Some Libertarian readers of my June 17 and 18 articles on Iraq, ‘Peace Requires a Permanent Commitment‘ and ‘Our Intolerable Success in Iraq,’ have interpreted them as apologia for George W. Bush’s initial invasion and have taken the occasion to excoriate them on that basis. I stand accused of defending a permanent commitment, not to peace, but to war. I hear of the many Iraqis now nostalgic for at least the stable and predictable times under Saddam Hussein. I am told that our over-extended global adventures must ultimately lead to the collapse of our global empire, as they did with (now not-so) Great Britain. I am asked to consider how people from around the world, in particular South America and the Middle East, feel about our interventions in their countries. They tell me that to be pro-free-market, and to be logically consistent, requires being non-interventionist if not isolationist. And finally, the whole notion of fearing ‘the terrorists’ (their quotation marks) is ridiculed as so much irrationality, comparable to the communist ‘red scares’ of yesteryear that turned out, according to them, to be groundless.
While I do defend the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as arguably the best that could have been made under the circumstances– with virtually the entire world, including prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton as well as the UN, France, China, and Russia in unanimous agreement on the facts about Saddam Hussein, his crimes, and his intentions–that wasn’t the primary point of my articles. My point was that given the stable status quo of 2008-2011, the decision to withdraw in 2011 and pretend that Barack Obama had masterfully achieved the peace and triumphed over Bush was a short-sighted and politically-motivated blunder of colossal magnitude, if not a crime.
That said, having unleashed the Libertarian furies, so to speak, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that we respond to at least some of their more thoughtful comments.
By “permanent commitment,” I mean keeping the peace that has been won at the cost of blood and treasure in police patrol mode. What city in the United States today decommissions its entire police force once the murder rate (temporarily) drops below some threshold? Would we try that in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Detroit, and then congratulate ourselves, proclaiming that “Our urban war in America’s cities ends this month”? If the peace is kept more effectively and justly by us than by anyone else, then we are the ones who must do it. This doesn’t mean we charge into any and every unstable country to impose our will. But it certainly means we stay where we find ourselves the only thing standing between relative justice and open kill zones, even if it wasn’t our political party who got us there. The decision to pull out of a former theatre of war is at least as serious as the decision to go in in the first place, perhaps more so if recent experience is any guide. The next Republican president will have to deal with the world as Obama left it, not as he should have or as President Romney would have.
Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul makes hay out of the acknowledged fact that “Today, the Middle East is less stable than in 2003″. But what does that really demonstrate? That Bush was wrong to lead us in, or that Obama squandered our success there? The Middle East, Iraq in particular, was more stable in 2008 than it was in 2003. After 5 years of Obama, the entire world is less secure and holds the USA in lower esteem (enemies don’t fear us and friends don’t trust us) than before 9/11. Far from indicting Bush and neo-conservatism, these facts repudiate the isolationists, anti-Americanism, and the Left–Barack Obama in particular.
After 2008, Iraq had fallen off the radar. For five years, stories about Iraq rarely made the front page of any American newspaper. The number of U.S. servicemen and women killed dropped two thirds from 904 in 2007 to 304 in 2008, fell by half again in 2009, and by more than half yet again in 2010 to just 60. No news is good news; Joe Biden was ready to take credit on behalf of Obama for this foreign policy success. ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell were partnering with the Iraqi national oil ministry in Business-as-Usual mode. As Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-born American, put it in his January 9, 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Bush of Arabia‘, “There is Shiite primacy, Kurdish autonomy in the north, and a cushion for the Sunni Arabs — in fact a role for that community slightly bigger than its demographic weight.” This is about as close to success as foreign policy ever gets on an imperfect planet Earth as opposed to a Kindergarden of Eden.
As for the Iraqis’ presumed nostalgia for Saddam Hussein’s stable and predictable regime, Iraqi citizens who were suspected of being insufficiently in love with their leader could rely on the stable predictability of their eventual torture and/or extermination. The hundreds of thousands of victims of Saddam Hussein’s genocide and their families do not miss him. If they are unhappy with us, it is because in their estimation, we botched the job.
The Libertarians go far beyond just Iraq or Vietnam to indict the USA and Great Britain for the crime and folly of colonialism. But was Britain’s ‘intervention’ in Hong Kong for 100 years an abject failure? More broadly, was the entirety of the British Empire’s world dominance a colossal mistake, if not evil? Certainly we can cite many failures and even atrocities committed by the British around the world in the past 300 years. But is that the same as saying that on net balance, the alternatives actually available then would indisputably have been better? Today, 8 of the top 12 most prosperous and free nations in the world are former British colonies and/or English-speaking nations–the heirs of the Magna Carta. Chile is one of the noted exceptions, thanks largely in part to its adoption of free-market principles that originated in the Anglo-Saxon world. More people speak English (or study it at least) in China than the entire population of the United States. Former British colonies have thrived in proportion to how well they have adopted the principles learned from their former overlords. This is not a lost experiment.
The Libertarians tell me that in foreign policy as in physics, Newton was right when he observed that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; therefore, all of our interventions are folly in defiance of the Law of Unintended Consequences. But the mechanistic view of political economy and human action as analogous to Newtonian physics is perhaps the weakest pillar of sophomoric libertarianism. Honest Libertarians should re-read Ludwig von Mises and not the inferior pretenders who claim His legacy. Human beings are not inert atoms or asteroids; they have complex cultural, religious, and moral patterns. Was Japan’s emergence as a pillar of peace in East Asia an equal and opposite reaction to Hiroshima? Was Mohammar Khadafi’s abandonment of his nuclear program an equal and opposite reaction to our invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? Was the escalation of the Palestinian attacks against Israel an equal and opposite reaction to the latter’s surrender of land, presumably in exchange for peace?
