All Tangled Up

2003-03-30

The main justification I've heard for the current war is that we need to liberate the people living in Iraq. That is, the justification is altruism. I do not accept altruism as a viable basis for American policy. As I noted the other day, Iraq and North Korea are objectively the least free nations on the planet. It's sad that people are stuck living in those benighted nations. And any free nation has the moral right to liberate those people. But that doesn't mean it is good policy for the U.S. armed forces to do so. George Washington warned long ago of the dangers of "entangling alliances". Today the government headquartered in the city named after the first American president is about as entangled as a government can get. The U.S. government has alliances with the nations of Europe, with South Korea, with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt, with Israel, with Colombia, with the Phillipines -- and the list goes on. On a normal day, the U.S. government has over 200,000 troops stationed overseas in 144 countries and territories (report). As is well known, these days are not normal days, which means the government has deployed an additional 200,000 to 300,000 troops in Iraq. Half a million Americans overseas fighting wars and defending other countries!

Is this in the national interest (we'll define that term some other time)? I argue that it is not. My pro-war friends say that Saddam Hussein is evil and that the people of Iraq are oppressed. I do not disagree. But I do disagree with the necessity for deposing the Iraqi regime (which, by the way, the United States government effectively created in an earlier round of interventionism by supporting Hussein and his Baath Socialist Party). Certainly that regime commits atrocities, and Iraq ranks at the bottom of the list of unfree nations. Does that mean United States troops should be sent next to liberate similarly oppressed peoples? Shall the American government proceed up the list from most oppressed to least oppressed? People in Libya and Cuba are nearly as oppressed as those in Iraq and North Korea, shall they be liberated next? Turkmenistan, Laos, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Burma (I refuse to call it Myanmar), Belarus, and Zimbabwe round out the "dirty dozen" of most oppressive governments. Shall the American military liberate them all? If not, why not? The principle of altruism says it ought. The reality of American military power says it can. The combination would result in perpetual war.

Ah, but you may think we can avoid that path. We can be selective about intervention. A little war here (Grenada, Somalia), a big war there (Yugoslavia, Iraq, perhaps Korea again), the judicious use of force elsewhere (Colombia, Bosnia), targeted intervention everywhere -- we know what we're doing, we can control the behemoth, we can bottle up Leviathan. I'm surprised at my ostensibly libertarian friends who argue that this is possible. Folks who on the home front maintain a steely vigilance against government intervention that violates economic freedom, freedom of speech, property rights, and the right to self-defense, suddenly wax rhapsodic about the potential good of government intervention in the affairs of other nations. Big government is bad domestically, they say -- but it's good internationally because, through the magical alchemy of military force, we're transforming unfree nations into free nations.

Fat chance. Do you really think that the United States government can successfully build a free country in an artificial nation like Iraq, which was carved out of various tribal areas by Great Britain, which consists of warring factions (Shias and Sunnis and Kurds and Turkmens) whose hatred of each other is surpassed only by their hatred of America, which utterly lacks any tradition of the rule of law, and which possesses prospects for stable freedom that can only be described as close to nonexistent? Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent and will be spent to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein and then to rebuild Iraq. The substance of the American people is being eaten up by a voracious central government that has arrogated to itself the power to be not only the world's policeman, but the world's largest charity organization, as well. Is this a legitimate function of a government that is supposed to adhere to the U.S. Constitution? No, no, a thousand times no!

My objection to this war, and to the stationing of American troops in 144 countries, and to U.S. government intervention in Colombia, Korea, and dozens of other places, is not the clueless pacifism of the modern Left. It is that this war and the constant state of intervention by the U.S. government overseas is authoritarian, illegitimate, unconstitutional, expensive (and don't forget that the monies are extracted forcibly by taxation of productive Americans), entangling in the extreme (America's "allies" include repressive nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan!), contrary to the interests of American citizens, destructive of what little goodwill remains towards America, unbecoming of a free nation, and dangerously threatening to American liberties at home (the truth of Randolph Bourne's observation that "war is the health of the state" has reached its apex with Patriot Act II).

Economic interventionism in the name of altruism (called variously communism, socialism, fascism, etc.) failed utterly in the 20th century, even when it was ostensibly pursued to save freedom (the New Deal, Great Society, etc.). Military interventionism in the name of altruism is just as misguided, whether it be called imperialism, fraternal assistance, or nation-building. One small intervention leads to the need for greater intervention in the future, both in economics and in foreign policy. Prop up the Baath Socialist Party in the seventies and eighties, make war to depose it in the nineties and "noughts". Appease the North Korean dictatorship with aid and comfort, return later to remove its nuclear capabilities. Force the Colombian government to make war on its own people, and come back to rebuild the country we've destabilized. Curry favor with the Pakistanis now, and wait for the chickens to come home to roost.

Interventionists turn the old saying in ethics ("ought implies can") on its head ("can implies ought"). Yes, America is the most productive society that has ever existed, which means its government has the economic and military wherewithal to be the world's policeman and the world's largest charity organization. But simply because it can, does not imply that it ought. Interventionism is a recipe for perpetual war abroad and for authoritarianism at home. The right policy and the best policy for a free country was enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address over two hundred years ago:

Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations -- entangling alliances with none.

If this be isolationism, make the most of it!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal