American Foreign Policy: Predictions, Assumptions and Falsehoods

On November 1st 2011 I got into an argument with Dr Delacroix about US foreign policy. During that time, if you’ll recall, a debate on the merits and demerits of bombing Libya was raging across the blogosphere and in the halls of power. Here is what I wrote in the heat of the moment two years ago today:

Time will tell, of course, which one of our predictions comes true. In two years time, Tunisia, which did not get any help from the West, will be a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power.

The Egyptian military will be promising the public that elections are just around the corner, and Libya will be in worse shape than it is today. Two years from today, Dr. J, you will be issuing an apology to me and making a donation to the charity of my choice.

Since you are very good at avoiding the facts on the ground in the name of democratic progress, I think we should establish a measurement rubric by which to measure the progress of Libya. How about GDP (PPP) per capita as measured by the IMF?

Not too shabby, eh? In case you haven’t been staying up to date on current events in the Middle East, Tunisia is a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power. It is not Switzerland or Iceland, but it is doing much better than the two states who were on the receiving end of US “help” during the Arab Spring.

Egypt, for example, is currently being run by the (US-funded) military, and the military is promising Egyptians that elections are just around the corner.

In Libya, GDP (PPP) per capita for 2013 started off the year at $11,936 (in international dollars). In 2011, prior to the uprisings and subsequent US bombing campaign, Libya’s GDP (PPP) per capita clocked in at $14,913 (you’d have to look at 2010 to see where Libya started off). That’s a nearly $3,000 drop in purchasing power parity. Here is the relevant IMF data (it starts off in 2010 and you can go from there).

Perfectly predicting the current mess in the Middle East has less to do with my genius than it does with applying a general libertarian framework to the situation. For example, I know that government is very bad at doing nearly everything. Government is a name we have given to an organization that has a monopoly on force. This monopoly on force is usually consented to because it is expected that it will provide an honest court system and a way to interact with other polities (“diplomacy”). When this monopoly on force is applied to anything other than these two functions, peace and prosperity give way to war and impoverishment. The trajectory that war and impoverishment take in a society depends on any number of variables, but the general libertarian framework I just outlined never fails to impress.

Now, my perfect prediction was made in the heat of the moment during an argument. If my argument was right, what did the other side of the debate have to say? Is it at all possible that Dr Delacroix had an argument that somewhat conformed to reality as well? Decide for yourself, and remember, this was written near the end of 2011:

There are several benefits to the Libyan/NATO victory for this country […] First, rogues and political murderers everywhere are given a chance to suppose that if you kill Americans, we will get you afterwards, even if it takes twenty years […] Two, Arabs and oppressed people everywhere are figuring that we mean it when we say we like democracy for everyone […] Three, this Obama international victory will cost him dearly in the next election. A fraction – I don’t know how large – of the people who voted for him the first time around oppose all American military interventions.

I don’t know about you, but it looks as if Dr Delacroix got Libya, the rest of the Arab world and American domestic politics horribly wrong, and on every level possible. If I am being disingenuous or unfair to Dr Delacroix’s argument, please point out to me where I go wrong in the ‘comments’ section.

Let’s take a second to reflect on something here. I was factually correct in my assessment of what would happen in the Middle East if the US intervened militarily. Dr Delacroix was factually incorrect. I think the drastic difference in outcomes occurred because our assumptions about how the Middle East works are informed by different history books. This is odd because we agree on nearly everything else.

Were I proved to be wrong, and shown how devastating the effects of my assumptions on societies could be,  I know I would do some deep questioning about my prior assumptions of how the world works.

There are four assumptions Dr Delacroix makes, in recent blog posts, that I believe are unfounded. When these unfounded assumptions have gained traction policy-wise, the consequences have been devastating. When these unfounded assumptions have been defeated in open debate, the consequences have been minute. By pointing out these assumptions, and ruthlessly criticizing them, I hope to provide a framework for those who read this blog to use when thinking about foreign affairs.

  • False Assumption #1: “Bullies will try to pull off worse and worse brutalities until they become intimidated. The unopposed brutalities of one bully encourage others to go further. Some who had the potential but never acted on it will be encouraged by the impunity of others to become bullies themselves.”

