Blogs > Liberty and Power > Antiwar Libertarianism, Cont.

Jul 7, 2004 10:40 am

Antiwar Libertarianism, Cont.

Jacob Levy:"Now it's simply untrue that the Iraqi sanctions prompted 9/11. The sanctions were wrong; that doesn't mean that they were a wrong of any great importance to Bin Laden & co."

From the CFR's terrorism page:

The United Nations’ economic sanctions on Iraq are one of the grievances most frequently mentioned by Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.... in his 1998 declaration of war on America and its allies, bin Laden insisted that a “great devastation” had been “inflicted on the Iraqi people.” In a videotape released a few weeks after September 11, bin Laden said, “Millions of innocent children are being killed in Iraq and in Palestine, and we don’t hear a word from the infidels.”

Here's the 1998 fatwa:

Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless.

Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million... despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation.

The (sadly) obligatory caveat: by pointing this out, of course I don't mean to suggest that Bin Laden is some sort of freedom fighter and America somehow deserved 9/11. I lack language sufficient to the task of condemning Bin Laden and his followers except to say they're sorts of people who make me wish there was a Hell.

But"know your enemy" has been sound strategic advice from Sun Tzu onward. Too many prowar libertarians have adopted a"they hate us just because we're beautiful" perspective on the relationship between American foreign policy and terrorist blowback.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

rocky meet - 2/24/2009

Hello Sir i m agree with u i like it :)
marks Jones
Drug Intervention--Drug Intervention

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

OK, so if I robbed a bank and said, "I did it for the children," would that prove that I did it for the children? Doubtful.

Part of knowing the enemy is knowing when not to take them at face value (or if you do, to know how skewed their relationship to reality might be). What bin Laden records in a fatwa is not necessarily what motivated him. A fatwa is essentially a piece of propaganda, and it has to be read that way. If Henry Kissinger were to write in his memoirs, "I have always firmly believed in truth, beauty, and love," nobody would infer that what he did in Chile ca. 1970-73 was motivated by truth, beauty, and love. I think we can safely say that Osama bin Laden is at least as capable of duplicity as Henry Kissinger.

Suppose at any rate that bin Laden really was sincerely "prompted" by the sanctions. But now suppose the sanctions were justified. It follows that OBL was "prompted" to engage in mass murder "by" a policy that was justified. You could at that point fairly infer that what explained OBL's actions was his hatred for justified policies. Since I happen to think that the sanctions were (more than) justified, that is precisely how I would explain bin Laden's actions. If we take Al-Q's words about Iraq at face value, and sanctions were justified, the explanation for 9/11 really is that they hate us because we're right.

The Ku Klux Klan's actions were supposedly prompted "by" Reconstruction, and Tim McVeigh's actions were supposedly prompted "by" Waco. Neither fact tells us anything of significance about the moral status of either Reconstruction or Waco. Unless we take the KKK and McV absolutely at their word (which I wouldn't), neither fact even tells us what actually motivated either party. The Al-Q fatwas have the same status and should be read the same way.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Let me reword my original criticism slightly in the light of what people have said: how is a fatwa evidence of the actual motivations of ANY member of Al Qaeda, whether bin Laden, his lieutenants or his foot soldiers? A fatwa is a piece of propaganda. Some people may sincerely believe it; others may be joining for their own grotesque reasons ranging from the fanatically ideological to the brazenly opportunistic. And yet others may mouth the words of the fatwa without having any clue as to what they really mean, being too thoughtless to have reflected on the issues at all. In and of itself, the fatwa doesn't explain anything except that bin Laden thought it useful to speak in fatwa-language at various times.

But suppose that the content of the fatwa really is motivating Al Q's rank and file. So what? So they have complaints and grievances against US policy. But as I said, so did the KKK and Tim McVeigh. Grievances of that sort are not a particularly good reason for changing our policies. The KKK, McV's and Al Q's of the world are always going to have something to complain about, and are always going to want to lynch or blow up or behead what they see as the "underlying conditions" of their complaints. Well. The response to them will always have to be General Grant, the FBI, and General Abizaid--not concessions on policy.

The existence of "bill of particulars" against US policy doesn't prove a thing about the merits of the policies, esp. since Islamic fundamentalists tend to be committed to an Islamic empire which will have hegemony over the whole world *regardless* of what US policy says. (Even Hamas, despite its "regional" focus, claims to want to re-establish the caliphate from Spain!) We could adopt the most quietistic policy in human history and it would not matter in the least to them.

