A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

After a few busy days at the office I finally have the time to take up Brandon’s challenge and write a few lines about interventions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Brandon writes in some of the comments the basic classical liberal and liberal position is that interventions are a bad idea. They are a breach of the sovereignty of other states, and rarely achieve their goals. Military interventions upset the international order and the international and regional balances of power, and open the door to all kinds of counter-interventions. They are especially prone to failure when their goals are extensive, such as a desire to construct democracy in countries without democratic traditions. This is an act of rationalist constructivism, long associated with communism and socialism rather than liberalism.

Whether all interventions also weaken and possibly destabilize the intervening power, as some libertarians (and Brandon) claim is another matter. This surely depends on so many other variables that it is hard to take as a general rule. Indeed, to welcome a Chinese intervention to fight ISIS/ISIL in the expectation this would seriously weaken authoritarian China (again see Brandon’s thought provoking blog a few days ago) seems a few bridges too far.

Still, it is too simple to rule out all interventions, in all circumstances. While a duty to intervene cannot easily be defended, the right to intervention is a different matter altogether. For example, while generally opposed to military interventions for humanitarian purposes, David Hume and Adam Smith did allow prudent political leaders to intervene. Hardly ever for humanitarian reasons, but for reasons of state. Important principles they embraced, for example found in the work of Hugo Grotius, were the rights to punishment, retaliation, preventive action, the protection of property rights and the protection of subjects against other countries.

Applying the wisdom of the Scots to our current world does open the door for some military action by the West against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action. Also, ISIL clearly upsets the fragile regional balance of power, where the West has a clear stake given the recent intervention in Iraq (regardless what one thinks of that intervention, but that is all water under the bridge). Also, ISIL’s state formation is not a case of regular secession which libertarians may sympathize with. While it has its supporters, this is mainly a  case of state formation at gun point, against the will of most people inhabiting the land controlled by ISIL.

Of course, this does not mean President Obama’s plan is going to succeed. While military action may kill many of the ISIL leaders and perhaps ultimately minimize its military capacity, it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL. After all, interventions do not change the mindsets of people. Surely, this ideology will remain with us, in one form or the other. That is no reason to abstain from intervention, yet it is a reason to set clear and limited goals, and to be honest and modest about its inevitably limited long term effects.

24 thoughts on “A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

  1. “(Military interventions) are a breach of the sovereignty of other states.” I think it’s proper to attribute this thought to Brandon.

    It’s difficult to understand why libertarians would worry about the sovereignty of states that is, of institutions that command a monopoly of violence over a territory and its people (to paraphrase Max Weber’s definition of the state, the only one that makes sense, in my book).

    I have raised this comment about gross inconsistency with other orthodox libertarians in the past. I never received a coherent response.

    “…it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL.” (because war does not change people’s mindset.)

    Changing mindsets is only one way to go. Another way is to kill all ISIL fighters or enough of them that others would slink away. And, incidentally, the aura of military triumph around ISIS probably has a lot to do with its ability to attract young adventurers from the Middle East and from Europe. It’s not a bad bet that the flow would decrease if ISIL lost its impunity.

    Reminder: The allies did not appreciably change the mindset of the Japanese in World War Two. Similar story for Germany.

    • Hi Jacques, dependend a bit how you define sovereignty. If it is seen as the free and voluntary association of sovereign individuals, breaching sovereignty is like breaching property rights at the aggregate level.

      Not much chance on killing them all, I guess! I just mean to say that perhaps you can kill ISIL, but then another group will be formed in the near future, still aiming at establishing a caliphate in one or other form.

      I do think the German mindset was drastically changed after WW 2, by the way…

    • Van de Haar: There are currently no sovereign states as you define them though there might be in the future. The sovereignty breached in the case under discussion is that of entities that exist largely or completely by force. I repeat that I don’t understand why people who think of themselves as libertarians should respect their sovereignty. There might be pragmatic reasons to avoid breaching these entities’ borders but I don’t see how either the word “respect” nor “sovereignty” should be used.

      Yes, there is nothing like utter defeat and ruination to fix people’s attention. You are making my point for me. Shortly after Nazi Germany was badly defeated and laid to ruins, a democratic ( and pacifist) Germany arose. The Nazis never resurrected the way you seem sure violent jihadists would resurrect if ISIS were destroyed to the same extent that Nazi Germany was. (Please, let’s not talk about neo-Nazis; they are just drunkards with suspenders.) There is a hidden assertion in your argument. You should fish out and lay it out flat, I think.

      By the way, I like your essay. I am catching a ride on it to hunt down orthodox libertarian contradictions.

  2. This is an excellent post, as usual, Dr van de Haar.

    I have just a couple of replies (and then a few more for Dr Delacroix!).

