I was reading an article
on Reason.com, when I found one, and only one comment, with which I agreed. The article was of the expected Ron Paul-ish neo-isolationist nature that seems to form so much of Reason's foreign policy thinking. (Which is a shame as Reason is usually pretty sound on economic matters.) A few commentators did make some dismissive noises, and one or two were critical of Ron Paul, though for taking pork rather than his foreign policy, but only one comment really stood out as being specifically sensible.
There are several real policy differences:
Bush made an open ended commitment to Afganistan and Iraq. Obama
has already set a withdraw date for Afganistan, ensuring that the
Taliban will stay quiet until then. At the same time, he decided to
give the Generals in charge most of the troops they requested, so
that he could blame them for the failure.
On a more important point, I'd like to understand what motivates
Libertarians when it comes to foreign affairs. Quite frankly, I'd
vote Libertarian in a heartbeat if you guys didn't have what I
believe to be an obviously insane position on foreign policy. There
are people out there who want to kill us, and I would like to see
them dead or too-scared to fight us. National security is the
primary responsibility of the Federal Government and is a perfectly
legitimate function of the state. What is the matter with an armed
force large enough to prevent us from getting
Strength through superior firepower is a critical part of this.
We need personnel, equipment and training to do anything. Yes, this
means a lot of butter is replaced with guns. On the other hand, it
means China is not invading to steal our butter.
We also need the will to use that power. Our enemies need to
know that if they fund terrorists or let them train in their
backyard, we will bomb them. They also need to know that we will
keep bombing until the job is done. If, on the other hand, they
perceive us as lacking the will to do anything other than issue
Bills of Attainder or bomb aspirin factories, they will laugh at us
and keep doing what they are doing.
If we show that we have strength, and the will to use it, our
enemies will think twice before they take action against us. If we
shrink our military substantially, or run away from commitments we
have made to our allies, we will look like a bunch of chumps who
are asking to be attacked.
Where am I wrong here?
I can understand the case for less involvement abroad... but
none? Alright, my asbestos suit is on. Make your case for why I am
Now, this interested me, as I covered exactly the same topic in passing in my post "A True Conservative Platform
".Normally that would satisfy me that I had done enough to dispel this error. But as this is a subject which comes up frequently, and as the "non-interventionist" (or neo-isolationist) position seems to be gaining currency among certain fiscal conservatives, I feel the need to give the subject a post of its own, so I can show how my view of government as a simple deputy exercising our rights relates to foreign affairs, and, more importantly, why a proper understanding of individual rights makes the Ron Paul position so absurd. (And perhaps, also, why the libertarian "fear of government" viewpoint which tends to favor this theory is itself a mistake.)
The fundamental assumption on which all of my political philosophy is built is that individuals are endowed with inalienable rights. And I take that very literally. These rights cannot be diluted, surrendered or abrogated. I have my rights regardless of whether I live alone or in a society. So, when the government exercises my rights on my behalf, for example my right to self-defense, they are doing so as my deputy. I do not give them my rights, I deputize them to act on my behalf, while retaining my own rights. And, more significantly, I can only give them rights I possess, the government can never have rights the citizens do not. ("A Simple Proposal
", "A Right Is A Right
", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government
", "My Vision of Government
", "My Vision of Government Part II
Some of those points are not relevant to this argument, but one is. While it does not matter in this context that I have every right the government does, it is relevant that the government has the same rights I do.
Allow me to explain.
The neo-isolationists often say that we have a right to act militarily only when our nation is threatened, and they often extend this to the extreme argument that we have the right to act only when our nation has been invaded. And that seems absurd to me.
I agree that the purpose of military action is self-defense, that free nations should not engage in expansionism and conquest*. But the rest of the assumptions seem unwarranted.
For instance, as an individual, I do not have to wait until another strikes me before I can defend myself. If I have reason to believe I will be attacked, I can attack in preemptive self-defense, provided my belief is found to be reasonable. So if another says he will kill me, or if I awaken to find an intruder in my home, I can act without waiting to be attacked. In fact, I can go farther than that. I don't even have to fear attack. I can use force to defend my property, or the life or safety of another.
So, if an individual has that much scope, why not a government? Cannot a government use force to protect the property of its citizens abroad? Or are Americans to be subject to expropriation whenever they leave the borders of the US? If another nation masses an army in Mexico or Canada, so we have to wait for them to attack? Or can we break up their forces before they attack? If a hostile nation builds a nuclear arsenal with the stated intent to destroy us, do we have to wait for the bombs to fall before acting?
And on a slightly more removed note, if a nation is conquering the world, do we have to wait until it is finally our turn and no allies are left? Or can we join with the nations being attacked to stop this open aggression?
And that is why I differ with the isolationists. A human does not have to wait until the first punch or stab or bullet lands, he can sensibly defend himself (or others, or property) even using preemptive action. And, if a citizen is justified in doing so, then a group of citizens called a government has the same right, and can act to defend themselves as well.
I have discussed what actions would result in military action in "Foreign Policy
", so I won't go into that here, instead I will settle for a few simple closing comments. First, the Ron Paul position, while sounding high minded, is in reality a suicide pact. As I said, if a nation knows its most likely foe is committed to not acting until invaded, then he has every reason to pick off every other nation first, knowing the US will sit it out, and only taking us on once he holds the rest of the world. And if we allow him to do so, we deserve what we get. The oceans were far from a real barrier even in the 19th or 18th century (see War of 1812), and they are less so now. If we allow unchecked aggression in the world, allow our allies to fall or hostile nations to build up into significant power blocs, we will face much worse situations than if we act to protect ourselves when the risks are small.
More significantly, there is really no conflict here between principles and pragmatism. As I said, citizens have more rights than the isolationists grant nations, so they are holding governments to standards they would not force on individuals, that is not morality, that is finding a conclusion and establishing rules to match it. On the other hand, I am saying "citizens have these rights, and so does the state", which seems to me the much more principled position.
* I am of two minds about assisting other nations in liberating themselves. As citizens have every right to engage in such activities, were the nation as a whole to agree to do so, then what argument could be raised against it? On the other hand, it does open the possibility of a minority being forced into fighting a war they do not support, so I suppose wars of liberation may need to remain private ventures on the part of citizens rather than national acts. But as the instances in which we have cause to engage in legitimate wars of national liberation at the invitation of the citizens are few and far between this is a minor question.
I wrote about the libertarian fear of government in "Third Party Problems
" and "The Libertarian Left
". In addition, I discussed the problems with making war predicated upon invasion, or making it the "last resort", in "What Happened?
", "Correlation vs. Causation
", "The Problem With Ron Paul
" and "War As Last Resort
". All of which make good companion pieces to this one.