A Libertarian Error

In response to early comments on my previous article entitled “Iran: A Legacy of Failure”, I was presented with a number of challenges to my basic argument that were worthy of response— not for their intellectual merit, but for their popularity and the danger that they pose. They are fallacies of the typically libertarian¹ variety that forbid their adherents from comprehending the nature of a truly rational American foreign policy. Libertarians, though generally quite masterful in economics, are so dogmatically predisposed to an anti-governmental spirit that they are prone to indulge in the philosophical vice of rationalism, by which they begin with their conclusions ready-made and attempt the unseemly task of working backwards to establish reasons for the contentions which they have already sworn to uphold. Never is this more true than in the subject of defense and military ventures. To lend context to this explication, I will, for the uninitiated, generally summarize my argument made in the article in question:

Since 1979, the United States has endured untold losses of life among its citizens and military personnel through a campaign of deliberate and systematic aggression by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Any one of these acts of force individually— and certainly when viewed in full context— should, by rational standards, be recognized as a unilateral war waged against the United States by the nation of Iran. The failure by six presidential administrations to recognize and effectively eliminate that threat constitutes a failure to defend American citizens’ rights to life. This tradition, I contend, is continued in the current reluctance of this administration to face the imminent and very real threat of a nuclear Iran.

It is evidence of the total divorcing of philosophical principles from such issues that anyone could dispute such reasoning. As argument, they contend that my viewpoint entails either (1) an advocacy of preemption, or (2) a violation of the policy of non-interventionism as supported by the Founding Fathers. It is neither.

To characterize any advocacy of military action against Iran today as preemption requires the evasion of thirty years of continued brutality. The case which I have made should be sufficient to establish that pattern of behavior, but if further evidence is required, I recommend to the reader Winning the Unwinnable War, edited by Elan Journo. That volume firmly establishes all necessary evidence to prove the existence of more than three decades of unilateral war having been waged against the West by Islamic totalitarianism, with Iran as violator-in-chief. However, playing devil’s advocate and presuming the fantasy that this campaign of aggression against the West was non-existent, the critics still remain severely deluded about the nature of preemption. Their confusion arises from a misconception of what constitutes the initiation of force. By their estimation, if one man declares himself the mortal enemy of another, announces his intention to do his adversary harm, and commences to arm himself, the aggressed does not hold the right to act in response until such time as physical violence has already been done against him. No such morality can claim to be life-promoting, self-interested, or supportive of individual rights. Such a belief requires that a man, in order to secure his own physical safety, be telepathic or omniscient. That is, it requires of him the impossible. Morality, however, applies only to the realm of man’s knowledge. It is, thus, incumbent upon the individual— or the nation— to objectively and by a process of rational evaluation determine when its well-being is threatened. The concrete, particular standards for what constitutes the initiation of force— that is, for what action is necessary or sufficient to merit action in defense of one’s life or the lives of citizens— is not a philosophical consideration, but a matter of policy which should be carefully considered by the individual or nation on its own behalf. However, suffice it to say that the back-swing of a barbarian’s club, the cocking of a mugger’s gun, and the enrichment of uranium by a malicious tyrant is just as surely an act of aggression as the follow-through, the pulling of the trigger, or the planting of a nuclear weapon in a metropolitan area. So much for the accusation of preemption.

The suggestion that what I am proposing is in any way a violation of the Founders’ principle of non-interventionism has even less intellectual merit and shows the common misconception of that principle even by some of its alleged proponents. The principle of non-interventionism and the desire to avoid “foreign entanglements”, as Washington called them, were never intended as an endorsement of the pacifism which some libertarians have attempted to connote from the founding documents. Rather, the principle which the Founders advocated was that the well-being of the nation was best served by the avoidance of unnecessary involvement in conflicts between two foreign nations or between the people and government of a single foreign nation— not to suggest, when the United States is faced with a series of egregious acts of force against its military and civilians, that it should be reluctant to respond in its own defense. To the contrary, it was by their will to rebuke a string of injustices done by a distant aggressor that we are not British subjects today.