    First, you write that:

    [Military interventions] are a breach of the sovereignty of other states

    This is true and many paleolibertarians (the folks at lewrockwell.com and antiwar.com – none of whom specialize in IR of course – come to mind) rely on this argument in foreign policy debates, so you are not incorrect in attacking this argument. However, contra Jacques’ accusation, my argument is a little different (and even more libertarian than the paleo camp’s).

    In general, I do not respect the sovereignty of post-colonial states. I have made my reasons for this lack of respect numerous times on the blog (see “Syria and the Failure of Imperialisms, Old and New,” “Imperialisms Old and New: Sykes-Picot and the United Nations,” and “Bizarre Love Triangle: Towards A New Internationalism” for more). Basically, post-colonial states are not viewed as legitimate by the people who live under the governing regimes of these states, which contributes immensely to the persistence of authoritarianism in these regions. Western-created, and Western-dominated, IGOs such as the IMF and the UN perpetuate this authoritarianism by sanctifying the borders drawn up by Western imperialists nearly a century ago (see “The State Alone Cannot Be Blamed For ‘Sham Arab Democracy’” for more on this specific point).

    It does not follow, though, that the West should be free to violate the legislation it passed and sanctified in order to correct past mistakes. This, at its heart, is the libertarian argument for respecting sovereignty. It has absolutely nothing to do with respecting the sovereignty of illegitimate states and everything to do with holding Western governments accountable to the rule of law (even if the laws are international and even if they are poorly-constructed ones). Incidentally, this is why I have been advocating for a different way of looking at how the West conducts its foreign policy (see “The New Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same)” and “What Would A Political Union of the EU, the NAFTA States, and Japan-South Korea Look Like?” for more on this specific point).

    Second, I don’t think the public execution of a few journalists in a war zone is grounds for Western military intervention. That seems a bit too rich for me.

    Lastly, you correctly note that this is as much about ideology as it is about power and acknowledge that this is a good “reason to set clear and limited goals,” yet it seems to me that “clear and limited goals” is a rather ambiguous statement. What goals do interventionists have in mind in regards to ISIS/ISIL? Ambiguity in policy is the mother of despotism, and I have yet to see any hawks or policymakers elaborate upon the exact goals they have in mind for defeating ISIS. Surely you could provide us with some details Dr van de Haar.

    Dr Delacroix writes about a lack of coherence on the part of libertarians in matters of foreign policy, but I do believe it is he who is incoherent on these matters. See, for instance, my short piece dealing with his straw men titled “Imperialism: The Illogical Nature of ‘Humanitarian’ Wars. Instead of answering my rebuttals, or admitting that he is wrong, Jacques simply changes the subject or ignores the rebuttals altogether. This is not surprising since he is on record for supporting the 2003 illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in the name of democracy. Check it out:

    You cast a disdainful look at Iraqi democracy, a pure product of President Bush’s war of choice, and a child of the US and allies’s military invasion. I think you need to do this lest nation-building appears not to be a silly endeavor. Here is what I see:

    Iraq has a properly elected government. It results from Iraqi citizens voting in larger percentages than Americans usually do. Sometimes, they do this under threat of death. This democratic government is sure enough of itself to affirm that its protector and genitor, the US armed forces must leave. That is, it’s exactly like any other self-assured sovereign entity. There has been no coup, no attempted coup and the rule of law prevails there better than in most less-developed countries. (Obviously, terrorist actions against that government have nothing to do with my claim that it is applying the rule of law.) With all this, Iraq is not Switzerland. As far as corruption is concerned, it’s more like New Orleans or Illinois. In terms of representativity, it’s probably significantly better than either. All in all, it compares favorably with this Republic in 1785.

    This success in nation-building should not surprise you because it conforms to what always happens when the US wins a war. It happened with Italy, with Germany, with Japan, and by the way, with France to an extent. It half happened with South Korea where we did not really win. It did not happen with Vietnam where we lost. Your sage doubts about whether or not the “Sunni factions” will continue to support democracy in Iraq does not cost you much. And the Republican Party might split into two or three factions, and the rational wing of the Democratic Party might join en masse the Republican Party. And, as the French say so colorfully, “If my aunt had balls, we would call her ‘Uncle’.” You can always hypothesize new catastrophes.

    I have yet to see him publicly renounce his support for rationalist constructivism.

  3. Aha, now I finally understand your persistent use of the term ‘post-colonial’! However, I am not sure you are right when you say:

    “Basically, post-colonial states are not viewed as legitimate by the people who live under the governing regimes of these states, which contributes immensely to the persistence of authoritarianism in these regions. Western-created, and Western-dominated, IGOs such as the IMF and the UN perpetuate this authoritarianism by sanctifying the borders drawn up by Western imperialists nearly a century ago (see “The State Alone Cannot Be Blamed For ‘Sham Arab Democracy’” for more on this specific point).”

