Blogs > Liberty and Power > National Security and the Precautionary Principle

Jul 8, 2004 10:15 am

National Security and the Precautionary Principle

As Bush and Cheney continue to claim that the world is a safer place since the fall of Saddam in Iraq we've heard and seen some pretty heated debates between conservatives and just about everybody else over the legitimacy, logic, and success of the war. In what I'd characterize as a pretty decent"explanation" for the war even with the complete failure to find WMD, Thomas Sowell argues that the risks of Saddam having WMD, acknowledged by just about everyone, justified the war. It's not a new case, but I think Sowell is a thoughtful guy who believes the administration's argument.

What he's essentially articulating is the precautionary principle. The idea that we have to act BEFORE the risk becomes serious in order to prevent it. Of course the problems with relying on this principle aren't insignificant. First we have to clearly see the risk. Second we have to project what that risk might be in five or ten years. Third, in this case, we have to rely on politicians to tell us what the risk is and trust that they are acting without undue influence from politics.

As I think most libertarians would agree, one can perhaps (and I emphasize, perhaps) see a case for this war based on that principle. Of course libertarians, like David Beito who has articulated this far better than I can, by and large reject the use of the principle by politicians, but I think we can all agree that if you're going to use the principle, Iraq wasn't completely off base.

A second argument we're hearing more of from the conservatives is that Saddam was just a bad guy. Bush claims how much better off the Iraqi people are, now that they live in"freedom" albeit under martial law. So I'd argue that in addition to the precautionary principle, Bush is also using a humanitarian argument to sell this war, especially now that no WMD were found.

Here again, libertarians believe that while the idea of nation-building is noble it's also doomed to failure. History is littered with examples where nation building fails and precious few examples where it works, especially when no prior nation really existed.

I think the pressing logical and political problem for conservatives who argue for this war lies not with those of us who reject using both the precautionary principle and nation-building justifications under any circumstances (and by the way I'd place myself in that camp). Instead the problem lies in justifying to mainstream voters where Bush decided to wage this precautionary war based on the reduction of future risk. There were three likely candidates for such a war that Bush mentioned after Afghanistan. Of those three Iraq was the easiest. But were those three the best candidates to give us both the most precautionary and humanitarian bang for the billions and billions of bucks?

Sooner or later someone is going to notice that Bush conspiciously left off Sudan from his axis, and guess what, Sudan fits both criteria perfectly, far better perhaps than Iraq. Sudan is widely acknowledged as a haven for terrorists, even a guy named Osama Bin Laden as this 1997 Global Security briefing on Sudan points out. We all seem to forget that Bin Laden basically lived in this country and set up training facilities there in the late 90's. Furthermore their"government" had ties to Iran and other Islamic terrorist groups. Unlike Saddam, the Sudanese government isn't secular; they've been supporters of anti-Western groups for years.

And someone might want to point out to people in the Bush administration other than Colin Powell that there's a major humanitarian crisis in Sudan that, as far as I can tell, exceeds Saddam's past atrocities. I'm pretty sure the people of Darfur would appreciate a little American style, martial law freedom more than the folks in Falluja do.

The kicker? Bush, Blair, and Europe want to impose sanctions to isolate this government that is harboring terrorists, killing its citizens and pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing. In contrast, sanctions and isolation weren't good enough for Iraq, which was under intense supervision by the UN in 2003. Did the war in Iraq save American lives, or will our failure to act in Sudan cost us dearly in the future? How do we measure the difference between innocent Iraqis and Sudanese? Using the precautionary principle is like looking into crystal balls, and both only work really well in fairy tales.

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More Comments:

Pat Lynch - 7/8/2004

Thanks Mark - now if only Bush would

M.D. Fulwiler - 7/8/2004

Good comments, Pat!