BC’s weekend reads

  1. Who’s who in Hamburg’s G20 protests
  2. But, if Marxism is not inevitable, it is nothing. Ronald Reagan, with his abiding fear that the Evil Empire would spread without intervention, was, in this sense, a much better Marxist than David Roediger could ever hope to be.
  3. It’s business as usual between Turkey and the EU
  4. So far there is not much sign of the fresh dawn that IS’s downfall should bring.
  5. Hell Makes the News

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.

U.S. Should Follow Nonintervention in Iraq

Now that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered territory in both states, the US policy response is up for debate. We should, first of all, heed one of the major axioms of economics: in making a decision, ignore sunk costs, and consider only the future costs and benefits. The USA has spent huge amounts of treasure and sacrificed many lives, and also cost the lives and health of its allies and the people of Iraq. That is all in the past, and the US and other players should not make the mistake of being slaves to history.

One of the problems of US foreign policy has been that there is no unifying vision. The US seeks to defend itself from enemies, but it also claims to promote human rights and democracy, and it seeks to protect the status quo, current boundaries and governments. The US is also pursuing an aggressive foreign war on drug makers and users. Another policy goal is greater trade and economic development.

Another economic principle is that it is often less costly to prevent problems than to have to remedy them. The best foreign policy for the US is to, first, prevent the generation of enemies, and secondly, to defend against them when the enemies insist on that status. That proposition implies that US policy should avoid automatically protecting the status quo, and deal with the reality that exists.

The US has been fighting al-Qaeda because that organization has declared war against the US along with other countries, but we should not assume that all self-proclaimed Islamic regimes are necessarily at war with the USA. The problem in Iraq is that there are two clashing Islamic sects, Shiite and Sunni, and the US occupation set up a veneer of mass democracy that established a Shiite domination over the Sunni. That domination fuels an insurgency which now has been captured by ISIS.

It is probably now too late to restructure the governance of Iraq. Exhortations for greater inclusiveness are useless. Aiding the current government of Iraq would amount to taking sides in a civil war. The US should instead seek contact with the chiefs of ISIS and find out what they ultimately want. If they seek the destruction of the USA, then the US should defend itself now, before the ISIS becomes more powerful. But if they only seek to govern territory and re-establish a caliphate, and do not threaten other countries such as Jordan, then the US should monitor their activities but not become an ally of the Iraqi and Iranian Shiite governments in a religious war against ISIS. The US and its allies would then accept the fact that Iraq is no longer a unified country, but has split into three governments, the Kurdish region, the Sunni region, and the remaining Shiite-dominated land governed from Baghdad with the help of Iran.

The human-rights angle should still remain, as when the rulers become vicious, committing mass murder, then if that can be stopped, action would be warranted. But many regimes around the world are repressive and corrupt, and the US can do little about it other than to stop aiding them. The USA has its own violations of natural rights, and reform should start at home.

Imperialisms, Old and New: Sykes-Picot and the United Nations

Foreign policy expert (and Reason contributor) Michael Young had an op-ed out last week on nationalism and imperialism in the Middle East. Writing in The National, Young argues that Western imperialism should not be blamed for the problems of the Middle East today. Young argues that the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire guaranteed that violence would play a prominent role in the region, regardless of where the lines of borders had been drawn, or who had drawn them.

Violence would play an important role, Young argues, because aspirant hegemons and various types of nationalisms (Arab, Iraqi, Lebanese, etc.) would be eager to expand their influence and power throughout the Middle East. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it strikes me as disingenuous largely because there is no way to prove such an assertion wrong. The fact that violence could have happened in the absence of European imperialism does not excuse the cartographic crimes of European states. The carving up of the post-Ottoman Arab world happened (interesting counterfactuals notwithstanding).

Young’s argument fails on another account as well. He writes, for example, that:

None of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict has cast doubt on its borders, or has called for a Sunni or Alawite state. Their rhetoric has almost entirely been couched in nationalistic terms, with their aim being the control over all of Syria. Even Mr Al Assad has never expressed interest in falling back on an Alawite mini-state, and if he does so that would only be because he can no longer hold Damascus.

There are two arguments worth scrutinizing here. One, there have been calls for a Sunni state. Two, the nationalist rhetoric is itself a product of Western imperialism. For example, these power struggles for the center occur because secessionist or federalist options are not available to factions in the region. The lack of options stems from the inherent inability of these post-imperial states to govern without a strong man. Strong men are required in the post-imperial Middle East because the states that were drawn up by European diplomats were arbitrary and ahistorical, and therefore lack legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Post-imperial states are not considered legitimate by their citizens because they never had a say in how to go about structuring such a state (not even through the traditional channel of war). They had no say in where the borders should be, or who they could trade with, or how to best accommodate foreigners. Because post-colonial states are not legitimate, violent centripetal forces are constant. This pattern continues unabated because those who eventually end up controlling the center receive legitimacy from the international legal order, as exemplified by the United Nations and financial lending institutions such as the IMF.

By recognizing the legitimacy of Sykes-Picot’s arbitrary states and the sanctity of its borders, the UN and other Western institutions contribute directly to the bloodshed and impoverishment of the region. Because these states have been legitimized by the UN, violent factions can simply seize control of the center and they will automatically gain legitimacy from the very international order that has sustained this chaos. Why bother trying to gain the legitimacy of an impoverished populace when you can simply capture the rent associated with running a post-imperial state?

The West would do well to start working on a foreign policy that looks at recognizing devolutionist tendencies in the post-imperial world as a legitimate option. Recognizing the mistakes of Western imperialism would be a good start. Western recognition would also give these breakaway movements a sense of legitimacy when it comes to working with international organizations such as the IMF or WTO. Official recognition could open up diplomatic options that are currently unavailable to stateless societies in the post-imperial world.

By continuing to not view devolution as a legitimate option for Middle Eastern (and other) societies, the West is doubling down on its moral failure of a hundred years ago. Recognizing centrifugal forces as a legitimate political process would also bring the post-imperial world and the West to a more level standing with each other, as the West would welcome new states into their international orders rather than picking winners and losers through cartographic exercises. In an era where inequalities are shaping up to play prominent roles in policy debates, this last tweak in diplomacy could very well contribute (politically at least) to a more equitable world.