    The thing is: a lot of people living in these state do view their state as legitimate. As Hume wrote in his essay “On the First Principles of Government”: all governments are founded only on opinion. In the end, all governments which are seen as unjust will be toppled. The Arab Spring has been a good recent example (although without a liberal outcome thusfar). So to my taste your argument is founded too much on the status quo, instead of the chance on change.

    A clear set of goals, in my view, in this particular occasion could be: we will bomb the hell out of ISIL, for the coming three years, and we will provide armaments to the Kurds, Iraqis and possibly some of the Syrians in the same period. So no promise to eradicate ISIL, to make the region peaceful, let alone to promote democracy and the like. On the other hand, you can never predict how events will unfold at the ground, so for reasons of state some leeway about tactics is perfectly justifiable to me.

    • Aha, now I finally understand your persistent use of the term ‘post-colonial’!

      Hahah! All the blame goes to UCLA’s anthropology department for instilling such a superfluous term in my thought process.

      Both the ‘interests of state‘ argument and the ‘status quo/chance of change‘ argument are ones I’d like to discuss a little further. I want to discuss them because I think both are good arguments, but they are good because they show why dovish libertarians have the moral and logical upper hand in the foreign policy debate with hawkish ones. (I don’t want to dig into the fact that there is an obvious split between American libertarians and libertarians from the rest of the world on this issue, yet I do have to wonder aloud if the tables would be turned if somebody other than US taxpayers were footing the bill for these military interventions. Thucydides’ free-rider problem is still as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.)

      Interests of state. No promises to bring about peace or eliminate ISIS, but promises to bring plenty of bombing? Over a matter of a few journalists? To protect the minorities that the Ba’athists have traditionally protected (the same Ba’athists that the West has removed or threatened to remove)? I don’t see how getting mired in a protracted bombing campaign will serve the interests of Western states. As a thought exercise, what would happen to Russia or Iran (or even China) if they were to do exactly what Western interventionists propose to do? How would these states benefit from intervening in a Middle Eastern conflict involving scores of violent factions? Would the West be able to do any better because the US is richer than than the authoritarian regimes? It seems to me that an unquantifiable amount of fairy dust would be needed to pull off a policy that bolsters the interests of Western states through sporadic bombing campaigns and arming rival factions.

      A better argument to make for an interest of state would be to recognize the independence of Kurdistan and other independent-minded administrative units in Iraq and Syria (or elsewhere in the post-colonial world; see, for example, “The Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same).”

      Status quo versus chance for change.Your charge that my position is the conservative one (status quo) and yours is the liberal one (chance for change) is a mean one, Dr van de Haar. I like it of course. If you think about it though, mine is the liberal position and yours is the conservative one. Case in point is the Kurdistan option I advocate above. If the West were to recognize the independence of regions tired of belonging to states that nobody but rent-seekers want to govern, it would give the post-colonial world an actual chance to change (from an ‘interests of state’ position, the liberal option is better, too. This policy change will give the West allies and show regional players who is boss, as giving regions in the post-colonial world the option of seceding would be far more powerful than indiscriminately bombing “terrorists”). It would also be a significant driver of change in the region, again moreso than indiscriminately bombing various factions (that may, incidentally, be wielding weapons the West supplied to them earlier in a campaign).

      In fact, bombing ISIS and arming other factions while doing nothing else about the problems in the Middle East – as you and other military interventionists propose – is the conservative position to take. It is the status quo writ large. The West has been doing this since the end of the Cold War, and took a modified form of this position throughout second half of the 20th century as well.

      These two points – interests of state and change versus status quo – take us away from the main point that American libertarians generally make in regards to military actions that are not considered wars by a parliamentary body: That they rarely, if ever, achieve their goals. Interventionists have yet to grapple with this simple point. You guys provide many excuses for these failures, but rarely have I come across sober assessment of military interventionism’s repeated failures. Why do so when you can simply sprinkle fairy dust on everything?

  4. “For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action.”

    The deaths of three war reporters/aid workers/hostages in a war zone is a clear reason for a military intervention? How? The underlying premise seems to be that if any foreign power kills any of our citizens anywhere and under any circumstances, we go to war with them. If Francis Gary Powers had been killed during the U2 incident, should we then have gone to war with the Soviet Union?

    Any war will involve hundreds or thousands of collateral deaths. Is it really “clear” that you can kill thousands of people because three have been killed? Or even if thirty had been?

  5. The killings may indeed be a casus belli. Yet there is never a duty to start a war, of course. The consequentialist argument you give may indeed be a good reason not to start a war. On the other hand, it would also be completey inacceptable if the beheadings of your subjects could never be a reason for military intervention (of whatever size). Otherwise you get into discussion like “how many people must have been killed before you are allowed to start a war or intervention”. These disputes cannot be solved, in my view.

