Blogs > Liberty and Power > Ryan Sager Rethinks Libertarianism

Nov 22, 2004 11:17 am

Ryan Sager Rethinks Libertarianism

In"Rethinking Libertarian Minimalism" and on his blog (starting here), Ryan Sager has been lashing out at libertarians because they have, he says, an"inability" to say anything"serious ... regarding foreign policy. Pacifism combined with isolationism, as preached more or less by many at Cato and Reason is neither the popular nor the correct answer to the threat of global terrorism. And hunting Osama bin Laden, as was the Kerry solution, is, frankly, just an idiotic personalization of a phenomenon that ultimately, make no mistake about it, amounts to a historic clash of civilizations," he writes.

One of the problems, of course,"facile" or not, is that there is no such thing as a monolithic libertarian position on foreign policy; we can argue all we want about who is the"true" libertarian in all this, but that debate is fast becoming religious (like who is the true"Christian" among scores of Christian sects). Truth is, there has been an amazingly diverse response from libertarian writers on the subject of the war. Some of us favored the Afghanistan campaign, some stopped short at Iraq, while others supported the Iraq war and would like to move on to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Still others have opposed U.S. government actions anywhere, suggesting Letters of Marque as an alternative. This is evidence, I think, that a serious debate has been taking place for several years now among libertarians about the best course of action.

I can only speak for myself. In this"historic clash of civilizations," one thing is important: If one is not to merely oppose the dark forces in the Middle East, but triumph over them, one must not adopt and practice the very policies that emboldened these forces to begin with. It is not a serious solution to the long-term problem of Islamic terrrorism if libertarians merely mimic the neoconservatives, providing them with an ideological apologia for their"muscular foreign policy" goals.

True enough, Sager understands that"those of us who espouse a philosophy of limited government domestically" have faced difficulties in the post-9/11 era. But that's because most of us who espouse this philosophy understand the intimate relationship between the growth of an interventionist policy abroad and one at home. That doesn't mean that we're"mired in a pre-9/11 mindset"; what it does mean is that we are capable of applying a classical liberal mindset to today's problems in a way that seeks not to duplicate the same policy mistakes, which formed part of the context for the 9/11 catastrophe.

Sager is correct to emphasize various areas requiring deeper discussion, specifically on the question of how to encourage liberalization and democratic-liberal nation-building in deeply illiberal Middle Eastern societies. He asks:"What are the prerequisites of a free society? How can they be fostered? How can we turn over power to the people we've liberated?" I've been asking, and answering, similar questions from the beginning; one of the reasons I opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq is that I opposed the neocon belief that it is possible to simply institute democracy without certain cultural prerequisites.

One more thing needs to be addressed here. Though Sager is willing to concede that"[p]eople of good will and good judgment disagreed about the Iraq invasion before it happened, and [that] we all have our various assessments of how it has turned out so far," he is urging libertarians to come up with a good way to fix the problem. He seems to suggest, however, that antiwar libertarians are simply"sounding more and more like Michael Moore," not quite able to truly understand the nature of this war as a" clash of civilizations."

Justin Raimondo had something valuable to say about this issue in last week's column,"Why We Fight," where he:

underscore[s] the self-undermining mechanism of the effort to"export democracy," as one neoconservative publicist puts it. The process of spreading a"global democratic revolution" – in the president's words – not only subverts democracy at home, but also discredits and defeats it throughout the Middle East. If"democracy" and even"free markets" are represented by foreign invaders and their local quislings, then sheer pride and instinctual nationalism will give rise to a rebellion of illiberalism. ...
The outright barbarism of the defenders of Fallujah – the beheadings, the kidnappings, the suicide bombings – is the work of a"resistance" that is in no way admirable. The various groups that have arisen in opposition to the American occupation – the Islamists, the neo-Ba'athists, the radical Shi'ites, etc. – are all of them totalitarians of either a religious or secular cast, with the former rapidly gaining the upper hand. No American peace movement worthy of the name can give them any kind of support: they are not the"minutemen" of Michael Moore's imagination, unless one views Patrick Henry as some sort of improbable early American ayatollah – which he was most certainly not. ...
Today, we oppose the occupation of Iraq, without granting the Islamist-Ba'athist resistance a single iota of moral or political legitimacy. ... Yes, it is understandable that an occupied people will fight back: but totalitarians feed on legitimate grievances, and often come to power because they seem to address them. The tragedy and irony of our war of"liberation" in Iraq is that it is empowering the very forces – and, make no mistake about it, they are dark forces – we seek to defeat. ...
Yes, we are at war with radical Islam. However, that struggle does not require the democratic"transformation" of the Middle East, but rather a recognition of the reality that we are fighting an asymmetric war against a worldwide guerrilla insurgency, not a traditional-style battle to conquer and occupy nation-states – a battle that must be won politically, primarily, and conducted militarily only in a precise and strictly limited sense. Our strategy must be to isolate the Islamists, and that requires the renunciation, not the escalation, of the foreign policy that gave birth to the jihadists in the first place.