What "helps AQ grow" is not within the control of anyone outside of the countries of the Islamic world. All of the important variables lie within that world, and most of them bear on the dysfunctional structure of political and educational systems there, created by (and made path-dependent by) the vicissitudes of post-colonial history. We can't change the systems, and we can't change the history. The idea that we can somehow change Muslim minds by changing our policies is an illusion--there isn't a particle of evidence for it. It wasn't our policies that made their minds in the first place.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

What explains Islamic fundamentalist attacks against Syria during the Iraq war? Syria opposed the Iraq war, backs Hezbollah against Israel, and is currently backing the Iraqi insurgency. Didn't prevent attacks against them.

How about repeated attacks against Turkey? Turkey has an Islamic fundamentalist government, opposed the Iraq war, refused the Coalition overfly rights, and refused to send troops. Didn't prevent attacks against them.

And Jordan? It sat out both Gulf Wars, violated the trade ban with Iraq throughout the 1990s, and has a powerfully fundamentalist population. That didn't stop Zarqawi and Subcontractors from trying to explode a rather large-scale explosive device in Amman this past April (Jordanian officials were bandying around the figure of 80,000 potential casualties if the attack had succeeded).

Don't see how the war in Iraq explains any of this, and don't see how it wouldn't have happened had there been no war. If there had been no war, the excuse for Islamic terrorism would have been "Iraqi sanctions." (Remember those? They killed 80,000 civilians and were lifted as a result of the war. The number of Iraqi civilians killed has *diminished* as a result of the war.) If there had been no sanctions, the excuse would have been the no-fly zones. If there had been neither sanctions nor zones, the excuse would have been the presence of US troops on the Arabian peninsula. If they left, the excuse would have been the Israeli occupation. If that went away, the excuse would have been the sheer existence of Israel. If Israel was destroyed, the excuse would be the Western civilian presence in the Arab oil fields. If that went away, the excuse would be the imperative to restore the Caliphate over populations unwilling to be ruled by it.

How many concessions are you willing to make before you just throw up your hands and say, "OK, you win--you can have everything you want, and we'll just sit here and do your bidding"?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Not if you think that moral responsibility for both the sanctions and the war lie with the (previous) government of Iraq. If Iraq was responsible for the 80,000 deaths via sanctions, and Iraq is responsible also for the fewer deaths that are arising via the war, then the US isn't in the position of someone just coming over to punch or kick some innocent party out of the blue. Iraq launched the invasion of Kuwait; sanctions were the (justifiable) result. Iraq failed to comply with UN Res 687-1441; the invasion was the (justifiable) result. The guilty party in both cases (which really means: for the whole span of time between 1990 and the present) was the ruling party of Iraq.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I'd agree with you if I agreed that the grievances were legitimate qua directed at us. But they aren't. I don't think they have even a tincture of legitimacy.

Confining ourselves merely to the Iraqi ones: what grievance could anyone have had against us for Iraq's having invaded Kuwait, killed or maimed 33,000 people there, destroyed the Kuwaiti oil wells--and then incurred sanctions for failing to comply with the eminently reasonable request of being disarmed of weapons it had previously used for purposes of genocide? If there is a "grievance" here, its proper target is surely the very people who sit in the dock today in Iraq: people whose lunatic ambitions required that Iraq NOT comply with disarmament obligations that could have been discharged within a few months after the end of the 1991 war. Our actions make it possible to pursue the legitimate grievances against those people.

If there is a conceivable grievance here against us, it's that we (along with the whole Arab world and much of Europe) "tilted" toward Iraq in the late 1980s. That is an unpardonable evil, but if so, it can't make sense to hold our rectification of that evil as an unpardonable evil (or: as even worse than the first evil, which is how it's typically described).

I also think that you're underestimating what "strong defensive force" really requires. It cannot require waiting around to be hit, then retaliating (which is both too late and often pointless); nor can it really mean anticipating all incoming threats and stopping them just before they cross our borders (which is physically impossible). "Strong defensive force" means identifying the strongholds of an enemy that is a perpetual and ongoing threat, and neutralizing its capacity to be a threat.

On that interpretation, what you're describing as their "grievances" are just the consequences that their governments or other leaders have incurred by their actions and brought down on all of them. Decidedly their problem, not ours. Our message to them could well be: Stop being a threat and we'll stop treating you as one. They haven't stopped. Neither should we.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

It's true that the US has sided with oppressive governments, but even this is a mixed bag. In some cases, I think it was just unpardonable, like siding with Iraq in the 1980s. There was no justifiable reason for it. I've also in different contexts taken libertarians to task for having kind words to say for Pinochet's Chile.