    • I really don’t see how that addresses the objection I made. You had claimed that the beheadings were a reason for military intervention. I ask how that can be, and your answer is that the beheadings are a casus belli. But that’s just to repeat your original claim. How can the killing of three people thousands of miles away from either the US or UK be a casus belli for both the US and the UK? Why ever would it be?

      Your only response to that is that at a certain point, beheadings have to be a casus belli, and since we don’t have the exact number that determines the the threshold, well then, three will have to suffice. But I think the numerical puzzle you raise is eminently resolvable. We’re talking about the murder of people who had traveled to a known war zone. I don’t think there’s any number of such murders that would constitute a casus belli. If a million Americans decided to venture into Syria or environs–as reporters, aid workers, whatever–and all got killed, that wouldn’t be a casus belli, either. Voluntarily entering a foreign war zone and getting killed in it is not the kind of thing that can function as a casus belli, no matter how many people do it. They enter at their own risk. At that point, why not commence the bombing of North Korea for having enslaved Matthew Todd Miller? You might as well ask, “How many people have to be enslaved before we fight a war of liberation for them?” and compare Miller’s situation to that of American slaves circa 1863.

      To have a genuine casus belli, there has to be some discernible, sustained threat to the mainland of the country, not the beheading or even kidnapping of citizens thousands of miles away.

  6. Irfan: You have got it. Any group, organization, or state that kills American citizens – except for combatants in a war theater – should start sleeping badly and forever. (Yes, groups and organizations do sleep too.) This is not a revenge argument but an argument about future safety. Putin’s desperate and nuclear armed gangster state is watching our every action. So is totalitarian, massive and expansionist China. Except if you went to a very special private school, you must have observed that it’s tremendously important to confront and to try to beat to a pulp the first bully who approaches you. I actually think that, from a military standpoint, the world scene is not different from a high school playground: the bullies are surely there, collective security arrangements normally fail. Israel has managed to survive 60 years of unrelenting hostility. It was not by acting the sweetheart.

    • When stripped of the metaphors and analogies, your argument literally amounts to this: if anyone ever attacks any US citizen anywhere on Earth, even in a war zone that the citizen has voluntarily entered, we should immediately mobilize and go to war. Somehow, this will make “us” safe, even if (a) “we” had no interest in going to the war zone, (b) “we” are soldiers who will die by the dozens, hundreds, or thousands in the war effort, and (c) “we” kill thousands of innocent people in the process, enraging their survivors, who will then want to wage war upon us on our homeland.

      In other words, we are made “safe” by an exchange rate of 1 to 1,000 or even 1 to 10,000: if one person dies in a war zone he voluntarily entered, the rest of us are rendered safe by sacrificing several thousands of our own, killing thousands more of “them,” and then having thousands more killed by “them.” That is the actual logic of your argument, whether you recognize it or not. The logic is: just keep waging endless, pointless wars on strategically miniscule pretexts, on the logic that doing so keeps us safe, despite the lack of any connection between the war effort and the security of the American mainland.

      The problem with your playground analogy is that it trades on an equivocation: a country is not a person. If a bully threatens my person, yes, I have to strike back. But three citizens who happen to have been killed by ISIS in Syria are not analogous to the “person” of the United States or the UK. They’re not analogous ISIS’s credibly threatening the mainland of the US or UK, and are not even remotely worth going to war over.

      The policy you’re recommending is not going to make us safer. It’s going to lead to perpetual warfare, perpetual insecurity, and perpetual excuses for more warfare to keep us safe from the insecurity that our own warfare has created.

  7. @ Brandon: too many questions to answer now, I try to have a life beside NOL!

    @ Irfan. Point taken, the line of reasoning would be this:
    1. all individuals gave inalienable rights to life, liberty and property
    2. unless you are an anarcho capitalist, all liberals accept that to live in communities desires a set of rules and a central enforcing agency, normally the state
    3. key tasks of this state are external defense, police and the administartion of justice
    4. so individuals trust the state with the protection of their natural rights
    5. to proetct life is the most important task of the state, both in domestic society and in international politics
    6. if some other state infringes this very key right by beheading a citizen of another state a right to punishment emerges
    7. this is like the domestic situation, where murders and thieves normally also receive (if caught) a jail sentence, or in some parts of the US: the death penalty
    8. International criminal law is almost non-existent, but in just war theory, the protection of the natural riughts of one’s citizen’s is an recognized reason tot start a war or other hostilities.
    9. from the viewpoint of the individual citizen this is also just, as this is part of the deal with the state.

  8. “I hope that your absence here has been due to professional reasons, and not because NOL has started to suck.”

    Not at all, NOL keeps getting better and better.

  9. […] have been a disaster. And it is good that he wants some closer scrutiny from now onwards. I am not a great fan of military intervention, although I also do not want to rule them out them perennially (as opposed to many others in the […]

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