Know Nothing Fools for War


Professor Randy Barnett is trying to give his libertarian colleagues a fair shake in supporting the Iraq war in his latest Wall Street Journal article "Libertarians and the War." In what seems like an evenhanded piece, Barnett’s article is really just a veiled attack on non-interventionism, peace-oriented foreign policy, and the truth. Prof. Barnett treats the war in Iraq as if it is still an open-ended question. He goes through the different reasons and iterations of libertarian support for and against the Iraq war, where he concludes that the pro-war libertarians are holding out hope that the Surge will bring positive fruit. "These libertarians are still rooting for success in Iraq because it would make Americans more safe, while defeat would greatly undermine the fight against those who declared war on the U.S."

What!? Wake up from your hyper-empirical slumber people!

I hate to break it to Barnett’s friends, but the war in Iraq was a failure before we put one boot on the ground and the data has proven this assertion to be the correct one. Many non-interventionist libertarians, paleoconservatives, and highly regarded military men have been predicting such a debacle well before the U.S. invasion. We predicted the invasion would explode Federal spending, increase Federal power, and further undermine our personal safety. We predicted that an Iraq occupation would be a recruiting and breeding ground for Al Qeada. We predicted that the U.S. military would be bogged down in guerilla conflict amid the chaos of sectarian strife. Well the evidence is in, and we were right and the interventionists were wrong. How did we know? We analyzed history, applied economics, and held fast to libertarian political principles like the non-aggression axiom.

While liberventionists claim that failure really had to do with execution, they failed to see that there was no possible way to execute the war properly and achieve the outcomes they hoped for. For instance, it does not matter how many troops the U.S. had on the ground, the fact that we were going to be an occupying force was not going to sit well with the multiple factions in Iraq. The consequent results were IED’s, scrappy light infantry tactics, and mortar attacks on the green zone, all by what Prof. Barnett calls the enemy. Of course, the trillion-dollar budget-busting question is, who is the enemy? Al Qaeda, Al Sadr, the Iraqi police force, Baathists, Fedayeen, communist anti-Iranians, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Turks, Kurds? Barnett tries to compare Bush’s foibles to Lincoln’s officer problem, implying that like Lincoln’s campaign against the South, the Iraq action may eventually succeed when we get a U.S. Grant. Well, Patraeus is no Grant, and the Iraqi insurgency is no Confederate army.

The Surge is more like a McClellan (2nd generation warfare) fighting a guerilla war in the Middle East amongst a myriad of factions (4th generation warfare). The fruit of the Surge will bring more animosity to the U.S. government by Iraqis. It will further decimate U.S. military morale. Military readiness will be further compromised. Al Qaeda will have greater opportunities for killing U.S. grunts in light infantry opportunities. In short, those seeking American security from the Surge action will have less of it. The point is that if you want greater American security against Middle Eastern terror, you have to disengage and stop giving terrorists reasons for coming over here to kill us, by not going over there to kill them. No amount of Surges or Operation Dumbo Drops will further this goal.

But wait, General Patraeus has an Ivy League pedigree and he thinks the Surge will work. Then again, General McClellan has an equivalent pedigree, and what a failure he turned out to be. Besides, neither Patraeus nor a drunk general like Grant is going to admit to himself that there is an actual military victory amidst this mess. The Surge after all is not about military victory, but about bringing political victory to save face for the Bush administration.

Naturally, as is the lot of peace seekers, we non-interventionists are consistently derided for a "know it all" attitude. Anne Applebaum calls us the "we told you so crowd" who needs "a dose of humility." Maybe to gain such humility, we could take the advice of Virginia Postrel, "Surviving the 21st century with our sanity and civilization intact will require less Nietzsche and more Hume."

Well, unfortunately Hume’s thought is failing miserably and its failure is quite evident in Barnett’s characterization of liberventionist hope for a positive outcome of U.S. intervention in Iraq. While one can effectively fight wars with Nietzsche, and what horrible wars they are, one can never effectively fight a war with Hume. War fighting involves prudence, judgment, and disciplined action amidst uncertainty. While the chaos and events surrounding a war are uncertain, the principles of proper action do remain the same. Yes, just as there is a moral basis for justifying the war, there is also a correct basis for how that war is fought. And while the adherents to Nietzschean war fighting (see Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt) could care less if their measures are unjust, they at least know what constitutes a win and how to accomplish it. However, Hume war fighting not only cannot know if the war is just, it likewise can never figure out what measures are effective in achieving the goal. As such, the most notable Hume wars include Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq. How this insanity will help us survive the 21st century is beyond me. Besides, wouldn’t Hume question whether the 21st century is even worth surviving at all?

We’ll leave the false modesty aside and stick to the ideals which gave us a correct understanding about the prospects of an Iraq invasion. It would behoove our critics, particularly those who call themselves libertarian, to check their understanding of war and find a view of it that comports with reality. The war was a loser from the get go on every level: morally, politically, militarily, and economically. At this point, failure to see this is the height of foolishness.

Since summer reading lists are all the rage these days, I think I’ll follow Ron Paul’s precedent and give an assignment to the libertarians flying blind in understanding war. We can start with the recommendation of Rothbard’s Just War, contrary to Barnett’s claim, "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." As Rothbard argues effectively from the natural law tradition, an imposed domination upon another country does not constitute an appropriate or just self-defense after an attack.

As to what constitutes an effective self-defense, consider the classic Art of War by Sun Tzu (Lao Tzu, a libertarian favorite, also has some commentary on warfare as well in the Tao Te Ching).

Must reading for understanding the different developmental phases of warfare (the generations of warfare), see the work of William Lind.

For a grunt’s eye view of the American way of war see War is a Racket by Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler and Hazardous Duty by Col. David Hackworth. These two men were arguably the greatest American warriors of the 20th century; both inevitably advocated peace.

Finally, with a view toward the men and women who will return from the insane asylum called the Iraq occupation, read Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by V.A. psychiatrist Jonathan Shay M.D. Ph.D. It was recommended to me by a Vietnam Vet of an LRRP platoon, and I am forever indebted to his recommendation. This book parallels Homer’s Achilles to the plight of the Vietnam combat veteran, showing the devastation war can inflict on a person’s character and psyche.