But there are cases and there are cases. You cannot begin to imagine how much animosity I have for Saudi Arabia--personal animosity. (My mother was on the receiving end of a murder attempt there; my cousin, who as from there, died in a traffic accident and was denied a proper burial because he wasn't a "real" Arab; the time I spent there was hell on earth; I hate monarchies on principle; etc) But if I ask myself, "What policy should the US have adopted vis-a-vis the Saudis?", I find it hard to imagine an alternative to maintaining a semi-cozy one. If my car would run on solar energy, I'd say otherwise, but it doesn't.

Likewise, I'm an anti-Zionist, and am willing to say so just that openly. It has never been obvious to me that Israel should have been created in 1948. I think the settlements should be dismantled (as was US policy until Bush spinelessly reversed it). But is Israel a valuable military ally? Hate to admit it, but--yeah. The NJ State Police is currently taking counter-terrorist lessons from the Israeli intelligence services, lessons they can't get from elsewhere. So I could some day owe my life indirectly to the Israeli government. My criticisms of Israel have to be tempered by that reality.

As for being against nation building, I am against it--in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, etc. It just cannot be done right, and definitely not by Americans. That was the part of the war that I knew was going to go wrong and basically it did. But even here, I have to admit one thing: if you don't have nation building, you get chaos; to avoid chaos, you have to put up with quagmire. I prefer chaos to quagmire. Some prefer the reverse. Either way, it's a tough call.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

If nations A and B sign a post-war agreement, and B reneges, A and B are back in a state of war. Sanctions are a tool of war. So if A was justifiably at war, A can justifiably use sanctions against B.

The US and Iraq did have a post-war agreement in the wake of the 1991 war. The agreement called for Iraq's full cooperation with UNSCOM in the disarmament of Iraq. Iraq reneged on that right from the start, so the countries were back in a state of war precisely when they did--a war carried out, between 1991 and 2003, principally by sanctions.

The act of aggression that triggered the whole sequence was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iraq and his subsequent reneging on Iraq's post-war agreements. Those were the acts that initiated the force that broke the peace. War is a legitimate response to both acts, and since harm to civilian populations is an unavoidable and forseeable consequence of war, responsibility for the harm devolves on the aggressor, not the legitimate responder. A right to respond to aggression includes a right to force the aggressor into full compliance, i.e., to be fully victorious over the aggressor.

Since there's no feasible way to enter a war, aim at victory, but not make someone a mere means to your ends, I conclude that you can do that in war. In that respect, sanctions are like any other instrument of war; if we couldn't employ them, we couldn't employ any other instrument. We'd have to renounce war itself, and be pushed to pacifism.

Roderick T. Long - 7/9/2004

Irfan argues that war is impossible without aggressing against innocent people, and infers that aggression against innocent people must be okay. (It seems to me that he has thereby inferred that libertarianism is false, but be that as it may.) I reject both the premise and the inference.

First: even if, counterfactually, Hussein had posed a threat to the legitimate interests of the U.S., there were ways of dealing with him (assassination, for example) that did not involve condemning thousands of innocent civilians to years of starvation followed by bombing.

Second: if, again counterfactually, it were true that war is impossible without aggressing against the innocent, the inference to draw would not be that aggression is permissible but rather that war is impermissible. "It is better to suffer than to commit injustice" -- that's bedrock moral philosophy if anything is.

Irfan writes: "A right to respond to aggression includes a right to force the aggressor into full compliance, i.e., to be fully victorious over the aggressor." But a right to do X never implies a right to do whatever is necessary to achieve X. I have a right to visit Paris; but I don't have a right to steal money to buy the plane tickets to get there. I have a right to marry the woman of my choice -- but not if she doesn't consent. One can't throw all moral constraints out the window simply by invoking a right. One has a right to pursue one's own projects, but that does not imply the right to conscript other people into one's projects.

Irfan also believes that violating the terms of a postwar settlement counts as aggression. I don't see this. Certainly that might be true if we define the relevant rights and obligations as states define them. But from a libertarian perspective a "postwar settlement" is just a truce between two criminal gangs; it has no legitimacy as a contract. (What could a legitimate contract to end a war be? If one is fighting a just war, and is forced by superior firepower to agree to stop, then one is deprived of one's just rights under duress; the contract is invalid. On the other hand, if one is fighting an unjust war, then one is morally obligated to stop anyway, and cannot make stopping conditional on someone else's agreeing to a contract; again the contract is invalid.) Hence aggression in this case context cannot be defined as violating the postwar settlement; we must identify the act as aggressive in its own right.

Roderick T. Long - 7/8/2004

I do not regard the govt. of Iraq as responsible for the sanctions. To aggress against innocent group A in order to put pressure on evil group B is a criminal act, a use of some people as mere means to the ends of others, and not a legitimate form of self-defense. Hence the sanctions were not a legitimate response to anything Iraq's govt. did.

