The New Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same)

Richard Epstein, the legal scholar and libertarian Republican known for his erudite wisdom in the fields of law and economics and tort law, has recently joined in the chorus of Right-wing critics attacking Senator Rand Paul (and President Obama) for arguing that the US government does not have enough information to carry out an attack or launch a military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and that further action on the part of Washington will only make things in the region worse rather than better.

Unfortunately, Epstein’s argument represents the best of what is essentially a quick-tempered fallacy that’s short on details and long on moral posturing. Epstein, for example, provides absolutely no outline for what action the US government should take against ISIS. Should the US bomb targets from afar as it has been doing in Pakistan? Should the US government put combat troops back on the ground in Iraq? Should the US invade Syria and strike ISIS from there? If you read carefully the arguments put forth by proponents of attacking ISIS, you’ll notice that none of them have an outline for what the US government should do about it (even the usually sharp Professor Epstein refrains from providing a coherent outline). Instead, readers are treated to ad hominem attacks that liken Senator Paul to the worst-possible person imaginable: the Big Government-loving Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, Barack Obama. Oh, the horror!

Epstein’s argument lays a great foundation for any starting point that discusses what a libertarian foreign policy should be. He writes:

Libertarian theory has always permitted the use and threat of force, including deadly force if need be, to defend one’s self, one’s property, and one’s friends. To be sure, no one is obligated to engage in humanitarian rescue of third persons, so that the decision to intervene is one that is necessarily governed by a mixture of moral and prudential principles. In addition, the justified use of force also raises hard questions of timing. In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal. In all cases, it is necessary to balance the risks of moving too early or too late.

Of course, none of this provides any helpful hints for what the US government can or should do going forward to deal with ISIS. Libertarians, like everybody else in the West save for a few disgruntled young Muslims, think that ISIS is morally bad. It does not follow, though, that the use of military force is the best (or even fifth-best) option going forward.

Unfortunately, many libertarians (though not Senator Paul) erroneously fall back on the fallacy that because the US government is unable to coherently attack ISIS (much less define it), Washington should simply adhere to a policy of non-intervention. So what follows is a modest proposal to implement a more libertarian foreign policy toward ISIS.

The interwar Austro-Jewish economist and one of libertarianism’s patron saints, Ludwig von Mises, wrote in his 1927 book Liberalism that:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars (109).

This observation – a basic tenet of libertarian political theory – ties in quite well with one stated goal of Islamist political theory, which seeks to partition the Sykes-Picot states of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon into smaller states in order to destroy the influence of Western “imperialists” in the Middle East. Lest detractors start accusing Islamists of being closet libertarians, it is worth noting that Islamists also seek to break all economic ties with the non-Muslim world in favor of an inter-regional protectionist union (to say nothing of Islamism’s views about religion and society).

The words of Mises summarize nicely not only where libertarians and Islamists can agree intellectually, but also points – if ever so subtly – to a new leadership position for a benevolent liberal hegemon like the United States to take up in an increasingly Balkanized world.

Instead of blindly attacking ISIS with no real plan in place, the West should temper the prudence of President Obama and Senator Paul with the libertarian notion of self-determination by recognizing the existence of the Islamic State and swiftly incorporating it into the existing IGOs – such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF – that the West has built up and maintained since the end of World War 2.

This policy would do much more than strike directly at the legitimacy and power of the authoritarian Assad and Maliki regimes by carving up their territories without their permission; it would also place the burden of governance directly upon the Islamists who have proclaimed an Islamic State.

ISIS has obtained power only because of the vacuum left behind by the Bush administration’s fatally flawed decision to remove regional strongman (and secularist) Saddam Hussein from power. ISIS has therefore had no responsibilities to date – despite its claim to govern territory – save to plunder and murder in the name of religion. Placing the burden of governance directly on the shoulders of ISIS would necessarily alter its foundation of power, and when it becomes apparent that Islamism’s political and economic theories leads directly to despotism and poverty, the benevolent liberal hegemon will be waiting to recognize the independence of regions within the Islamic State that aspire to independence or union with another state.

