Was the US Attack on Afghanistan Libertarian?

A Libertarian War in Afghanistan?


I recently wrote an essay claiming the Randy Barnett was wrong in claiming that libertarians could support our side of the war in Iraq. Most of the response I had to that op ed piece was positive, although there was a small amount of very vicious reaction from several pro-war self-styled "libertarians." However, I also received several very polite letters agreeing with me on Iraq, while sharply disagreeing with me on Afghanistan.

Here is what I had to say about that country in this article:

"Any support of U.S. military action u2018against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan’ thus cannot be justified on libertarian grounds…. Mr. Barnett’s ire at u2018Afghanistan, which had aided and harbored the al Qaeda network that organized the 9/11 attack’ is surely misdirected."

Let me now quote from two of my critics on this matter, both of whom shall remain anonymous.

My first critic says this:

"I tend to agree with you on most everything you write and that’s pretty much true of this latest.  However, there is an area that I do disagree with — the attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda following 9/11.  While I do agree that the events of 9/11 may well be attributed to our foreign policy I cannot stand for the “specific” targeting of non-military/non-political.  And let’s remember, al Qaeda declared “war” on the US.

"It would appear by your reasoning on the Afghan issue is that if faction A pokes and jabs at faction B and B finally declares war on A that A must stand aside and not defend itself.  We can rightfully hold A responsible for the creation of a state of war but that does not require A to lie down and die.  Our call for the turning over of those that planned and orchestrated the events of 9/11 I feel to be well within libertarian principles."

My second critic wrote as follows:

"I read with interest your response to Randy and find it very compelling. I follow you on the whole, but have some questions respecting the paragraph on Afghanistan.

"You say, because of our interventions into the region of the near east, u2018Any support of U.S. military action "against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan" thus cannot be justified on libertarian grounds.’ At what point is a government justified in responding despite blow back?

"As I recall the events after 9/11, the perpetrators were identified (or identified themselves), and the u2018host country,’ in addition to aiding them, refused to turn them over. Wouldn’t this qualify as an act of war? I accept that our involvement in Iraq and Saudi Arabia by the first Bush galvanized the Al Qaeda network, but does this mean that Americans should not expect their government to respond to 9/11? If I am shot by a Cherokee while walking down a street in Oklahoma, am I not entitled to restitution and protection through the law… I think your conclusion regarding Afghanistan might be a bit hasty. If the Afghan government of the time chose to harbor and assist a near eastern aggressor within their midst, regardless of what motivated Bin Laden, aren’t the Taliban then complicit in the aggression? I’d be interested to know more about your thinking on this however."

My short answer to these critics is that there is no country that is now justified in invading any other country because of the World Trade Center attack of 9/11, but if there were, it would be the Afghans who would be more justified in committing further terrorist acts in the US than we would be in killing further innocents in that nation in this terroristic manner.

In my view complete justice would require that the US (well, those individuals responsible) pay reparations for initiating these murderous hostilities. We killed far more innocent people abroad than the 3,000 guiltless Americans who perished in New York City on 9/11, a day that will long live in infamy.

The problem we face in making sense of these horrible events is bias. We are all naturally biased in favor of "our" side: Americans in favor of their fellow citizens, and foreigners on their own side. In an attempt to obviate this, let us no longer speak of groups such as the United States, Al-Qaeda, Afghanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, etc. Instead, let us attempt to look at this matter through less jaundiced eyes, in a more dispassionate manner.

Accordingly, let us speak not in terms of the above categories, but instead, for simplicity’s sake, of A and B. Let us posit that A begins our little drama by murdering 5 of B’s children. Now, the just thing would be for B to capture A, and to subject him to the full penalties provided by law for such an outrage. However, B does something very different, and totally unjustified. He murders one of A’s children. Why so few? Let us stipulate that A is much more powerful than B, and that the murder of only one of A’s innocent children was the "best" he could do.

Assume, that even though A is more powerful than B, both are so well entrenched that justice will not easily be meted out to either of these murderous scoundrels. So now what? What insights does libertarian theory afford us in this context? Several conclusions may be drawn, I think.