Roderick T. Long - 7/8/2004

Irfan says the sanctions "killed 80,000 civilians and were lifted as a result of the war." So he concludes: "The number of Iraqi civilians killed has *diminished* as a result of the war."

Now c'mon! If I stop punching you in order to start kicking you, then even if the kicking hurts less than the punching, it's a bit Orwellian to suggest that you should be grateful foe the kicking because it brought an end to the punching.

Roderick T. Long - 7/8/2004

I find this argument very puzzling. Let's say the terrorists are motivated by two sets of grievances. On the one hand there are legitimate grievances about their people being starved, bombed, and the like. (Note: to say that a grievance is legitimate is of course not to say that committing terrorism on the basis of that grievance is legitimate.) On the other hand there are illegitimate grievances, like the existence of freedom in nearby countries, etc. Surely it's right that one can find both sets of motives in terrorists. It's also plausible that the precise balance of these two sets of motives varies from one individual terrorist to another.

But it seems bizarre to claim that redressing the legitimate grievances (while leaving the illegitimate ones unaddressed) would have no effect at all on the level of terrorism. Of course there will always be aggressors whose motives are entirely baseless, and they will have to be met with strong defensive force. No antiwar libertarian has ever denied this. But Irfan's argument seems to presuppose that starving and bombing people has no effect on the likelihood that they will want to strike back. I simply cannot make head or tail of that assumption.

Jason Pappas - 7/8/2004

I yield to a master!

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 7/8/2004

Irfan, you are right: There are so many tensions and conflicts in the Middle East that it is extremely difficult to understand all of them through the single lens of US intervention.

However, it is my understanding that Syria, like Iraq, has greater Pan-Arabist, rather than fundamentalist, tendencies. There is a very real conflict, as you know, between so-called "secularist" Pan-Arabist regimes and fundamentalists (which is why Bin Laden referred to Hussein as an "infidel"). Turkey, of course, has been a US ally, as has Jordan.

Most of these conflicts are not explained by the war in Iraq---they are deep-seated and have a long history and speak to the very real divisions in the Middle East. (And I haven't even mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!)

So, you're right: We can't explain everything in terms of US intervention in the region. But US presence in this region over the past 60 years has had serious effects insofar as the US has sided with oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and so forth--thus emboldening fundamentalist groups in their midst.

I notice, btw, that while you've supported a military action against the Hussein regime, you've not come out in support of "nation-building." And yet, that neocon goal is what I've opposed---precisely because of all those deep-seated cultural, religious, and tribal hostilities at work in Iraq, and throughout the Middle East.

chris l pettit - 7/8/2004

That is what you get to when you adopt a pose seeing history as a series of independent events and trying to say that the US did something as a good gesture to effect good change. So what? everyone can claim that and the road to hell is paved with so called good intentions. In reality, most of the actions the US has taken have been strictly for power and self interest. It is this misinterpretation of Machiavelli that causes us to just get deeper and deeper into crap that we hepled create. By advocating the continuation of the trend...and failing to acknowledge that we are as much responsible for creating the conditions that fostered 9/11 as the terrorists are for carrying out the atrocities, you are simply dooming yourself to a continuing cycle of our atrocities and ignorance provoking their violence, provoking our responses and reinforcing our ignorance, provoking their atrocities and reinforcing their ignorance...and so on. THis is the trap that pro-war junkies of any color fall into addition to the fact that there is no feasible legal or truly ethical justification for the war and occupation.


Jason Pappas - 7/7/2004

Actually I’ve had this argument with many Arabs over the years. Also, I’m actually very sympathetic to your conclusion. I think there is just a difference in rhetorical emphasis.

When I argue with my Arab friend, I tell them we’re always help Muslims, here’s what we do:
We backed Egypt in the Suez Crisis
Helped Egypt get back the Sinai from Israel.
Saved Arafat from death in Lebanon.
Help Arafat get established in the West Bank.
Give Egypt $2 billion a year.
Saved the Muslims in Kosovo.
Help the Muslims in Afghanistan fight the USSR.
Saved the Kuwatis from Saddam and protected Saudi Arabia.
Removed Saddam from Iraq.

Do you know what they always say? With a smug reproach they say, “You did that for your own interest.” Notice that they aren’t complaining about the harm of such actions but only that these actions weren’t altruistic. Our heart wasn’t in it!

