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The fatal conceits of foreign intervention

I am still unconvinced of the isolationist argument vis Iraq that would have had Western militaries – and probably as a result civilians – quit the entire Middle East, and leave Saddam to wreak havoc as he has before, but my goodness, the case for non-interventionist foreign policy has never looked so good at the moment as the insurgency in Iraq gets worse. Jim Henley sums up the “do as little as possible” school of libertarian foreign policy as well as anyone:

If a war is worth years of struggle, billions squandered and thousands or tens of thousands of dead on both sides, why isn’t peaceful change worth as much? Why is it a “bold initiative” to announce a “generational struggle” to transform a region of the world through a war that might or might not achieve its ends, but preemptively absurd to launch a generational struggle to transform the same region through nonintervention, to instill liberalism and justice by exemplifying it? Because people might get killed? People get killed the other way. Because it might not work? Look around you. The other way isn’t working now.

My main problem with Jim’s argument is that setting an example to the dictatorships, thugocracies etc of that region would strike me as a fairly drawn-out, if not rank impossible, endeavour (that’s putting it politely, ed). We are talking about a process that might last thousands of years. And I am afraid that in the meantime, the various despots in that region might not quite get with the Enlightenment programme and develop a continued fondness for blowing infidels up. At best, I would say that such folk might, even at their craziest, be deterrable, which is why I think the libertarian world-view – if I can presume to call it that – should focus on deterrence, and forswear the temptations of what folk called pre-emptive action. But again – and Jim and others have to answer this question – does observing the niceties of national sovereignty always trump other considerations? For me, one of the clearest-cut examples of justified and smart pre-emption was the Israeli airforce’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facilties in the early 1980s. No doubt some libertarian “leave-well-alone” foreign policy commenters fulminated about that event at the time, in a way that may have echoes now in what is being written about Israel’s actions in Lebanon (see the posts below).

What to do?

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18 comments to The fatal conceits of foreign intervention

  • permanent expat

    Foreign intervention?…..usually wrong (for somebody)
    Isolationism?……….usually wrong (for somebody)

    What to do, indeed.

    It’s another of those “Have you stopped beating your wife?” questions.

  • The Dude

    Big fan of pre-emptive strikes, not a big fan of drawn out combat / foreign occupation.

  • If somebody screams and yells they are going to deny you and your’s life and liberty then sets about sharpening an axe in their back garden, I think it is not unreasonable to climb the fence and smash their whetstone.

    What would not be so practical is to try and occupy their house to train them how to live.

    Strong fences make good neighbours.

    As to the conflict in general, I think Israel is doing the right thing, which is incredibly difficult to get “right”. Kidnapped soldiers immediately held for ransom and exchange…Hezbolloques and Hamarse are acting like Trolls.

  • Hank Scorpio

    Big fan of pre-emptive strikes, not a big fan of drawn out combat / foreign occupation.

    Indeed. I’d also like to add: big fan of country wrecking, not a big fan of democracy building.

  • Nick M

    Hank, Dude,
    Concur entirely. If we were to have followed this path there is also the deterrant effective of flattening someone’s country which might just make the people of the threatened country think twice about what might be in store for them personally. If the Lebanese knew what was going to happen perhaps they might’ve decided to go the extra mile and have kicked Hizbollah out.

    On a personal note, I’d like to add that agreeing with Simpson’s and Coen Bros. characters is somewhat surreal!

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Nation building, democracy building, has worked before. It has failed at other times too.

    I think it comes down to the people of the region in question. Do they want to seize the chance at liberty in the first place? Is it possible for them to construct a democratic society?

    Frankly speaking, I think if you asked anybody back that question when WW2 just ended, they would have replied in the negative about Japan. But here they are today. And it’s because the Japanese wanted it. Maybe they were shellshocked from the bombs and their defeat, but all the same, they wanted change. And change they got.

    Do the myriad peoples of the fractured Middle East feel the same? I have no idea, but we can be sure there is an educated core, the bloggers and the middle class, that do. How representative are they of their people?

    We can only try and hope.

  • Millie Woods

    There’s an old rustic New England (and probably other places too) saying – Don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it can’t be done and it annoys the pig.
    We should turn our backs on all the world’s self-generated basket cases once and for all. We don’t need them but they do need us so-o-o- if they agree to behave themselves we will allow them limited access to our goodies. End of dtory.

  • permanent expat

    Millie,………….trouble is, some of the pigs want to kill you….turn your back or not….with a song in their hearts.

  • werner

    Millie, what if they are content with China´s goodies? Most Americans and Europeans are.

    You cannot be isolationist and at the same time insist that the rest of the world needs you.

  • “Because people might get killed? People get killed the other way.”

    Not the same people though. If there are to be “thousands or tens of thousands of dead on both sides”, who they are matters.

    On our side, I’d rather it was our soliders who signed up to protect us, than civillians on the Tube, bus, in a cafe or at work.

    On the other side: with intervention we get to kill Jihadis, with non-intervention we don’t. Civillians will die either way, so given the choice I’d rather they were killed by: 1) us, by accident, and 2) the Jihadis publically (demonstrating the depravity of their ideology), than being silently churned through the rape and torture rooms. As a very small comfort, the survivors will get better medical treatment from us.

    Or put another way, which is better: that we kill as few civillians as possible (and some Jihadis as a bonus) or the State gets to kill as many of their civillians as they like, and as many of ours as they can manage?

