Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight

G.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein — a decision that was approved by Congress — was justified on several grounds. One of those grounds was a humanitarian consideration: Saddam’s record as a brutally oppressive dictator.

But humanitarian acts have nothing to do with the interests of Americans, except for the mistaken belief that the “rest of the world” (presumably including our enemies and potential enemies) will think better of the United States for such acts. The belief, as I say, is mistaken. Our foreign enemies and potential enemies see such things as evidence of American softness, when they do not see them as ways of obtaining U.S. weapons for future use against American interests. Our foreign “friends” (the sneer is well-advised) see the humanitarian acts of the U.S. government as one, two, or all of the following: (a) substitutes for their own humanitarian acts, which may accordingly be curtailed or withheld, (b) evidence of America’s “imperial” aims, and (c) evidence of the willingness of Americans to expend lives and treasure, sometimes in vain, for elusive or illusory objectives.

From the point of view of American taxpayers, the commission of humanitarian acts by the U.S. government is almost always and certainly a waste of money. (I have elsewhere discussed and dismissed the proposition that such acts are morally superior to the alternative of letting taxpayers decide how best to use their money.)  It follows that now military operation can or should be justified solely on the basis of humanitarianism. And yet, that is the essential justification of Obama’s adventure in Libya.

Were Obama to come right out and say that our military involvement in Libya is really aimed at ensuring a continuous flow of petroleum from that country’s wells, refineries, and ports, he would be accused of waging a campaign of “blood for oil.” That, of course, was a leftist rallying cry against Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and Obama — as a man of the left and opponent of the Iraq war — does not want to be painted with the same brush.

Bush, too, sought to avoid the taint of “blood for oil.” But, in reality, it was in the interest of the U.S. (and other nations) to restore the flow of Iraqi oil to (or above) the rate attained before the imposition of UN sanctions.

Nevertheless, political discourse has become so mealy-mouthed since the end of World War II that no American politician dare speak of an economic motivation for the use of military force. And so, American politicians must adopt the language of hypocrisy, cant, and political correctness to justify acts that are either (a) unjustifiable because they are purely humanitarian or (b) fully justifiable as being in the interest of Americans, period.

In sum, American armed forces should be used only to preserve, protect, and defend the interests of Americans. To that end, American armed forces certainly may be used preemptively as well as reactively. And as long as it remains economically advantageous for Americans to import oil from other countries, it will be a legitimate use of American armed forces to defend those imports — at the source and every step of the way to this country. I would say the same about any resource whose importation is vital to the well-being of Americans.

The decision whether to use force to protect Americans and their interests, in any given instance, requires a judgment as to the likely costs, benefits, and success of the venture. For practical purposes, it is the president who makes that judgment, but he is ill-advised to commit armed forces without the backing of Congress. When armed forces have been committed, they should remain committed until the objective has been met, unless it becomes clear — to the president and Congress, the media and protesters to the contrary — that the objective cannot be met without incurring unacceptable costs.

A reversal of course sends a very strong signal to our enemies and potential enemies that America’s leadership is unwilling to do what it takes to protect Americans and their interests. Such a signal, of course, makes all the more likely that someone will act against Americans and their interests.

All of that said, I come to the following conclusions about current military engagements involving American armed forces:

  • Iraq was worth the effort, assuming that a post-withdrawal Iraq remains a relatively stable, oil-producing nation in the midst of surrounding turmoil.
  • Afghanistan is worth only the effort required to destroy its usefulness as an al Qaeda base. If that cannot be achieved, the large-scale U.S. presence in Afghanistan should be scaled back to a special operations force dedicated solely to the detection and destruction of al Qaeda facilities and personnel.
  • Libya is worth only the effort required to ensure that it remains a major oil-exporting nation. Aiding the Libyan rebels is likely to backfire because of the strong possibility that al Qaeda or its ilk will emerge triumphant in a rebel-led post-Gaddifi regime (as seems to be the case in Egypt’s post-Mubarak regime). Given that possibility, the U.S. government should withdraw all support of the NATO operation, with the aim of (a) bringing about the end of that operation or (b) forcing a “willing coalition” of European nations to do what it takes to ensure that a post-Gaddafi regime is no worse than neutral toward the West.

Earlier wars are treated here.

Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
More Final(?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Thomas Woods and War
“Peace for Our Time”
How to View Defense Spending
More Stupidity from Cato
Anarchistic Balderdash
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
A Point of Agreement
The Unreality of Objectivism
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism

Getting it Wrong and Right about Iran

Jeffrey Miron, an economist who graces the halls of Harvard University and Cato Institute, has a new blog, Libertarianism from A to Z. There, Miron mirrors Cato’s approach to policy issues, taking a free-market line on economic affairs and a knee-jerk isolationist line on defense matters. Consider this passage from Miron’s post, “Iran: Engagement, Sanctions, or Nothing?“:

Let’s take as given that, other things equal, it is in the world’s interest that Iran not possess nuclear weapons. . . . Then the following propositions all seem plausible:

1. Continued engagement just allows Iran to continue developing its nuclear capabilites.

2. Sanctions might slow Iran’s nuclear development a bit, but since both Russia and China are not really on board with sanctions, this effect will be minimal. (UPDATE: Miron, in a later post, has more to say about the essential futility of sanctions.)

3. Military action to destory the Iranian nuclear capabilities will address the issue in the short term, but Iran will just start over. Plus, such military action might escalate into something far more costly.

Faced with these choices, my vote is to do nothing.