I have some differences with Raimondo in this excerpt. I don't believe, for example, that U.S. foreign policy gave birth to the jihadists but it certainly emboldened them. Of course, I should add that some kind of cultural transformation in the Middle East will be necessary in the long-run; but, with Raimondo, I believe that it won't be achieved by the forced grafting of"democratic" institutions onto cultures that reject them. In any event, my point here is a simple one: even Justin Raimondo, whom I take to be among the most profoundly opposed to U.S. intervention abroad, is under no illusions about the dangers of radical Islam.

Sager is worried that if libertarians don't get with the prowar program,"we risk utter irrelevancy in a post-9/11 world with a tendency toward increasing state power." Alas, opposing that increase, and fighting the right battle against the forces of oppression at home and abroad, is more relevant than ever. And though relentless military battles will need to be fought, the primary battle remains philosophical and cultural. Armed with an understanding of the nature of freedom, its preconditions and effects, armed also with an understanding of the unintended consequences of political action, most libertarians are well-armed indeed to fight this battle.

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Mark Brady - 11/26/2004

I suggest that the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda was rather different from that described by Chris. Consider some recent remarks by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who spoke last week at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. "Early in 2002, the Taliban was split. About 50 percent of the Taliban leadership hated Osama bin Laden and wanted him out. We could have worked with them. But we went ahead and treated the Taliban as one entity. The Taliban has survived. Al Queda has survived. We wanted to eliminate crazy people who want to fly planes into buildings. But instead we dehumanized everyone in Afghanistan and Iraq." To read more of Hersh's speech, go to Joyce Marcel's account, Bush: When Even the Good News Is Bad posted November 26 at:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/24/2004

I think that the issue was not so much that the Taliban was unwilling to expel Al Qaeda, but that Al Qaeda was practically the military arm of the Taliban. The relationship was symbiotic in many ways. I do think that it was virtually impossible to strike back at Al Qaeda terrorists without thereby taking down the Taliban as well.

This does not mean that I am oblivious to the U.S. role in helping to actually constitute Al Qaeda and the Taliban---a role that stretches back to US assistance to "freedom fighters" or Mujahideen in Afghanistan as a foil to the Soviet Union. Nor does it mean that I am oblivious to the persistence of warlordism, tribalism, and the emergence of a narco-state in Afghanistan, on the US watch. I've written about this in a number of posts here at L&P.

This said: I do not advocate "relentless military strikes" on Al Qaeda "sympathizers," but on actual terrorist camps and networks. If I were advocating such strikes on "sympathizers," I would have to also advocate military assaults on Yemeni clerics in Brooklyn who have been revealed as financial supporters of the Al Qaeda network. Obviously, there are other ways of striking at that network that go beyond military. Military strikes need to be limited and targeted to be effective in neutralizing a threat.

Ultimately, of course, this whole situation requires a rethinking of US foreign policy, which is what I've been addressing here at L&P for over a year, such that it is not on a collision course with those "dark forces" of Islam that I alluded to in the current post.

Mark Brady - 11/23/2004

I wish to make a number of points. First, when I mentioned "Irish-American sympathizers of the Provisional IRA", I had in mind fund-raisers who, as David points out, often raised money publicly in the U.S. Second, Provos themselves found sanctuary in the United States during the 1970s and later. Third, Aeon writes: "The Taliban govt of Afghanistan was acting in concert with Al Qaeda." Wasn't it more a question of the Taliban being unwilling (unable?) to expel Al Qaeda?

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/23/2004

Sympathizers, or combat troops? As I said, IRA _sympathizers_ are morally obtuse, but that's their right. It is proper for the govt to allow citizens to express support for immoral causes. Did the US govt run IRA training camps? That would have to be the case for Mark's criticism of Chris to be valid.

David T. Beito - 11/23/2004

The U.S. did essentially wink and nod (give refuge to) at the presence of IRA sympathizers during the 1970s in the U.S. during that period (and earlier) especially in states like Massachusetts which large Irish populations. I remember that not so long ago that IRA often raised money, and quite publicly, in the U.S.

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/23/2004

That's not a good analogy.
1, The IRA-sympathizers who lived in America were not acting in accordance with the US government. The Taliban govt of Afghanistan was acting in concert with Al Qaeda.
2, Sympathizing with the IRA, while morally obtuse, isn't the same thing as being a member of the IRA. Chris was referring to targeting _actual_ members of Al Qaeda. I don't know about Chris, but this Brooklyite would have no objection if an _actual_ IRA terrorist cell operating in Brooklyn were taken down by SAS agents, although it would probably be better if that were a joint SAS/FBI operation. But see point 1.

Mark Brady - 11/23/2004

I'm sure Chris, who lives in Brooklyn, would not have been happy had the British government fought "relentless military battles" "in the sense of targeting known ... networks" of Irish-American sympathizers of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/23/2004

Only relentless in the sense of targeting known camps and networks when necessary; I'm one of those guys who have favored taking down Al Qaeda, for example.

Mark Brady - 11/22/2004

You write: "And though relentless military battles will need to be fought, the primary battle remains philosophical and cultural." I understand the second part, but I'm puzzled as to what you mean by the first.