely to advocate
policies that involve some degree of coercion on the basis that
they promote liberty, i.e. that they reduce the overall level of

For example,
school vouchers involve forcible wealth transfers from taxpayers
to parents. That said, I agree with the many libertarians who advocate
vouchers on the basis that forcible wealth transfers already occur
in support of public education and that undermining the State monopoly
school system promotes liberty.

While joining
the public policy dialog is attractive, moving away from a strict
application of the non-aggression axiom can create a slippery slope.
If a libertarian slides down this slope too far, he or she risks
endorsing policies that reduce liberty overall.

To contain
this risk, libertarians should always benchmark their policy positions
against the non-aggression axiom and treat claims that coercive
policies will somehow increase liberty with skepticism. Libertarians
considering advocacy of coercive policies should apply the standard
used in criminal courts for trying the accused: if there is a reasonable
doubt a coercive act will further the cause of liberty, it should
not be supported. If a policy can't meet this standard, it should
not be associated with libertarian advocacy.

So what does
this mean for the War on Terror? First of all, we need to recognize
that virtually all wars are inconsistent with the non-aggression
axiom, since they almost invariably entail the use of force against

I often hear
that there is a separate moral code in wartime, but if the non-aggression
principle is indeed an axiom, it applies at all times.
Furthermore, who is to objectively define what a war is? Perhaps
the thief who broke into my house last year legitimately thought
that my possessions were merely collateral damage in his personal
"War on Poverty." Or maybe the next time I see you lighting
up a joint, I should kill you, because, after all, the government
has declared a "War on Drugs"!

If a libertarian
wishes to support a war, he should recognize that he is endorsing
an act of coercion. As indicated above, and unlike many of my friends
in the Anti-War Party, I believe there are circumstances under which
a libertarian can support an act of coercion — but only if there
is a preponderance of evidence that this coercive act will lead
to less coercion overall.

In Afghanistan,
for example, I can see a libertarian case for supporting the 2001
invasion. Since the Afghan government was harboring those who had
taken responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, there was an argument
for using Special Forces to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders who
were undoubtedly planning additional attacks against Western targets.

In the end,
the actual U.S. invasion of Afghanistan violated the non-aggression
axiom to a large extent, as it involved civilian casualties unrelated
to raids on al Qaeda targets and a costly, taxpayer-financed occupation
of Afghan territory with no end in sight.

But if support
for the Afghan invasion was a stumble at the summit of liberty,
advocacy of the Iraq War would appear to be a slalom down into the
valley of coercion. After the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi
regime neither attacked U.S. civilian targets nor did it attack
any American military targets that weren't already flying over its
internationally-recognized borders.

supporters of the Iraq invasion endorsed a war of pre-emption. Even
worse, allegations that the Iraqi regime represented a credible
threat to the United States either through possession of WMD or
cooperation with al Qaeda could not have been proven beyond a reasonable
doubt (since, as most would now admit, the Hussein regime neither
had WMD nor cooperated with al Qaeda).

Thus, the precedent
established by this attack is that the U.S. government may invade
any country that it thinks might be a threat. In other words, the
U.S. can invade any country, since it'll always be possible to find
someone to make allegations — substantiated or not — that the targeted
country might be a threat.

Some libertarians
who supported the Iraq War in 2003 argued that it would save more
innocent lives than it would cost. As suggested above, such claims
need to be treated with skepticism. By advocating that the U.S.
attack any given country, one endorses a policy that will certainly
kill innocent people without being sure of how many lives would
be lost under the alternative scenario in which force wasn't applied.

Also, we need
to consider the loss of life that may occur as a result of unintended
consequences triggered by an invasion. While libertarians are uniformly
quick to point out the unintended consequences of economic policies,
many of us fail to highlight the same effects of military and diplomatic
policies. The ongoing existence of Saddam Hussein as a bad actor
in the 21st century may well have been the unintended
consequence of U.S. support for him during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.

I've heard
the claim that Saddam would have killed more innocent people had
he remained in power than the U.S. killed by deposing him. But,
as argued above, the proper comparison would include deaths from
insurgent attacks that wouldn't have occurred if the Ba'athist regime
remained in place.

In late 2005,
George W. Bush estimated that 30,000 Iraqi citizens had died as
a result of the war — which had been underway for about 2-3/4 years
at the time. Even this "low ball" estimate would imply
an annual death toll of just over 10,000 — excluding American troops.
On the other hand, a New York Times article published at the outset
of the war (when the Times still supported administration policy)
quoted an estimate of 200,000 deaths in the Iraqi gulag. Since these
killings occurred over a period of 24 years, the annual death rate
was just under 10,000. The conclusion of this rough math is that
the invasion has slightly increased the Iraqi death rate, at a cost
of 2500 American military deaths and close to 20,000 American military

Also, like
many so-called facts in the war on terror, the number of Iraqis
killed, either by Saddam or by a combination of U.S. forces and
insurgents, are just estimates. The actual numbers will probably
never be known with any certainty. In the absence of such certainty,
there should be a very strong presumption against the use of coercion.

Many war advocates
point out that the death toll would have been lower had the U.S.
government pursued more effective strategies. For example, perhaps
the U.S. should have deployed a larger invasion force, provided
better security in the immediate aftermath of the regime's collapse
or left the old Iraqi military in place. Libertarians — who should
uniquely understand the incompetence inherent in State action —
should never fall back on such arguments. By taking such a position,
one can no longer make an efficiency case against any other government
program, including regulation and welfare. If the government could
only redistribute wealth and run the economy efficiently,
maybe it should continue doing so?