Note the glaring contradiction. Miron postulates that it is not in the world’s interest for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but he prefers to do nothing about it. If it is not in the world’s interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons, then something ought to be done about it — and I don’t mean having a “serious, meaningful dialogue” with Iran, as our “glorious leader” proposes.

The time to deal with a serious threat is before it becomes an imminent one. So what if Iran might “start over” if we and/or Israel destroy its nuclear capabilities? Here, from DEBKAfile, is a realistic take:

Defense secretary Robert Gates hit the nail on the head when he said Friday: “The reality is there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so.” . . .

The answer to this argument is simple: It is exactly this approach which gave Iran 11 quiet years to develop its weapons capacity. For Israel and Middle East, a three-year setback is a very long time, a security boon worth great risk, because a) It would be a happy respite from the dark clouds hanging over the country from Iran and also cut back Hamas and Hizballah terrorist capabilities, and b) In the volatile Middle East anything can happen in 36 months. (Emphasis added.)

What’s missing from Miron’s analysis of the situation is an assessment of the consequences (i.e., costs) of allowing Iran to proceed. That’s a strange omission for an economist, an omission which suggests that Miron, like many another libertarian, “adheres to the [non-aggression] principle with deranged fervor.”

Well, evidently it takes a law professor (Tom Smith of The Right Coast) to get it right:

A nutcase regime in Asia is about to get nuclear weapons and not long after that the missiles to send them to Israel, Europe, Saudi Arabia and after that, who knows. The regime is populated by religious fanatics who deny the Holocaust and profess the desire to wipe Israel off the map in all apparent sincerity. Normally, one could rely on the Israelis to take care of themselves, but in this case, the crazed regime has gotten too powerful for the Israelis to handle. Just to fill out the picture, the folks building the nukes just stole an election and are imprisoning, torturing and killing into silence their domestic critics. These leaders are backed up by a praetorian guard of fanatics, a Waffen-SS if you will, to switch to another entirely appropriate comparison, on whose secret bases (for what is a geopolitical villain without secret bases?) the nuclear weapons are being gestated.

So who ya gonna call? Obviously, patently, indisputably the only people who can stand up to these frightening thugs are us. But as luck would have it, we are presently governed by the party who strategy is to talk to death the people whose idea of dialog is to throw their opponents in prison and beat them with hoses until they change their minds.

What will happen if the U.S. continues to muddle along in a Chamberlainesque fashion? For starters, this:

By now, Iran has used the gift of time to process enough enriched uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs and is able to produce another two per year.

Its advanced medium-range missiles will be ready to deliver nuclear warheads by next year.

Detonators for nuclear bombs are in production at two secret sites.

And finally, a second secret uranium enrichment plant – subject of the stern warning issued collectively in Pittsburgh Friday by Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British premier Gordon Brown – has come to light, buried under a mountain near Qom. Its discovery doubles – at least – all previous estimates of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The price of a pre-emptive attack on Iran might be high, but the price of inaction will be even higher. Legitimate U.S. interests in the Middle East (i.e., access to oil) will be threatened by a regime that has proceeded thus far in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to be fazed by more sanctions. The economic hardships caused by the “oil shocks” of the 1970s will be as nothing compared with the hardships caused by Iranian dominance of the Middle East.

Where will Western Europe, Russia, and China be in our hour of need? Western Europe will be busy emulating Vichy France, in the hope that its obseqiousness toward Iran is rewarded by dribbles of oil. Russia and China will actively support Iran (covertly if not overtly), in the expectation of profiting from higher prices on the oil they sell to Western Europe and the United States. Eventually, Russia and China will exploit the inevitable decline of American military power, as our defense budget disappears into the maw of Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other misbegotten ventures.

It should be clear to anyone who thinks seriously about the state of the world that the time to act against Iran was years ago. That opportunity having passed, now will have to do. The Obama-ish left will cry “no blood for oil,” but the burden should be on the left to offer affordable alternatives to Middle Eastern oil in lieu of war. If the left cannot offer affordable alternatives, the left’s low-to-moderate income constituencies are likely to suffer disproportionately when Iran begins to squeeze the West, and — surely — the elite left does not want that to happen. (Actually, the elite left couldn’t care less about lesser mortals, as long as the elitist agenda of political and environmental correctness becomes writ.)

The rub is that the  left cannot offer affordable alternatives without relaxing its embrace of radical environmentalism. The left has thus far decried “dependence” on foreign oil as an excuse to pour money into ethanol, wind power, and solar energy — none of which is a viable alternative to oil. And, of course, the left opposes feasible and relatively efficient alternatives, such as nuclear energy, coal-fired power plants, drilling in ANWR, and additional off-shore drilling. That leaves us with no choice but to import a lot of oil, much of it from the Middle East. But the left is loath to defend our interests there.

The left’s irreconcilable positions with respect to Iran, oil, and the environment — like the left’s positions on so many other issues — epitomize the “unconstrained vision” of which Thomas Sowell writes. The left, like Alice in Wonderland, likes to believe in “six impossible things before breakfast,” and all the rest of the day, as well.

We are now at a point in history similar to that of England in 1935. If England had begun to rearm then, Hitler might have been deterred or — if not deterred — defeated sooner. Doing nothing, as Miron and his libertarian and leftist brethren would prefer, is a prescription for eventual economic disaster or a longer, bloodier war than is necessary.

P.S. Tom Smith says it all, far more vividly and vigorously.

P.P.S. Two relevant items, here and here.

Related posts:
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
The Price of Liberty
How to View Defense Spending
The Best Defense…
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
A Point of Agreement
The Folly of Nuclear Disarmament