It is worthy of reiteration that the evasions and distortions at work in the objections cited here are scarcely worthy of full consideration. They are irrationally devised, dogmatically held, and intellectually bankrupt. I have responded to them for two reasons: (1) their commonality among some advocates of small government and (2) those advocates’ posturing as defenders of individual rights or, as they more broadly term it, “liberty”. It is by consideration of popular arguments such as these that I come to believe that any man who wishes to stand for the defense of individual rights must be as scrutinizing of those within his own ranks as he would be of his antithesis. There is some political value in the solidarity desired by those who say that advocates of limited government should stand together in times such as these, setting aside personal differences in a time of crisis. However, the nature of one’s basic philosophy vastly supersedes all alliances of convenience, and if we are not scrupulous in our treatment of the intellectual culture among us and if we resolve to value unity above reason, we risk the perils of becoming unified upon as immoral a set of tenets as any statist or collectivist. Of what use is common ground if that ground is infertile? Of what use is a consensus of the irrational?

¹ I do not apply this term, “libertarian”, as loosely or generally as it is often applied by critics or its adherents themselves. I speak only of what I observe to be a pervasive trend within that ideology and make full allowances for those among its adherents who hold different beliefs.

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10 thoughts on “A Libertarian Error

  1. Your so-called logic is completely hypocritical. What about Iraq? That was justified war too I suppose. What about those war crimes? While we’re at it…why Iraq at all? Why did the reason have to get manufactured? I’d think we’d start asking the RIGHT questions by now don’t you? Instead of parroting the same old lines…The status quo is what’s not working, and you seem to be defending the status quo in all the articles of yours I’ve read.

    So what do you suppose caused this hatred towards the US government in the first place? Could it have been the dictator we installed?? Shah of Iran 1953 ring a bell? Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, pro-American leader come to mind? Maybe you should take the FULL history into account here, in the interest of sanity if nothing else? Come on “Slade”, you can do better than that.

    1. Through the unnecessarily charged language, these are the main points I feel you are trying to make:
      1. Iran and Iraq are one in the same, differing only in the last letters of their name in terms of their relation to the security of American rights.
      2. We have made mistakes in the Middle East which have led to resentment in Iran.
      3. Because of our past mistakes in the region, we have forfeited our right to defend ourselves against violations of our own citizens rights.
      I may not have stated them as you would have liked to have stated them, but these are the implicit points you expressed.

      1. Yes, we were generally unwise when it comes to invading Iraq – unwise, but not unjustified because free nations have the moral authority to overthrow statist regimes. The statist regimes are the initiators of force against their own citizens and, as such, lose their right of sovereignty because they deny sovereignty to their own citizens. Nevertheless, our going into Iraq in this instance was a largely altruistic endeavor governed by what neoconservative elements directing our foreign policy felt was our moral duty (notice duty is different than authority). But, since Iraq was only violating the rights of its own citizens and had generally left us alone, our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was wrong. This, however, does not inherently preclude any and all interventions in the future, and certainly not one’s when the lives and rights of our citizens have been directly attacked. We made mistakes, but that certainly does not justify mistakes by swinging the pendulum of our foreign policy from one side (irrational, altruistic interventionism) to the other (irrational, altruistic pacifism).
      2. I concede much of that. I’ll be the first to give you a full history of Iran, which is that we used the CIA in the 1950’s to overthrow the Mossadegh government on suspicion that it would turn Communist. Then, we reinstituted (not instituted, as you incorrectly asserted) the Shah and turned a blind eye to his own authoritarian reign. So yes, it bred resentment, but you are confusing sociology with philosophy. Blowback, as Dr. Paul appeals to frequently, is a concept which allows us to understand what could happen if we take a particular course of action and why it could happen, but it does not for one instance grant moral sanction to those possible consequences. As happened infamously in 2008, Giuliani assumed Congressman Paul had equated the two saying that understanding why 9/11 happened is somehow a justification for it happening. It is not, and it is unwise to make those mistakes.
      3. Though I addressed this partly in number 1, I’ll explain further: simply because we made mistakes in Iran over thirty-two years ago (that’s an entire generation in this country) does not grant the Iranians a moral mandate to initiate force against our citizens, and it does not mean the government should lie back and let the Iranian government initiate force against our citizens. Learn from the mistakes we made in the past, but do not let them consume our present. If you want blowback, imagine the blowback of a nuclear Iran governed by Islamic totalitarianism.

