Libertarians and the War
Ron Paul doesn't speak for all of us.
BY RANDY E. BARNETT
Tuesday, July 17, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
While the number of Americans who self-identify as "libertarian" remains small, a substantial proportion agree with the core stances of limited constitutional government in both the economic and social spheres--what is sometimes called "economic conservatism" and "social liberalism." But if they watched the Republican presidential debate on May 15, many Americans might resist the libertarian label, because they now identify it with strident opposition to the war in Iraq, and perhaps even to the war against Islamic jihadists.
During that debate, the riveting exchange between Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul about whether American foreign policy provoked the 9/11 attack raised the visibility of both candidates. When Mr. Paul, a libertarian, said that the 9/11 attack happened "because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years," Mr. Giuliani's retort--that this was the first time he had heard that "we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. . . . and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11"--sparked a spontaneous ovation from the audience. It was an electrifying moment that allowed one to imagine Mr. Giuliani as a forceful, articulate president.
The exchange also drew attention to Mr. Paul, who until then had been a rather marginal member of the 10-man Republican field. One striking feature of Mr. Paul's debate performance was his insistence on connecting his answer to almost every question put to him--even friendly questions about taxes, spending and personal liberty--to the war.
This raised the question: Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war? The simple answer is "no."
First and foremost, libertarians believe in robust rights of private property, freedom of contract, and restitution to victims of crime. They hold that these rights define true "liberty" and provide the boundaries within which individuals may pursue happiness by making their own free choices while living in close proximity to each other. Within these boundaries, individuals can actualize their potential while minimizing their interference with the pursuit of happiness by others.
When it comes to foreign policy, libertarians' severe skepticism of government planning in the domestic arena carries over to the government's ability to accomplish anything positive through foreign aid, whether economic or military--a skepticism they share with most Americans. All libertarians, I suspect, oppose military conscription on principle, considering it involuntary servitude. To a libertarian, any effort at "nation building" seems to be just another form of central planning which, however well-motivated, is fraught with unintended consequences and the danger of blowback. And, like most everyone, libertarians oppose any war of aggression. In all these regards, Mr. Paul is a mainstream libertarian.
But like all libertarians, even Mr. Paul believes in the fundamental, individual right of self-defense, which is why libertarians like him overwhelmingly support the right to keep and bear arms. And most also believe that when the territory of the U.S. is attacked militarily, the government--which claims a monopoly on providing for national defense and extracts billions of tax dollars for this purpose--is justified in using the military in self-defense. For this reason, many libertarians (though not all) who now oppose the war in Iraq supported U.S. military actions against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had aided and harbored the al Qaeda network that organized the 9/11 attack.
But here is the rub. While all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory, 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. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.
Many libertarians, and perhaps most libertarian intellectuals, opposed the war in Iraq even before its inception. They believed Saddam's regime neither directly threatened the U.S. nor harbored or supported the terrorist network responsible for Sept. 11. They also feared the risk of harmful, unintended consequences. Some may also have believed that since the U.S. was not attacked by the government of Iraq, any such war was aggressive rather than defensive in nature.
Other libertarians, however, supported the war in Iraq because they viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government. They viewed radical Islamic fundamentalism as resulting in part from the corrupt dictatorial regimes that inhabit the Middle East, which have effectively repressed indigenous democratic reformers. Although opposed to nation building generally, these libertarians believed that a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East, as was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, might well be the best way to take the fight to the enemy rather than solely trying to ward off the next attack.
Moreover, the pro-war libertarians believed there was "legal" cause to take military action against Saddam's regime--from its manifold violations of the ceasefire to firing on American planes legally patrolling the "no fly" zone and its persistent refusals to cooperate with weapons inspections. Saddam's regime was left in power after its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait on these and other conditions that it repeatedly had violated, thereby legally justifying its removal by force if necessary. Better to be rid of Saddam and establish an ally in the war against Islamic jihadists in the heart of the Middle East, the argument goes, and then withdraw American troops.
Naturally, the libertarians who supported the war in Iraq are disappointed, though hardly shocked, that it was so badly executed. The Bush administration might be faulted, not so much for its initial errors which occur in any war against a determined foe who adjusts creatively to any preconceived central "plan," but for its dogged refusal to alter its approach--and promptly replace its military commanders as President Lincoln did repeatedly--when it became clear that its tactics were not working. This prolonged delay gave the enemy time to better organize its resistance and, perhaps most important, demoralized those Americans who had initially supported the war but who needed to see continued progress toward victory to maintain their support.
Still, there are those pro-invasion libertarians who are now following the progress of Operations Phantom Thunder and Arrowhead Ripper. They hope that the early signs of progress in this offensive will continue, so that American and Iraqi forces can achieve the military victory necessary to allow the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people from terrorists, as well as from religious sectarian violence. They hope this success will enable American soldiers to leave Iraq even before they leave Europe and Korea, and regain the early momentum that led, for example, to Libya's abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.
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. They are concerned that Americans may get the misleading impression that all libertarians oppose the Iraq war--as Ron Paul does--and even that libertarianism itself dictates opposition to this war. It would be a shame if this misinterpretation inhibited a wider acceptance of the libertarian principles that would promote the general welfare of the American people.
Mr. Barnett is professor of law at Georgetown University and author of "The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law" (Oxford University Press, 1998).