  • jacob

    “… the libertarian world-view … should focus on deterrence”

    But for deterrence to work, to acheive the desired effect, it must be proven, in real life. After you smash some heads the other guys fear you. If you don’t they don’t, and there is no deterrence.
    And the proof has to be re-demonstrated every now and then. 9/11 is the result of total breakdown of deterrence – the attackers really beleived the US and the West are soft and irresolute, and uncapable of striking back.

    The isolationist view (even when expressed by libertarians) is nothing more than pure pacifism: “if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone”. A pipe dream, just wishful thinking. Proved wrong a million times.

  • xxx

    A lot of it is about operating on a case-by-case basis.

    One of the overriding messages in The Art of War by Sun Tzu is to fight wars with clear objectives, but also not to treat war lightly.

    Wars like Kuwait are simple, have a clear objective and are strategically important. Not intervening in Kuwait would have caused serious problems in oil supply.

    Iraq? Well, the objective is a vague one, which we’re not even sure will work, that of democratising Iraq which will spread out across the region. It may not even work. If the Iraqi culture is not yet at the point that it desires democracy (and if it is, why didn’t they overthrow Saddam), then how good will their democracy be? How much do they hold the concept dear to them? They’ve got elections, but how long before they vote for a political party that suspends democracy?

  • Nick Timms

    As I understand it the libertarian position is not appeasement. Libertarians are mostly robust about self defence. The discussion should really be about what constitutes self defence.

    If you know a bully is preparing to bash you it makes sense to bash him first and make sure he stays bashed.

    Was Iraq seriously in a position to bash the west? It now seems unlikely. Was Saddam supporting islamist terrorists, possibly. But there is just as much ‘evidence’ to suggest many other ME states aid and abet terrorists. We do not appear to be thinking of invading Saudi Arabia to give them some of this so-called democracy and most of the real terrorists seem to learn their philosophy in that wretched Kingdom.

    Regardless of how monstrous Saddam was, the libertarian position would be that if he did not pose a real threat to us then we should have ignored him.

    I do not think this has anything to do with taking the moral high ground to set and example. My reading of these islamofascists is that they never question their own ‘moral superiority’. In fact their whole culture discourages reasoned individual thought. Set whatever example you want. These people are from the dark agesand will always feel agrieved about the west regardless of the fact that their cultures contribute nothing and the only reason they have any power is because they were fortunate enough to live on top of enormous oil deposits.

    I believe effective self defence in this war on terror is to put far more resources into intelligence and the use of highly trained special forces who can be in and out of targeted missions quickly. The terrorists act in small and disparate groups to perpetrate their cowardly atrocities. Our assassins should adopt some of the same methods.

  • DS

    Intervention no longer works because the U.S. military is functionally impotent. The US has the biggest, best military in the world by far and can win any military battle with ease with few American casualties. But because the rest of the world disapproves of us using our military power (they loved it when we were protecting them from the Soviets) it is basically there for nothing.

    The US military is not designed for rebuilding a hostile country, it is designed to completely destroy an opposing army on the battlefield. Germany and Japan were hostile countries as well, but they were completely and totally crushed at the end of WWII, surrendered unconditionally, and knew that there was no hope for them but to accept our help and move forward. Their people were sick of war and knew that any further resistence would resume the ass kickings. This is so far from the case in Iraq (or Vietnam) that it isn’t even funny. We killed more civilians in fire bombing Dresden than we could kill in a hundred Iraq invasions.

    The world doesn’t want America to solve its problems any more and I am inclined to demonstrate what that world looks like. Bring our troops home, shrink our military to a size that can safely defend our borders and watch the spectacle begin. I will take a sick sort of satisfaction watching the world go to hell with the French taking the lead role (see Iran nuclear program for a sneak preview). It will be hilarious, except for the bloodshed of course.

  • permanent expat

    DS: Right on, I’m afraid. Rudyard Kipling says it all in his poem “Tommy”………..if you’re not familiar with it, please do read it (Google)….. :-)

  • Jacob

    “The fatal conceits of foreign intervention…”

    What about the “fatal conceits” of appeasement and pacifism ? Aren’t they more fatal ?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jacob, not necessarily. A person who opposes foreign intervention may nevertheless endorse massive retaliation against attacks and be willing to demonstrate said willingness. Just because some libertarians oppose invading certain nations they deem to be bad and dangerous is not the same as passively sitting around and ignoring certain threats.

    I personally think that some folk who argue that we will inflame the “Arab street” by toppling certain regimes are engaging in a sort of appeasement-talk, if only because they never suggest any alternatives.

    I borrowed the “fatal conceit” phrase from the late F.A. Hayek, who used it to criticise those socialists who thought they could use the powers of governments to create a more perfect society; and I think it odd that so many libertarians don’t see how that insight also translates into foreign policy. If it is hubristic to create a “perfect society”, it is possibly also hubristic to create democracies from scratch in the Middle East at the point of a gun.

  • What to do, indeed. An excellent post and comments with many good points all around.

    As libertarians I think it’s important to remember that when ideological purity meets reality, purity will get its face bloodied every time. We don’t live in the world we wish for, we live in a world where a distressing number of despots have, or are acquiring weapons that could well destroy civilization (such as it is of course). Some of those despots show no compunction against murdering their own people and have expressed the desire to use those weapons on the rest of us.

    It’s great fun to debate what should be done about that, if anything, but it also pays to remember that those few of us not highly placed in government or the intelligence services don’t have all the facts, nor do those who do have inside knowledge have all the facts or all agree. It’s refreshing to find a place like Samizdata where all sides of the argument are aired, usually without anyone climbing on their high horse and denouncing those less ideologically pure or less analytically astute. Bravo to all of you.