Comparing leaders of authoritarian states to schoolyard bullies is a bad way to go about understanding international relations. I think this is done on purpose, of course, in order to obfuscate the reality of a given situation. Dictators in authoritarian states often enjoy broad coalitions of support from the populaces over which they rule. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein enjoyed support from Sunni Muslims, Christians, secularists, socialists, trade unions, domestic corporations, women’s rights groups and the poor. Dictators often enjoy broad support from their populaces because of the fact that they bully, to use Dr Delacroix’s term, the bullies (see False Assumption #2 for more on this).

Here is another example: Bashar al-Assad has broad support in Syria because he protects religious and ethnic minorities from the passions of the vulgar mob. Dictators rarely care about the actions of dictators in other countries, unless it serves their own domestic purposes, and slaughtering people randomly is something I have never heard of a dictatorship doing. A dictator’s attacks are calculated, quite coldly I admit, so as to bolster support from the factions they are allied with. Dr Delacroix would like nothing more than to have the Middle East actually be a place where dictators take comfort in the actions of other dictators. Were this to be true, his argument would be right. His predictions would come to pass. Alas.

  • False Assumption #2: “By the way, as little as four years ago and even less, Western liberals and misguided libertarians were still blaming the American military for Iraqi on Iraqi violence. The US military is gone; the violence is rather worse.”

Attempting to sweep the violence and high death count associated with the US invasion of Iraq under the rug does nothing to inspire confidence in Dr Delacroix’s framework. The Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence occurred after the US military illegally removed the bully’s bully from his position of power. Prior to the US military’s illegal invasion, the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence Dr Delacroix points to was kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s heavy-handed tactics. When Hussein gassed Kurds, for example, he did not do so simply because the Kurds “revolted” against his rule. He did so because the Kurds had been murdering Arabs and engaging in terrorist activities that targeted Iraqi infrastructure. The intrastate warfare in Iraq was quite negligible until the United States decided to break its own laws and illegally invade and occupy Iraq.

Of course, you can always choose to believe Dr Delacroix’s theory of events, but I think the results of our predictive power speak for themselves (on the inevitability of intrastate warfare in post-colonial states, see the discussions about “post-colonialism,” “secession” and “decentralization” here at NOL).

  • False Assumption #3: “In World War Two, we could have stopped the genocide of the Jews or slowed it to a crawl. We did not because there was a strong but vague reluctance to ‘get involved.’”

In 1939 France and the United Kingdom had worldwide empires. The Soviet Union was 25 years old. So were the small, independent states of Turkey, Hungary and Austria. Germany, despite its defeat in World War 1, was an industrial power. The was no such thing as cruise missiles. There was no such thing as jet airplanes. There was no such thing as satellites. Or the internet. The Jews that were slaughtered in Europe lived in places that could not be reached by the American military of 1939. Indeed, they lived in places in Europe that could not be reached by the American military of 1945. The Eastern Front in World War 2 was many things, but certainly I think you can see why it wasn’t a “reluctance to get involved” on the part of the American people that is partly responsible for the Holocaust. To assume that the American military could have marched into Eastern Europe during World War 2 and stopped, or even slowed, the Holocaust is delusional.

  • False Assumption #4: “Today, I am ashamed to be an American because of our passivity with respect to the slaughter of Syrian seekers for freedom.”

Since the end of World War 2, when the US assumed its place as the world’s most prominent polity, Washington has continually opted to support the socialists (Ba’athists, Nasserists, Ghaddafi, etc.) over the Islamists in the Arab world (liberal Arabs simply, and unfortunately, emigrate to the West). The most obvious reason for this support is that the socialists do not send their agents to fly planes filled with people into commercial buildings filled with people. Pretending that the US is putting its head in the sand is disingenuous. Washington is well-aware of the consequences of letting Assad fight it out with the Islamists. We have made our decision after weighing the costs and benefits of every option available. We did this through open debate. Socialists make better enemies (and allies) than Islamists.

Now, these are just some small examples of jingoism and delusions of grandeur I have picked out. There are many more examples, especially in the national press, but Dr Delacroix’s are much, much better reasoned than any of those. If you are reading the op-eds in the national press rather than Dr Delacroix you are going to be woefully misinformed about the nature of the world. Your brain will be slightly more malnourished than it otherwise would be (this is one of the reasons why I like blogging with him). His arguments are informed by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship; they are informed by somebody who has the benefit of understanding two distinct cultures in an intimate way.