One, neither party should be encouraged to invade the territory of the other. To do so, given that both are strong enough not to be brought to the bar of justice, would only mean the senseless killing of still others, neighbors of A or B, whichever is the victim of subsequent hostilities. However, if we take a God’s eye point of view, and entertain the contrary to fact conditional that one but only one of these nefarious characters can indeed be punished for the murder of the others’ child(ren), then it is clear that A must be brought to justice. There are two reasons for this. The minor one: A killed far more innocent children than did B. Major reason: A was the first to engage in murder; in the street vernacular, he "started up." B is no saint. He, too, spilled innocent blood. But he retaliated, he did not begin. There is surely a lower rung in hell reserved for those who begin such dastardly chain reactions than those who "merely" follow suit. I thus respectfully disagree with Murray Rothbard, who says:

"If Smith and a group of his henchmen aggress against Jones and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones has no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of his “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance his pursuit, to conscript others into his posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of his struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones should do any of these things, he becomes a criminal as fully as Smith, and he too becomes subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality."

As I see matters, although both his "Smith" and my "A," on the one hand, and also his Jones, and my "B" on the other, are all vicious depraved despoilers of children in my view, the former pair are more guilty than the latter pair.

Rothbard’s failure, as I see it, is not sufficiently distinguishing between he who first engages in an entirely unwarranted action, and he who only then follows suit. Both are evil. But there is still a difference between them. Jones is not as fully a criminal as is Smith. They are both, of course, guilty of first-degree murder. But, surely, a careful analysis can see at least a "dime’s worth" of difference between them.

Who is A and who is B? As would be obvious to any disinterested, impartial, judicial observer, we, the U.S. must take on the role of A, and various Muslim nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can only fairly and properly be cast as the B of our little morality play. Long before 9/11 took place, our own country was busy killing innocents abroad in those parts of the world. Thus, if the U.S. is justified in going into Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden, and other perpetrators and aiders and abetters of the crimes of 9/11 in New York City, then they are even more righteous in doing precisely the same thing to us.

If anyone doubts that America started up and the "terrorists" (note scare quote marks here) were guilty of the slightly lesser charge of retaliation, consider the following:

"In 1996 then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, in reference to years of U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq, u2018We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’

"To which Ambassador Albright responded, u2018I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.’"

Note, very carefully, the date of this statement. It was 1996, fully five years before the (unjustified) retaliation of the World Trade Center in 2001.

Should the U.S. defend against any further, retaliatory terrorist (note the absence of scare quotes here) incursions? Of course. But then, by that token, the Afghanis are entitled to defend their territory against our future and indeed future and even present invasions of them.

Let me now bring in a third critic, who wrote me while I was putting together the material that appears above (I showed him part of it in our correspondence). He says (material in square brackets [] and ellipses … are mine):

"Let me first tell you that I am a longtime fan of [yours]. I’m not a hostile critic.  Indeed, I frequently tell my conservative friends to read [your publications].

"However, I couldn’t disagree with you more about your thoughts [on this issue].  First, there can be no moral or theoretical justifications for terrorism (defined roughly as the intentional targeting of innocent civilians for political ends) consistent with libertarian principles.  Therefore, your statement u2018Afghans … would be more justified in committing further terrorist acts in the US than we would be in killing further innocents in that nation’ is problematic.  One cannot be more justified in doing something wrong than someone else you assume is doing wrong could be[,] except in some kind of strange scholastic sense.  In other words, simply because you have suffered a greater harm than another doesn’t give you a stronger claim to do something wrong itself. 

"Moreover, the U.S. has not been intentionally targeting innocent civilians in Afghanistan and thus your use of the word “further” is also problematic.  Unless that is that you think that no military activity whatsoever that unintentionally harms innocents is acceptable — which is problematic on other grounds.  I think the doctrine of double effect handles the problems of killing innocents during war.  Second, the Afghanistan part of the current war seems entirely proper in libertarian thought… But let me remind you also that… pacifism is not consistent with a natural rights perspective since it assumes the right to exclude (and use force to do so if necessary) — and your position borders on pacifism."