A large death
toll in Iraq might be justified on the basis that the war deterred
catastrophic terrorist attacks on the U.S. and other Western countries.
While this is unknowable, there is reasonable doubt — and, as I
have argued, reasonable doubt is sufficient reason for libertarians
to oppose coercive policies. Among the reasons for doubt are the
government's inability to find WMD in Iraq, continued (and I would
argue heightened) recruiting by terrorist groups, and the terrorist
attacks in London and Madrid since the invasion.

who support the war in Iraq and other aspects of the War on Terror
often acquiescence to numerous government impositions that we would
typically oppose as a matter of reflex. Since 9/11, we've witnessed
runaway increases in government spending, much of which has taken
the form of obvious waste (such as homeland security funds for Wyoming).
This uncontrolled spending can be expected to lead to substantial
tax increases — something every libertarian worth his or her salt
would oppose.

Many libertarian
advocates of the War on Terror have also supported encroachments
on civil liberties, procedural rights and international law. While
procedural rights do not derive from the non-aggression axiom, one
would normally expect libertarians to applaud the checks on State
power that these "rights" provide. The same is true of
international legal frameworks such as the Geneva Conventions. Libertarians
who supported the Bush Administration's creation of enemy combatant
status and its justifications for torture should take pause from
the fact that several Guantanamo Bay internees were cleared of all
charges after the Supreme Court intervened. The idea that one branch
of government can hold an individual indefinitely without charge
and under inhumane conditions should worry anyone who claims to
support liberty.

supporters of the War on Terror justify these encroachments on individual
liberties as a necessary byproduct of our unprecedented struggle
against "Islamo-Fascism." This term is used to describe
an irrational hatred of Western values among Muslims that leads
to suicide attacks. Since "Islamo-Fascism" is spread through
mosques and finds its roots in Koranic teachings, virtually all
of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are susceptible to it. And, since
we're theoretically at war with more than one billion suicide bombers,
extraordinary State action is required to protect life and liberty.

Heated characterizations
of this sort should be treated with suspicion, especially when invoked
by their advocates as a rationale for increased State power. Fear-based
stereotypes of other groups, such as Japanese-Americans during World
War II, later proved to be exaggerated when cooler heads prevailed
— but not until after the regrettable mass internment of this group.

Like almost
all libertarians, I can't claim to be an expert on Arab or Muslim
thought. But I find a number of reasons to think that the threat
of "Islamo-Fascism" is greatly exaggerated. First, much
of the violence in the Muslim world is sectarian in nature. Thus,
the suggestion that Shi'a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia represent
some sort of unified threat to the West lacks credibility. Also,
like many libertarians, I've met Muslims that don't attend mosques
regularly and who are quite willing to condemn acts of violence
like those committed on September 11th.

Indeed, it
seems quite plausible to me that al Qaeda launched the September
11th attacks in order to trigger U.S. intervention in
the Islamic world in hopes of using this intervention as a recruiting
device. This would comport well with the suggestion made by some
analysts that al Qaeda and other jihadists are primarily interested
in establishing more traditional Islamic states in the Muslim world.
Since this goal is contrary to the desires of the ruling elites
in many Muslim states — including Syria, Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt
— it would appear that al Qaeda has a lot of work to do before it's
ready to take on the challenge of destroying America. In fact, it
seems that the ongoing existence of America and other Western nations,
serves jihadist interests because it gives them something to demonize.

Further, I'm
not persuaded by the argument that the "Islamo-Fascist"
threat arises from hatred of Western values rather than from anger
at U.S. policies. It's worth noting that al Qaeda formed after
U.S. troops set foot on Saudi soil in preparation for the Gulf War.
Before that, elements of what became al Qaeda actually were allied
with the U.S. in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's rhetoric typically focuses on U.S. foreign policy, so
either he is personally animated by it or at least he believes that
highlighting U.S. interventions is an effective recruiting tool.
If "Islamo-Fascists" are attacking us simply because they
hate what we are, why would bin Laden make these points rather than
simply focus his messages entirely on the infidelity and profligacy
of the West?

The conclusion
must be that U.S. military disengagement from the Islamic world
has at least the possibility of reducing terrorism. Since a policy
of non-intervention would likely be accompanied by less threat of
war, lower military spending and fewer encroachments on civil liberties,
it is the only consistent, coherent libertarian policy response
to the current situation.

The events
of 9/11 alarmed virtually all Americans — libertarians included.
It's hard to blame anyone for looking to the U.S. government for
protection under such circumstances. After all, advocates of limited
government generally agree that collective security is the State's
most legitimate role. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has used
the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to greatly enlarge its power, and,
in so doing, has destroyed economic and civil liberties, not to
mention life and limb.

While it may
have been defensible for libertarians to find common cause with
the U.S. government immediately after 9/11, the time has long passed
for all libertarians to part company with the perpetual "War
on Terror." To apologize, defend or explain away $500 million
in extra military spending, tens of thousands of civilian deaths
and U.S. military casualties, an unprovoked war of aggression, torture,
indefinite confinement without charge and warrantless spying on
our telecommunications is simply not libertarian.

20, 2006

a student in the early 1980′s, Marc Joffe [send
him mail
] ran New York University’s Libertarian Student Association
and served on the board of the national Students for a Libertarian
Society. In the mid-1990′s, he briefly published a newsletter entitled
“New Country Report,” which advocated the formation of libertarian
enclaves outside the U.S. Marc has a BA and an MBA from New York
University and currently works as a Vice President at Moody’s Investors
Service in Walnut Creek, CA.

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