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.
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
There sometimes comes a point at which it makes sense to become embroiled in a distant war. Take World War II, for example. FDR’s economic policies were disastrous for the U.S. — of that there’s never been any doubt in my mind. But I give FDR credit for his ability to see that if Germany and Japan gained dominance over Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. would eventually be squeezed into submission, economically and militarily. My point is that not all “embroilments” are necessarily bad.
Which brings me to the Middle East. If the U.S. allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons — which seems to be certain given Obama’s supine attitude toward Iran — disaster will follow. Iran will be able to control the region through nuclear blackmail, and given its reserves of oil and the willingness of its leaders to accept economic isolation, it (meaning its leaders) will be able to disrupt life in the West because of its ability to shut off the supply of oil to the West.
To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, the U.S. can stop Iran now, before it has done what Obama is allowing it to do, or the U.S. can stop it later, after it has done great economic damage, which the U.S. won’t escape inasmuch as the market for oil is unitary. Nor will the U.S. escape human damage if the U.S. doesn’t act until after Iran becomes capable of attacking the U.S.
It doesn’t matter who did what to cause Iran’s leaders to view the U.S. as “the great Satan.” (Sunk costs are sunk.) There’s no longer an option to butt out of Iran’s affairs. Given the fanatical enmity of Iran’s leaders toward the U.S. (which isn’t dispelled by superficial cordiality), it’s beyond belief that Iran isn’t steadily striving to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction — nuclear missiles, perhaps delivered from off-shore vessels instead of by ICBMs; “suitcase” bombs; coordinated strikes on the power grid, oil-production facilities, and water supplies; and much more that the U.S. intelligence apparatus should but may not anticipate, and which the U.S. government’s leaders may in any event fail to prepare for.
I may be wrong about all of this, but it’s the kind of thinking that should be done — even by economists — instead of latching onto Noah Smith’s superficial numeracy.