An Open Letter to Libertarians Who Support the War on Terror

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.

Libertarian 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 coercion.

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 non-combatants.

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.

Consequently, 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 injuries.

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.

Libertarians 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.

Libertarian 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.

June 20, 2006