And look how incredibly wrong he has been proven to be. Assumptions matter. So, too, does truth and falsehood.

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Pretty much the same story as that of the first years of the American Revolution including the foreign intervention and under enormously favorable circumstances than the poor Libyans encountered. After all, King Georges was no Kadafi.

Tsk tsk. You’re getting sloppy Dr Delacroix. I suspect you have re-ignited your passion for smoking ganja. Santa Cruz has a wonderful variety from around the world to choose from.

As I have previously noted, the angle we should be looking at (from a national security perspective) is the one of France during the Anglo-American War. They are the ones who intervened on behalf of a rebellious segment of the British Empire, just as we are intervening on behalf of a rebellious segment within the Libyan state.

Nevertheless, you keep repeating this tired mantra so I figure I’ll try to kill it. Right here and right now.

Let’s start with your keen observation that King George was no Ghaddafi. Aside from being totally correct, I think it would also be pertinent to point out that King George was also at the helm of a worldwide empire that was in constant rivalry with not only France for global hegemony, but also with aspirant regional hegemons throughout the world. Now contrast this position with that of Libya at the time of Ghaddafi’s offing.

King George also wielded a lot less power than did Ghaddafi. Indeed, he wielded a lot less power than most monarchs of his time period. As we both know, the British parliament held immense power, and King George was in constant conflict with them. The Rule of Law was alive and well in Britain during King George’s reign. Contrast KG’s position with that of Ghaddafi, a brutal tyrant who exercised a near-supreme will over his subjects.

Let’s review the circumstances of the positions of the two tyrants of Dr. J’s choosing before we continue any further: one of them was at the helm of a global empire and constantly held in check by his own parliament and the Rule of Law. The other was a tyrant of a mid-sized post-colonial state in North Africa who ruled with an iron fist and was spurned by most of the global community.

Can we continue?

France (whose position, remember, during the Anglo-American War is the one that most resembles our own today in regards to the Libyan excursion) was in constant conflict with Great Britain. They were fighting for global supremacy. French support, then, came not from benevolence or fear of mass migration from the U.S. to France, but from a calculated decision to strike deeply at a hated enemy, one that had recently acquired all of France’s colonies in India and North America.

The U.S., in contrast, has become involved in the Libyan civil war because of cries from weak and decadent allies to come to their aid for fear of a mass influx of Muslims into their welfare states.

Not exactly a struggle for global supremacy. I suspect you will warn your readers that China (GDP PPP per capita Intl$7,000) is watching us, of course.

The 13 colonies that fought for independence were independent polities, too. They all had their own ideas and thoughts and interests to look after when coming to an agreement with each other. Libya – one state – has merely one resource that is apple of everybody’s eye. While the American experience was one based on compromise and sectional interests, the Libyan experience is one that will be based off of the redistribution of wealth. Not a good start, if you ask me.

An observation and a question: the transitory government of Libya has recently asked NATO to continue its no-fly zone to at least the end of the year. It has recently welcomed foreign troops from Qatar to help shore up its defense forces. My question to you, Dr. J, is this: did the transitory government of the U.S. ask foreign powers to patrol their streets for them? To continue to keep their navies nearby to help dispense of any lingering British presence?

I find it suspicious that the Libyan rebels have relied so heavily upon foreign support. What is their motive for this? Most rebellions hearken calls for independence and liberty. Why do they beg the West for help? In my mind, a government – even a transitory one – that is incapable of standing on its own two feet without the support of foreign influence and power, is not a government that will long be trusted by the people it purports to govern.

Is the Libyan experience similar to that of the American one? Sure, but only a very superficial level. It would be best to leave Libya to the Libyans – warts and all.

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Libya will be in worse shape than it is now? In worse shape than it was under Kadafi? (He sure could keep order.)

I have already spoken to much of what you are saying: Suppose your prophecies turn out to be completely right. Would it mean that we should prefer the bloody tyranny of terrorists like Kadafi? Isn’t this simple?

