The Impossible War

There are some things that a state just cannot do, no matter how much power it accumulates or employs. Some proposed policies are just impossible. It was Ludwig von Mises who first framed the issue with regard to socialism. A strict socialist system robs society of everything essentially economic (money prices for capital goods, the matrix of exchange, private property) and thus whatever else socialism brings about, it cannot bring about an economy.

So too with myriad state programs, among which is the global War on Terror. To shore up the war, there has been no shortage of rhetoric. No expense is spared on arms escalation. There is no lack of will. The effort has the backing of plenty of smart people. It is backed by threats of massive bloodshed.

What is missing is the essential means to cause the war to yield beneficial results. Of all the billions of potential terrorists out there, and the infinite possibilities of how, when, and where they will strike, there is no way the state can possibly stop them, even if it had the incentive to do so.

Consider the most obvious evidence of failure, as pointed out by Congressman Ron Paul in a stellar address at the Mises Institute (October 19, 2002) [Click HERE for MP3 Audio of Dr. Paul’s address]. He drew attention to the irony that the Bush administration promised to eradicate terrorism all over the globe, and meanwhile, a thug-sniper was loose in the beltway for three weeks, claiming 14 random victims.

What is being described as a triumph of the police is actually an example of the spectacular failure of government-provided terror control. The Pentagon patrolled the skies. The police thought about nothing else. Hotlines rang constantly. After every shooting, police barricades interrupted traffic flows for miles. Profilers with a lifetime of experience were busy fitting the pieces together. But after weeks of work, and more than enough clues, authorities were no closer to catching or knowing anything about the sniper or sniper team than they were after the first victim fell.

As details emerged after the capture of John Allen Muhammad, it turns out that he was not an amazing sharp-shooting genius but a thug whose only training in shooting was provided courtesy of the US taxpayer. What’s more, he was practically begging to be caught, calling the police to brag about a past crime, the scene from which fingerprints had been taken.

In the end, he was caught only thanks to a private individual who matched the license and the description from the radio aired over the objections of the police! And until he was caught, the biggest nation-state in the history of the world, armed with 10,000 nuclear warheads and funded with nearly a half trillion dollars per year, was being humiliated and left cowering in the face of one military-trained thug and a gun.

The prevalence of violence in the US together with a global war on terror is the equivalent of the simultaneous existence of the War on Poverty, and grueling poverty in Anacostia, a few miles from the Housing and Urban Development headquarters. The more the state tried to eradicate poverty, the more it created, because the programs themselves fed (inadvertently or not) the very conditions that they were trying to alleviate.

So it is with the War on Terror. Behind terrorism is political grievance, mostly having to do with frustration at the activities and arrogance of the state and its violations of rights. This is not speculation. This is the word of the terrorists themselves, from Timothy McVeigh to Osama Bin Laden to innumerable suicide bombers. The pool of actual terrorists (like the poor in the War on Poverty) is limited and can be known, and they are the ones the state focuses on. But the pool of potential terrorists (and potential poor people) is unlimited, and unleashed by the very means the state employs in its war.

Hence, not only does the state not accomplish its stated goals, it recruits more people into the armies of the enemy, and ends up completely swamped by a problem that grows ever worse until the state throws in the towel. In the meantime, the target population is able to make a mockery of the state through sheer defiance.

As more and more were added to the ranks of the poor and the intended beneficiaries of the programs themselves began to mock the state’s benevolence, people began to speak of the failure and collapse of the Great Society. Of course the welfare state still exists, but the moral passion and ideological fervor is gone. In the same way, we will soon begin speaking of the collapse of the War on Terror.

The failure to get the sniper is only the beginning. Bin Laden is still loose, and everyone knows that there are hundreds or thousands more Bin Ladens out there. Terrorism has increased since the war began. Israel suffers daily, and in constantly changing ways, ways even the notorious intelligence units cannot anticipate or prevent.

The theorist who first saw the collapse of the ideology of the nation-state, Martin van Creveld, was asked about this in an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was refreshingly blunt:

“If I were Arafat and the Palestinians, I would not put an end to this intafada, because the way I see it, from the first day of the first intafada they have been winning…. Nothing will work…. There is one thing that can be done — and that is to put an end to the situation whereby we are the strong fighting the weak… You do that by A, waiting for a suitable opportunity… B, doing whatever it takes to restore the balance of power between us and the Palestinians… C, removing 90% of the causes of the conflict, by pulling out….”

But can’t the state just kill more, employ ever more violence, perhaps even terrify the enemy into passivity? It cannot work. Even prisons experience rioting. Another bracing comment from van Creveld: “The Americans in Vietnam tried it. They killed between two-and-a-half and three million Vietnamese. I don’t see that it helped them much.”

Without admitting defeat, the Americans finally pulled out of Vietnam, which today has a thriving stock market. To a notable extent, the war on poverty has ended its most aggressive phases and poverty is declining. What does this experience tell us about the War on Terror? The right approach to this program, as to all government programs, is to end it immediately.

But wouldn’t that mean surrender? It would mean that the state surrenders its role but not that everyone else does. Had the airlines been in charge of their own security, 9-11 would not have happened. Whatever political motives the sniper has would not exist. Bin Laden would have a hard time gaining recruits. Muslim fundamentalism would be dealt a serious blow, for no longer would US policy seem specifically designed to feed the madness of its lunatic fringe.

In all the talk of war on Iraq, I’ve yet to hear anyone claim that taking out Saddam or bringing about a regime change will make the world a more peaceful, happier place. No one really believes that. The last war on Iraq gave rise to al-Qaeda due to sanctions and Christian troops in Saudi Arabia, led to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, and emboldened an entire generation of Muslims to devote their lives to fighting America. The next one will do the same.

The War on Terror is impossible, not in the sense that it cannot cause immense amounts of bloodshed and destruction and loss of liberty, but in the sense that it cannot finally achieve what it is suppose to achieve, and will only end in creating more of the same conditions that led to its declaration in the first place.

In other words, it is a typical government program, costly and unworkable, like socialism, like the War on Poverty, like every other attempt by the government to shape reality according to its own designs.

The next time Bush gets up to make his promises of the amazing things he will achieve through force of arms, how the world will be bent and shaped by his administration, think of Stalin speaking at the 15th Party Congress, promising “further to promote the development of our country’s national economy in all branches of production.”

Everyone applauded, and tens of thousands of landowners and factory managers were shot pursuant to that goal, but in the end, even if he did not know it, it was impossible to achieve.

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