Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defensive War?

This is another post that's been kicking around for a few weeks - It sort of came up while I was reading this Brian Doherty column on the resistance of some libertarians to anti-war Republican Ron Paul. In particular, I was struck by this passage:

Barnett is eager to dissociate libertarianism writ large from Paul's anti-Iraq War stance, claiming that many libertarians 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, he suggests, if this misinterpretation inhibited a wider acceptance of the libertarian principles that would promote the general welfare of the American people.

This is doubly curious. First, because opposition to non-defensive war traditionally is a core libertarian principle (to begin with, since it inherently involves mass murder and property destruction aimed at people who have not harmed the people imposing the harm) and is, in fact, the position of the vast majority of self-identified libertarians. Second, why would one worry that libertarianism can be damaged by an association with an idea that is in fact immensely popular? And, to boot, a popular position in which Paul has unique credibility for being right, and right from the beginning, unlike pretty much every other candidate.

First, when it comes to Ron Paul, I think I feel the same way Randy Barnett does. Additionally, I just think much of his support comes from the fact that he is the Republican anti-war candidate. Turn his bring the troops home mantra into a Hilary Clinton-esque warning about leaving Iraq too quickly and I think much of Paul's support would wither away. As an anti-war Republican he's a curiosity, but in most people's minds he's not a serious candidate. And as a non-serious candidate I just see no reason to get excited about someone whom I disagree with on the war, on foreign policy in general, on immigration, and on abortion.

But let's get back to the war question. Doherty invokes opposition to non-defensive war as a libertarian principle, but I mean, in reality, isn't most of the world opposed to non-defensive war at this point. Hasn't that sort of been a global consensus since World War I? (Didn't Hitler justify German action in World War II as a defensive necessity?) Haven't the wars of the past 60 some odd years been much more subtle than simply defensive or non-defensive? And finally, isn't the question of what constitutes a defensive war really just part of the same debate that's been going on since the start of the war in Iraq about when military action is and is not justified?

I think Doherty, and everyone else who's been opposed to the war in Iraq since the beginning would like to be able to cloak their opposition in a neat moral package, but as I've blogged about before, I just don't think military action or foreign policy is that simple. It's complicated because international affairs are complicated- hundreds of nations interacting with each other with no body to set or enforce rules of conduct in the interactions between those nations.

Allow me to throw out a variety of different locations- Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Darfur, Kurdistan. When would the libertarian notion of "defensive war" have permitted American entry into World War II? Was the attack on Pearl Harbor necessary to bring us in? If we were never attacked, would that have made our entry non-defensive? And what if there was no Pearl Harbor, no war with Britain, and Nazi rule over Europe- If we declared war against Nazi Germany to stop the Holocaust would that be a non-defensive war? Yes, these examples are extreme, but I'm not the one who's chosen to use such stark moral terms.

This is not to say that military intervention in response to the suffering of others is always necessary or even always acceptable, just that it is a more complicated question. Additionally, the question of when your national interests are sufficiently threatened enough to justify military action is also a subjective question. Moral opposition to the war in Iraq is just fine, but you have to recognize that this was has been justified by the Bush administration both as a defensive war and as a war to free other people. This means that moral opposition to the war in Iraq (other than opposition to all war) is either grounded in practical concerns (the war is going to fail and kill a lot of innocent people) or in the outright distrust of the government's motives in going to war.

When it comes to Iraq, a very strong case can be made that the government has been incompetent in it's handling of the affair from the very beginning. And government incompetence is a very good reason not to go to war or to be wary of going to war in the first place. But incompetence doesn't mean that the real reasons for going to war was oil, imperialism or some other anti-war slogan. The point of all of this is that reasonable people can disagree as to the question of the Bush administration's real motivations in going to war in Iraq. The United States is not Nazi Germany. We all have our gut feelings about the government's motivations, but these gut feelings don't make moral absolutes.

This whole notion of only fighting defensive wars is not so much a moral position as it is a roundabout way of applying a libertarian and a moral simplicity to complicated foreign policy issues.


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