Perhaps, but we don’t know what would have happened to Ghaddafi if the US had stayed clear of this problem (which had nothing to do with national security or defense).

Civil war was inevitable, given the nature of the Libyan state, but introducing a superpower into the struggle has only complicated Libyan matters.

A civil war sometimes helps a people to iron out their differences. I think our involvement there only enhances the creases that need ironing.

What problem (singular)?

Civil war was inevitable? After forty years? You’re kidding, right?

Yo are almost forcing me to write an essay just for you about Arab tyrannies, 1960 – 2011.

What problem? The Libyan state falling apart.

Civil war was inevitable? After forty years? You’re kidding, right?

Um, the rebels and Ghaddafi’s henchmen went after each other in the wake of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Ghaddafi struck back quite effectively, but the violence didn’t end after those first strikes.

Ghaddafi may have eventually won the civil war, but he would either have had to eliminate his rivals completely (which he was certainly capable of doing) or he would have had to come to some sort of agreement with some of the factions he was fighting.

Helping the rebels eliminate Ghaddafi only removed one faction from the fight for Libya’s future. Many, many different factions believe that Libya should move in their direction. Most of the efforts to come to some sort of agreement with each other are going to be wasted on other priorities, though – namely the influencing of Western powers to support their specific cause.

With the West out of the picture – or at least off to the side where neighbors usually reside – the Libyans would have to work together to come to some sort of agreement for their state going forward. This is unlikely to happen now. Instead, what we’ll see is a prolonged conflict that will look a lot more like Iraq rather than Tunisia, as each faction uses the hapless and naive West for their own purposes of attaining power over a massive, oil-rich state that has known nothing but rigid central control for almost a century.

I would love to read an essay on Arab dictatorship over the past half-century. Don’t forget to include the involvement of the West in the process. Name names and spare nobody from your rancorous wit!

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Brandon: You are a kind of expert on Libyan public opinion accessed in translation from Al-Jazeera with a software that can hardly translate “My father’s car…”? That’s in preference to statements made by a ramshackle but very broad coalition watched over by hundreds of Western journalists on the ground some of whom (the French) have Arabic as a first language. Strange!

I understand that the translations are not perfect, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand what they are saying. I never said I was an expert, either.

Western journalists – especially from the states that are essentially welfare queens of U.S. military strength – have a lot less clout than does the Arab street, in my opinion.

Time will tell, of course, which one of our predictions comes true. In two years time [October 2013 – bc], Tunisia, which did not get any help from the West, will be a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power.

The Egyptian military will be promising the public that elections are just around the corner, and Libya will be in worse shape than it is today. Two years from today, Dr. J, you will be issuing an apology to me and making a donation to the charity of my choice.

Since you are very good at avoiding the facts on the ground in the name of democratic progress, I think we should establish a measurement rubric by which to measure the progress of Libya. How about GDP (PPP) per capita as measured by the IMF?

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Brandon: Always interesting but more like the basis for a movie story. More lack of attention to well-known facts. You write: “the Arab monarchies that purportedly helped NATO .”

One Arab monarch helped NATO, and not “purportedly.” Its’ Qatar which even flew air attacks, aside from other forms of help. For the time being, the voice of Libya is the provisional government. It’s a rickety alliance composed of every movement that wanted Kadafy out, a very broad alliance according to every observer (except perhaps you). That government asked NATO to stay. How can one be more positive?

You follow Al-Jazeera‘s Arabic speaking discussion boards? I wish I knew Arabic too.

And, by the way, if you have consulted any part of Al-Jazeera for any length of time, don’t you agree this press organ has its own agenda which is not secret at all, not even discreet?

Films on the current situation in Libya in an Anthropology class? Kind of strange. (I don’t doubt it happened but it’s strange.)

Dr Delacroix writes:

One Arab monarch helped NATO, and not “purportedly.” Its’ Qatar which even flew air attacks, aside from other forms of help.

Haha! I know the facts fairly well. I was simply relaying what I have read about the thoughts and opinions that Libyans have on foreign policy. You and I know that Qatar was the only monarchy to participate in the bombings, but we also have access to information 24/7. Some Libyans still rely on more archaic forms of communication to attain information…

It’s a rickety alliance composed of every movement that wanted Kadafy out, a very broad alliance according to every observer (except perhaps you). That government asked NATO to stay. How can one be more positive?