This policy would also shift the ability to make and enforce international rules and norms back to Washington and would bring a semblance of order to the Middle East by placing a benevolent liberal hegemon into a position of leadership that is capable of recognizing and engaging with the Arab public’s desire for liberty. A liberal hegemon could achieve much of this peacefully and legally.

It is unfortunate that many libertarians – especially in the United States – have adopted the reactionary stance of non-intervention in foreign affairs. Aside from being impossible, non-intervention is also inimical to libertarianism’s social individualism. In the same vein, the calls for military action and the personal attacks against politicians unwilling to act blindly in the realm of foreign affairs does more harm than good as it distracts citizens from focusing on the issue at hand: namely, what is to be done about ISIS. Senator Paul and President Obama have so far made the right decision, but unless Islamism is tackled directly – intellectually – the woes and fears of the West will only continue to mount.

It is time for the West to adopt a more libertarian foreign policy.

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14 thoughts on “The New Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same)

  1. I like this post, but I think you’re much too kind to Epstein’s article. A person who starts an article describing his opponents as “clueless” but then advocates wars on as feeble a basis as Epstein has, really deserves to get his ass kicked from here to Damascus.

    Libertarians, he tells us, are clueless about “the ISIS threat.” Excuse me, what threat? Threat to what, exactly? I’d like to hear someone spell out in detail what kind of threat they think ISIS is, and why it’s the kind of threat that would justify a full-scale military intervention. All I’ve heard is a repetition of the same old pre-Iraq-war handwaving, but worse, since (a) there is less of a case to be made that ISIS is a threat to the United States than there was in the case of Iraq, and (b) we ought by now to have learned something from the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq. What we ought to have learned is that even when a war is justified in the sense of being a proportionate response to someone else’s aggression, one has to think long and hard before engaging in it, because it may not be worth fighting, and the post bellum peace one envisions at the outset may never come. How anyone can have lived through the 2000s and missed this is beyond me, but the supposedly clued-in Epstein evidently has obviously missed it. I don’t see any thinking in Epstein’s article. I see cheap rhetorical blather aimed at scoring points against Rand Paul and Obama.

    Epstein opens by telling us that a government needs to repel “foreign aggression.” He confuses the issue by adding a few vague suggestions about defending “one’s friends.” (Are nations “friends”? Are we talking about international affairs or the sixth grade schoolyard?) Eventually this relatively determinate talk skates into vacuities about “our vital interests.” What is a “vital interest”? How does “vital” modify “interest”? What is the criterion that defines something as a war-worthy “interest”? He makes no attempt to answer any of those questions, but manages sanctimoniously to lecture the reader about the “enormity” of fighting foreign aggressors–an “enormity” libertarians fail to grasp. Earth to Epstein: ISIS has not invaded the United States. Nor can it. Nor will it. Instead of conjuring the interventionist rabbit out of your war-mongering hat via “vital interests,” it might be nice if you could explain how the national security of the citizens of the fifty states that constitute the Union are affected by a civil war in Syria. Apparently, not going to war is an “enormity,” but going to war isn’t.

    Epstein is worried about “causal links” involving internecine battles between warring Syrian factions, but doesn’t seem to grasp that he needs to show us the “causal link” between Syria and the national security of the country he lives in–and doesn’t seem to grasp that in that crucial respect, his “argument” isn’t even worth laughing at. We should intervene “before it’s too late,” he says. Too late for what? If we move too slowly, stuff will “get out of hand.” How?

    He concedes half-way through that no one has an obligation to engage in humanitarian intervention. Well, if there is no clear security interest at stake, our intervention in Syria would be a humanitarian intervention. In that case, why is reluctance to intervene an instance of “cluelessness” as opposed to being the most obvious thing in the world?

    I’m just scratching the surface here. The truth is that it’s Epstein’s argument that’s the perfect exemplification of cluelessness, not that of his opponents.

    • I like this post, but I think you’re much too kind to Epstein’s article.

      Too true Dr Kawaja, but for a blog as humble as this one focusing on the best aspects of an argument I don’t like is more likely, I think, to garner attention than focusing on all of Dr Epstein’s ad hominems (which were many, and which were acknowledged before being ignored).