      As a supporter of many of Dr. Paul’s policies, I will be the first to say that the reason he exhibits in the economic and social spheres of his policies do not carry through to his foreign policy. Congressman Paul is deeply affected by pre-WWII ideologies of pacifism, and it is no more rational than the altruistic interventionism offered to us by the right. We need a rational foreign policy, and that is what Slade argues for, and it is considerably different than anything we’ve had in this country for decades (I recommend “Winning the Unwinnable War” as Slade did).

      I’ll close with this – Iran overthrew the Shah, an oppressive dictator and replaced him with an oppressive theocracy. I condemn both leaders. You, however, condone the latter, and I think it stems from the thread of social subjectivism that runs through many libertarian ideologies. It lacks moral fortitude, and it is one of the many reasons that, for the past century, statism has triumphed over liberty in the intellectual culture of our country – because the defenders of liberty have yet to discover it.

      1. Pirouz, this would probably be my last post but I just have to vent.you say: I am afiard that again you are forgetting the history: in the first two years of the war when all those military gadgets were still very “leading edge” and “fancy”, Iran was on the defence and was losing territory.On the contrary, during the final 6 years when we had very limited number of tanks and almost all of aircrafts were sitting in hangars for the lack of spare components and amunition (all of which was made in the West and was not being given to us because of the sanctions) It wasn’t just lack of spare parts that made these weapons unusable. It was more significant that the Khomeinists carried out purges of competent military personnel, officers and technicians that rendered these equipments virtually useless! Like many others I happen to hold the view that the chaos inflicted on the Iranian strategic and military community by the new revolutionary government is what caused Iran such losses and presented a golden opportunity for Saddam to invade. However impotent the Shah might have been domestically he realized that Iran resides in a dangerous strategic environment and therefore neeeded to be strong; while the Khomeinists were caught SLEEPING during the invasion. You then go on to say: we were on the OFFENCE and we were advancing in the Iraqi territory. Yes, through such idiotic maneuvers so characteristic of us self mutilating Shias as human wave attacks that eventually led to millions of deaths. Need I point out that Khomeini in his vindictiveness and infinite stupidity could have stopped the war sooner and refused to do so. In fact if there is any use to the Iranian nuclear power it is its “deterrence” capability. Now Shah was going to deter whom from attacking Iran? USA? or Israel?!?!? Yes Pirouz it would have served as a deterrence against both and Iran today would not have to be subjugated to constant threats of war. Lastly, it seems to me that many Iranians like you seem to regard Iran like it is so strong or something and that is why the US is afiard of them; or something to that effect. Need I point out that Iran is a country that ultimately fought Iraq for 8 years and LOST! How long did it take the US to crush Iraq? I hope the rulers in Tehran do not harbor your illusions of grandeur because such attitudes are not just foolish but dangerous and could lead to the deaths of many other innocent Iranians.

  2. I agree that Iran (like many other nations) has a corrupt, dangerous, evil regime and anyone would be ethically justified in toppling it at their own expense and risk.

    However, the article is one-sided and factually incorrect to the point of weakening any valid points. For example, it regards Iran’s actions since 1979 as “unilateral war waged against the United States”. This assertion requires not just white-washing, but outright ignoring history. Setting aside pre-1979 actions such as questionable support for the Shah, there are items such as:

    – Aiding Iraq as it started and waged an 8 year war that killed a million Iranians
    – Turning a blind eye to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in that war
    – US warship in Iranian waters shooting down a passenger jet, killing 290 civilians

    Of course none of these unjust actions justify evil actions on the other side as well, such as supporting terrorism. However, it’s ludicrous to ignore them and try to paint the situation as a ‘unilateral war’. If any single one of those actions happened in reverse – e.g. Iran aiding Mexico in war with America, or an Iranian warship off the coast of New Jersey shooting down a US jetliner – then it would widely and rightfully be considered casus belli.

    US and Iran *have* been at de facto war since at least ’79 – just the US has been far more successful at killing Iranians than vice-versa.

    1. I agree with your history, but not necessarily the conclusion. All three of the events occurred 1988 or earlier. Suggesting it has not been unilateral since that point would likely be an incorrect assertion.

      As I explained in the comment above, the resentment is easy to understand but, as you stated, that does not justify the actions undertaken in resentment.

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