Asking a powerful, benevolent military alliance to occupy their country while they figure things out is not the same thing as being thankful for NATO’s bombing campaign. They might be happy that they suckered the West into doing their dirty work, but that is not the same as being grateful.

And while the alliance may be broad, it no doubt has enemies that have been excluded. I’m sure we’ll find out more about these enemies as time moves on.

You follow Al-Jazeera Arabic speaking discussion boards? I wish I knew Arabic too.

Dude, Google’s Chrome application for websurfing has a translation option every time you land on a page that is published in a foreign language. You just click ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if you want it to be translated. It’s 2011, bro.

And, by the way, if you have consulted any part of Al-Jazeera for any length of time, don’t you agree this press organ has its own agenda which is not secret at all, not even discreet?

I totally agree, but I don’t think that the ‘comments’ section is moderated much. It’s a lot like the Huffington Post, actually. A genuine agenda is easily recognized, but that agenda does not really trickle down into the discussion boards. Anybody can have their say!

Films on the current situation in Libya in an Anthropology class? Kind of strange. (I don’t doubt it happened but it’s strange.)

Oh yeah! Please buh-lieve it! The anthropology courses I’m working with are really just political and economic theory using examples of societies outside of the West rather than reading excerpts of John Locke’s Second Treatise for the umpteenth time…

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Brandon: For the most part, I am happy to let your comments stand. Together, we do a reasonably good job of clearing up issues about intervention. I don’t need to “win” the argument. However, however, I think you don’t pay enough attention to easily ascertainable facts: Your write: “I don’t think our involvement will be looked upon with graciousness by the peoples we are inevitably trying to help.” The Libyans don’t look on the NATO intervention, including the US, with graciousness?

Good point, good point. Here is my quick (or not-so-quick) take: the Libyans living in exile in the United States have certainly been gracious. The temporary government in power has certainly been grateful. The Libyans in Europe harbor very different views, though. They see this as an imperialistic adventure. They loathe the fact that NATO helped the rebellion in any way, shape or form.

The Libyans in Libya have even more disparate views on the subject. Some have turned their ire towards the tyrant of Algeria. Some are claiming that NATO intervened because of Libya’s oil, and they point to the Palestinian territories to ask why NATO hasn’t helped them. Some of them have been gracious towards the Arab monarchies that purportedly helped NATO in its bombing campaigns. Some Libyans have expressed thanks to NATO. Some Libyans have fixated on Israel. None of them, from what I have seen, have expressed any sort of graciousness at all to the United States of America.

My sources are the unscientific and spam-prone discussion boards on Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-speaking website and a couple of films that I have watched in some Anthropology classes. In fact, in one of the films there were calls for help from Egypt, Jordan, and Kazakhstan after Ghaddafi began fighting with airplanes, but nobody on the streets was calling for help from the West.

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Brandon: I share many of your suspicions and even your fears though not especially about Libya, I think it’s going to be OK. But supposing you turn out to be completely right elsewhere. What’s the implication for action? Leave butchers in peace? Hope their victims don’t succeed in overthrowing them? Forever?

No, I think that the people who live under dictatorships should overthrow their overlords, if they can. This doesn’t mean I support the U.S. government helping them out. Too many questions arise out of such policies. It’s easier to blame a foreign influence for troubles in our society than it is to blame ourselves.

My quick policy proposal for foreign relations:

  1. stop hurting people through economic sanctions. Those only hurt the people we are trying to help and help the people we are trying to hurt.
  2. stop supporting regimes for strategic purposes. Doing so often causes us to turn a blind eye towards the some of the worst aspects of these strategic partners.
  3. stop condemning states for doing things that we do ourselves. It’s hard to condemn the prison states of China and Cuba when we have the highest rate of incarceration in the Western world, for example.

I think Egypt and Libya are going to be just as bad as they have been, if not worse. Only Tunisia, which did not rely on foreign support AND recently elected Islamist parties to their new government, will come out of this for the better. I hope I’m wrong, of course, but libertarians rarely are!

The Islamist parties in Tunisia, by the way, don’t have the same “anti-imperialist” sentiments as the Islamists in Egypt and Libya do. I wonder why…