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.