      I agree with almost everything you write. Epstein did a horrible job of criticizing the disparate foreign policy views of both President Obama and Senator Paul. Yet Epstein’s fallacies represent a significant view within the libertarian quadrant of the GOP. They are fallacies, true, but they are also repeated often and recited with a religious fervor. This makes their fallacies dangerous, and therefore worth exploring a bit more carefully.

      It is true, for example, that ISIS is not a threat to the United States, but this is not the reason for calls to intervene in Iraq and Syria militarily. Hawks condescendingly believe that the US military can bring about justice by taking one side in a conflict that has at least two sides to it. The US can bomb ISIS in Syria, but doing so will strengthen the Assad regime, which is strange because not long ago hawks wanted the US to bomb the Assad regime (which would, in turn, strengthen ISIS). Once you point this out you’ll begin getting the Hitler comparisons, but smarter readers will at least know then the difference between he who seeks truth and he who speaks for others.

  2. Fair enough on all counts.

    As for the Hitler comparison, I think that issue really needs to be opened and discussed from scratch. One relatively superficial problem with the Hitler/ISIS analogy is that ISIS is not plausibly regarded as the threat to us that Nazi Germany was, or could have been. But at a deeper level: instead of regarding war with Nazi Germany as beyond question, we ought to be able to ask the question why it was necessary to go to war with them. Once we grasp that nettle, I think the Hitler comparisons really lead in one of three directions: either they show us how different the Nazi regime was from ISIS, or they cast doubt on the “need” to fight the Nazis in the first place, or they prove that we “had” to fight the Nazis only because we put ourselves on a path that made fighting inevitable. But we shouldn’t walk around with the axiom that if x resembles the Nazis, well, then we better fight x…or else we’re dishonoring our forbears. Which is about the level of neo-conservative discussion on this topic.

    The reason why we went to war with Nazi Germany is that the Nazis (credibly) declared war on us after we declared war on Japan–after Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor (after we challenged Japanese imperialism in East Asia…etc.). Granted, there was naval warfare in the Atlantic before December 1941, but we might have avoided that by not supporting Britain (and the USSR) against the Nazis in the first place. War with the Nazis became an inevitability because of our prior involvement in a European quarrel, not because of the unique turpitude of the Nazis (much less because of the Holocaust). I don’t mean to deny that the Nazis were uniquely evil. I mean: that’s not why we fought. The reasons we fought were highly contingent, and might, given different contingencies, have led to not fighting at all.

    The preceding suggestion seems off-limits to some, but I don’t think it is. Suppose we had not supported Britain in 1940-41, not had a Lend-Lease program (“An Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States”), and the Nazis had not declared war on us after Pearl Harbor. Was war with them necessary or obligatory? I don’t see why. If we could go decades without hot war with the USSR or China, why not adopt a similar policy vis-a-vis Germany? (Yes, Korea involved some hot war with China, but my point is: we could have avoided that, too.) And if there is no good case for war with the Nazis under a consistently isolationist policy, the Hitler comparisons in the ISIS case are worse than useless.

    What we have in the ISIS case is just an exaggerated version of the “inevitabilities” that got us into war with Germany. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, we ourselves created the path dependency that gives the illusion of requiring war against ISIS as a further “correction.” In that sense, the Hitler comparison is quite apt, but entails the opposite of what the hawks believe. We’re being led to war to correct the disasters created by the last war, themselves intended to correct the problems of the war before. Isn’t it time to stop digging? Perhaps we shouldn’t have gotten onto any of these paths. The best way to avoid traveling down the highway to hell is to take an exit ramp and get the hell off while you still can. Not that you’re disagreeing, I realize.

  3. yes absolutely, and Khmer Rouge should have been in the United Nations as well. The collision between libertarian ideology and reality is amusing to watch, as long as this ideology remains marginalized. As we used to say in the Soviet Block, and then the reality squeaks.

    • fatman,

      The Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian state and then implemented domestic policies based on socialist ideology. Islamic State has declared itself independent of any other states in the region and has purposely claimed territory in more than one state for a reason (to strike at Sykes-Picot, aka “imperialism”).

      Your analogy just isn’t up to snuff.

    • Ignim,

      I agree that the US is not a global hegemon, nor do I necessarily want it to be, but it has plenty of potential to continue being a regional hegemon in the Middle East (so long as the policies of the last two presidents are scrapped).

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