Next I tell them that I oppose all of these actions. Do you think they rejoice? Just the opposite! They generally adopt a threatening posture and claim that we would have suffered if we didn’t do those things. (No oil, USSR would have expanded, etc.) I try to refute the economics, Soviet threat, etc. but such a prospect only makes my interlocutor more belligerent. Try it sometimes – play Devil’s advocate and argue that we help Muslims more than any other group.

So, I agree with you – perhaps not for the reasons you’d think. Our past involvement did cause a problem: one that suggests that we are susceptible to greater and greater demands. And the demands aren’t for us to go away. No, they want more from us on their terms and on our knees. Oh, yes, Arabs really mention the Shah and what we did 50 years ago – unless they’ve notice we feel guilty about it and they can use it over us.

David T. Beito - 7/7/2004


You are absolutely right. Bin Laden is only one of many isolated lone nuts if nobody wants to join his movement. Even Dubya and his followers admit that underlying conditions feed support for Bin Laden, hence all their talk about "draining the swamps of Islamic fascism."

Roderick T. Long - 7/7/2004

Yes, this is the point I was trying to make in my "Logic of Jihad" post, when I said that what matters is not what bin laden cares about but what potential recruits care about.

David T. Beito - 7/7/2004

You have a point in one sense. Bin Laden's hatred for the Saudi Monarchy is long-standing and trascends his hatred of American troops in the monarchy. It can do nothing to satisfy him. Of course, my broader argument is not that we can win friends in Al Qaeda only that a defensist policy (only respond to direct attack or direct threat of attack) will take the wind of its sails by depriving it of recruits.

Heck, even Dubya (no libertarian revisionist) said that past U.S. support of Middle Eastern dictators helped create the conditions that fed support for Al Qaeda by making the fundamentalists the only game in town for dissenters.

Your argument implies that the U.S. was a libertarian paradise in foreign policy before 9-11. We have been "doing something" in the Middle East for decades. Let me count the ways: the coup in Iran (1953) followed by decades of support for the Shah, (marines sent to Lebanon (1959), billions to Israel (the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid) and Egypt (1940s-present), aid to the Islamofascists in Afghanistan (1979 to late 1980s), aid to Iraq (early 1980s), the first Gulf War, continuous bombing of Iraq during the Clinton years, etc.

Jason Pappas - 7/7/2004

C’mon. Do the attacks on Spain have something to do with Spain’s actions? That’s the question that “blowback” advocates should be concerned with. As I’ve argued, they don’t. And the attacks on civilians on Saudi Arabia are an opposition to our foreign policy? Supposedly, according to “we brought this on ourselves” advocates, our troops in Saudi Arabia ticked-off the Islamists – but we removed our troops.

Now, David, I’m sure you know the superficial analysis that tends to correlate trends without reference to cause and effect. The exponential growth of fundamentalist Islam was in place before we responded to the 9/11 atrocity. To argue that our response has brought further growth you’d have to argue that 9/11 was the last of a trend which was about to end just as we decided it was time to do something.

David T. Beito - 7/7/2004

The attacks in Saudi Arabia actually kicked in a big away after the U.S. began the occupation of Iraq. The same for Spain. The defenders of the war, of course, often assured us that such attacks would wane if we adopted a get tough policy. The precise opposite happened.

Gene Healy - 7/7/2004

I think you could have fit another couple of straw men into that comment if you'd really put your mind to it.

Jason Pappas - 7/7/2004

You’re both right. It’s propaganda that aims at two purposes. The first is to complete the terrorist act by blaming the victim. The second is a recruitment advertisement. However, you can not appease irrational hatred without emboldening it. As long as Islamists seek a scapegoat instead of facing their own failures, they will find some rationalization for their attacks. These attacks revive the Jihadist spirit and galvanize the movement.

I suggest we go past the silly view that Islamists are natural libertarians who only hate the actions of our government but would leave us alone otherwise. Most evidence points to the contrary. It was after we removed our troops from Saudi Arabia that we saw the attacks and executions of Western individuals working peacefully in that country. It was before Spain became part of the Iraq war when the plans for 3/11 were designed and two more attempts were thwarted after Spain said they would withdraw from Iraq. I could continue. The Islamic propaganda machine is aided by unwitting Westerners who repeat the rationalizations and complete the humiliation process. Let’s stop being “useful idiots.”

Gene Healy - 7/7/2004

Yes, that's all very useful if you're writing a biography of Bin Laden or something and what you're really after is discerning what's in OBL's heart, such as it is. What I'm really interested in, however, is what helps AQ grow. Whether sincerely felt or not, what they put in their fatwas, or on their websites is what they think will help them draw new followers. And every bill of particulars I've seen concentrates almost exclusively on US foreign policy.