Of course there will be unintended consequences and reactions. Hitting someone might make him want to hit back. Displacing one tyrant might draw even worse elements into the vacuum. Rebelling against a tyrant could bring repression. Declaring Independence from Great Britain might lead to a long and bloody Revolutionary War. Buying an SUV might enrage an environmentalist who then makes it his life’s mission to take away your private property rights and freedom. But this does not mean that we can hide behind our oceans. We are engaged in the world and have to make the best choices that we can and take action with imperfect knowledge, building into the plan the ability to respond to the unexpected. In 2003, that imperfect knowledge included the concurrence of such right-wing warmongers as John Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, John Edwards, Robert Byrd, the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission, Bill Clinton’s CIA director George Tenet, Keneth Pollack (Persian Gulf expert on the National Security Council for Bill Clinton)… and the list goes on. It meant coping with the undeniable fact that Saddam Hussein stood in open defiance of at least 16 United Nations Security Council resolutions. He could have come clean and avoided the invasion, but chose not to.
The free market requires defense. It doesn’t just spring up spontaneously and peacefully. Private property, freedom, and enforcement of private contracts, rule of law etc. all require a benevolent force to restrain the bandits, the thieves, the murderers, and those who deem others unworthy of life due to ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics. It requires someone to prevent and punish murder, assault, robbery, theft, fraud, rape, persecution and conspiracy. It requires protection of the rights of minorities, women, and homosexuals. If no one can do that better in Iraq or anywhere else than we can, AND the bandits threaten us and the wider world besides, then sooner or later we will have to justify not getting involved.
One reader put the word ‘terrorists’ in quotes, apparently to imply that they don’t really exist, that they are just figments of us paranoiacs’ imaginations. We should not fear terrorists because Americans die of heart attacks and traffic accidents? We should not declare war on Japan because on the day of December 7, 1941, more Americans died of natural causes than of the attack on Pearl Harbor (and besides, we had no business being there in the first place)?
We should not fear the terrorists because, like the communists before them, they are weak and ineffectual, not really a threat at all? Has it escaped the Libertarians’ notice that the anti-liberty, anti-capitalist, and anti-libertarian agenda of the communists is being realized in America today at an accelerating rate, that America has never been less free or less Capitalist in its entire history than it is now? From the local (Los Angeles) city council banning plastic bags and ordering businesses to charge their customers money for a product (paper bags) that they would rather give away for free, to the President issuing executive orders contradicting the letter of his own signature legislation, to job-killing Global Warming taxes, to out-of-control regulatory agencies, to the politicization of the IRS — the encroachments on liberty and prosperity should terrify any sane and informed citizen. Are we supposed to blame all that on Bush’s foreign policy? While we are asking people how they feel, let us ask the former refugees from communist Poland, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and the People’s Republic of China how they feel about creeping communism in America today.
The terrorist threat today is as great as it was on September 10, 2001; and it increases with our weakness abroad and with the infiltration of Sharia law into our American government, education system, and society. Osama bin Laden and his band of merry men were no doubt disappointed that their attack failed to kill 30,000 Americans, as it well could have, instead of a ‘mere’ 3,000. Did they attack us because of our foreign policy? No. There is nothing we could do or not do, short of SUBMISSION (the literal translation of the word ‘Islam’) to the Caliphate, with Dhimmi (second-class non-muslim legal) status at best. They hate us precisely because of who we are, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bible, Liberty, and Capitalism. Libertarians, homosexuals, and single mothers will be the first to be stoned under the Sharia that is creeping into the West.
But, let us concede for the sake of argument that we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place. That still doesn’t justify the decision to withdraw in 2011. In light of the circumstances of 2008-2011, the pullout borders on qualifying as a high crime: a betrayal of the U.S. servicemen and women who had paid the ultimate price to secure the gains; against Iraqi leaders (official and unofficial) who tempered their own extremist constituencies and tendencies to compromise and cooperate for a greater good; and against the ordinary Iraqis who welcomed us, trusted us, and assisted us in securing the nation against Baathists and terrorists.
Obama may simply have been naive, believing in his own press clippings and the validity of his Nobel Peace prize. Some of his allies certainly had to know better. But they supported the withdrawal anyway because nothing could be worse to them than permitting it to be thought for an instant that Bush might have succeeded after all. The Leftist narrative of America’s — and especially G.W. Bush’s — failure trumped all other considerations, including the lives of our soldiers. The American project in Iraq had to fail, even if by political force from within America.
It pains me to quarrel with Libertarians because we are indispensable allies in the struggle for limited government, liberty, low taxes and reduced regulation domestically. If Republicans (or Libertarians) propose to cut income tax rates, privatize Social Security, or repeal and replace Obamacare, will Libertarians (or Republicans) undermine the other because we disagree about foreign policy?
I hope not. Our freedom, prosperity, and, yes, military strength depend on getting it right at home. Let’s achieve the libertarian dream of limited government so that ordinary Americans can exercise appropriate oversight of our military and foreign policy. Maybe we can agree on that.
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