I would like to reply to each of these three paragraphs in turn. As to the first, I have received a lot of hate mail in response to my essay on Randy Barnett. It is thus a pleasure to receive criticism from someone who can do so in a civil manner. I regard this first paragraph as supererogatory in this regard. It is nice, but unnecessary, since the remainder of the missive is completely courteous. This author is clearly a gentleman.

As to the second paragraph, with all respect, I disagree. Consider "intentional targeting of innocent civilians for political ends." But both sides, both A and B, were guilty of this outrage. Albright’s blatant statement admitted no less than this. Further, no country that drops bombs from 30,000 feet (does anyone remember "shock and awe?") anywhere near civilian areas can excuse their action on the basis that it was not targeting innocents. Both sides acted in a manner befitting terrorists. Moreover, this writer seems to be taking the "moral equivalence" position of Murray Rothbard. I insist that my "strange scholastic sense" is a reasonable one. Not only has B, the Muslim world suffered "greater harm" in terms of sheer numbers of innocent people slaughtered, but we, A, as I can never tire of saying, began the conflagration. I cannot for the life of me see why this obvious fact should be ignored in any analysis purporting to be libertarian.

Now consider the third paragraph:

I agree that pacifism is not at all entailed by libertarianism. I certainly favor smiting the guilty. That alone deflects the charge of pacifism.

Nor do I oppose all wars, even though I full well recognize that there (virtually) never was a war in which innocents were not killed. Indeed, I am on record in my response to Randy Barnett as saying "… the point must be made that it is one thing if, entirely out of the blue, an enemy attacks the U.S. Then, yes, the libertarian would have no objection to a strong defense, compatible with just war theory, and, indeed, retaliation. Our revolutionary war is one case in point." I now add to this: in my view, the South was on the just side of the War Between the States. The South merely wanted to secede from the North; the latter was having none of this, and compelled the former to stay in the union, in violation of the libertarian principle of free association.

As for killing innocents in the more general case, I have an article forthcoming in the premier libertarian scholarly periodical, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, entitled "The human body shield," where I offer justifications, on libertarian grounds, for killing innocent people used in this manner.

Let me end on a humorous note, which handily illustrates a point I want to make. Here’s an old joke: "Do you know the difference between a living room and a bathroom? No? Well, then don’t come to my house."

In like manner I ask, "Do you know the difference between offense and defense? Between starting a murderous rampage, and retaliating against one, by committing another? Well, then, don’t get involved too heavily in political economy.

If, entirely unprovoked, the Mexican or Canadian armies started to sweep into our country, I certainly would favor the U.S. military rolling them back, warding them off, killing them, and pursuing them to the death back to the evil lairs from which they sprang, so that they could never again launch such an attack. Our armed forces should not, in my opinion, have to wait for such an eventuality. We could act in this very aggressive manner as soon as there was a real threat, and a reasonable chance of this entirely unwarranted invasion taking place. But, we should not preemptively bomb them, on the ground that, who knows, these nations might one day want to invade us.

This reminds me of another joke. A husband and his wife are out on a rowboat. The man is fishing, and the woman is reading a book. He then swims to shore, leaving her alone. Absorbed in her reading, she doesn’t notice that the boat has drifted into a non-fishing zone. The sheriff comes along, and is about to arrest her for fishing in a non-fishing zone (the fishing rods, nets, etc., are still in the boat). She protests: "But I am not fishing; as you can clearly see, I am reading a book." He responds, "But you have all the equipment necessary to fish, so I have to arrest you." Her rejoinder: "If you arrest me for fishing, I’ll accuse you of rape." Incredulously he says, "But I have done no such thing." Her response: "But you have all the equipment." Precisely. The Canadians and Mexicans have "all the equipment" necessary to war against us. But they have done no such thing. Ditto for Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.