Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

My latest over at RealClearHistory went up on Tuesday. The schedule for my work over there goes as follows: I’ve got a regular Friday column and a Tuesday blog post, so be on the lookout! Here’s an excerpt:

The volunteers were to be used as cannon fodder for the Republicans, which explains the high casualty rate, but it was the disorganized front put on by the democratically-elected Republican government that is to blame for the high casualty rates, rather than some sort of prejudice or malice on the part of the Spanish Left. The volunteers almost all came from non-military backgrounds, too, as most were starry-eyed urban idealists who believed they were fighting injustice. After a meager 30 days of training, the Lincoln Battalion was marched to the front lines to fight a bunch of battle-hardened troops that mostly hailed from Spain’s colonies, where military governance was practiced and honed to near perfection.

Read the rest. This was a fun one to write. I initially wanted to do something about the Spanish Civil War and international meddling (Madrid fell to Franco on March 29), before tying it in to the events in Syria.

My editor gently reminded me that the blog posts should be about American history, so I threw in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. And check out my RCH colleague’s post on the birth and rise of the Republican Party.

How to take over Syria, Roman edition

While Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government got the lion’s share of the press attention about American involvement in Syria (probably because of the contrast with Obama’s preference for diplomacy despite his “red line” threat), the more important strategic operations have not been discussed as fully. Building upon the successful establishment of two airfields last year, the US has expanded or established bases at crucial locations and begun to attack key targets in the northern part of Syria that show an excellent understanding of the topography and logistics of the region. These developments may be the linchpin in choking off traffic and crippling supply and movement of ISIL, and should contribute to the long-term goal of securing Hasakah and Raqqah provinces. What is interesting in all of this, perhaps due to the historical expertise of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, is that this logistical focus mimics the attack routes that were vital to invasions of the area from Alexander the Great down to Julian the Apostate.

The Euphrates River as an ancient supply highway

In the era of Alexander the Great, supply and communication were important constraints on military action; the logistics of his march through Syria are extremely well described by Donald Engels. Essentially, because of the lack of water sources in surrounding areas, the rough Taurus Mountains to the north and Arabian Desert to the south, and the provisions and easy transport supplied by it, the Euphrates River was a common “highway” for military movement in antiquity. Controlling and utilizing it was essential to control of the trade and military actions between the Mediterranean coast and Mesopotamia. In his defense against Alexander, Darius III kept his army on the Euphrates, and Alexander surprised him by crossing northern Mesopotamia to follow the Tigris River (near Mosul, which ISIL also recognized as vital) instead. However, almost every major invasion of the area from the west has gone through what is now southeastern Turkey to reach the headwaters of the Euphrates, including those of Trajan, Septimius Severus, and Julian the Apostate. Crassus reaped the gruesome rewards of avoiding the Taurus/Euphrates route.

The Euphrates valley was important not only as a military route, but also as a source of agricultural income and a crucial portion of the early Silk Road. Therefore, the nation that controlled the northern Euphrates valley could finance their military through control of trade and taxation (which Zenobia’s husband used to assert his own quasi-independence from a city that ISIL has ironically destroyed), a fact that has changed only in the economic transition from agricultural production to petroleum extraction. Now, ISIL not only taxes and sells oil to support its endeavors, but it knew from the outset to seize strategic locations on the route and even wanted to use the Euphrates river as its logo!

The mountains north of the Euphrates

The famous historian and general, Xenophon, was part of an army that followed the Euphrates down to a fateful battle at Cunaxa, and his retreat through the Taurus Mountains and ancient Armenia involved encounters with natives who were extremely capable in skirmishing on mountainous terrain. Both Xenophon and Mark Antony learned how difficult this route was, and the successful Kurdish defense of the Sinjar mountains and victories in the mountains of northeastern Syria using small arms and mobile forces while conceding villages is reminiscent of these ancient raiding methods. Though bombing obviously differs in technology and methods from ancient infantry, it also involves avoiding direct battle in order to destroy resources and harass enemy armies in motion, and so the American strategies based on assaults from the Rmeilan and Incirlik airfields over the past year have used the same attrition tactics to wear down ISIL strongholds.

What comes next?

If ancient campaigns can tell us anything, it may be that the US is transitioning from bombing from afar to more direct assaults on the cities, roads, and resources of ISIL along the northern Euphrates. The US still holds bases in northwestern Syria, defending the western flank of Kurdish-controlled territory and providing a buffer to Turkey (which, along with Turkish efforts to stop individual penetration of the border, should mitigate ISIL recruitment and international travel). Now that it has augmented this by creating bases that choke off routes to the headwaters of the Euphrates and allow closer engagement with ISIL since January, the US seems to be poised to contain ISIL attacks with greater alacrity and support Kurdish ground assaults on the ISIL capital of Raqqa. The escalation may be as support in the race to Raqqa and to take advantage of victories in eastern half of the campaign in Mosul, and comparison to the campaigns cited above would indicate that the US and Kurds are moving much slower than ancient campaigns, but using the same routes, attacking targets in similar ways, and with the same respect for topography and logistics.

Trump Is Right!

It is easy to emphasize all that is bad about the new American President. For sure, I think he is a clown who will do a few bad things to the US and the world at large. His protectionist agenda is of course a libertarian nightmare, which will also make the people who elected him worse off. Still, the US President is not a dictator, so some trust in the institutions and the actors that fill them still seems appropriate.

Trump is also plainly right on a number of issues. Foremost, his plea (also in yesterday’s inaugural address) for the partners of the USA, especially in NATO, to contribute in equal measure. This is not new, all recent American Presidents have pointed this out to their European allies. It is simply outrageous to let Mrs Jones from North Dakota pay for the defense of other rich countries, such as my home country of The Netherlands. The Europeans got away with major free riding. Only recently did they start to get their act a little bit together, as the Russian threat is looming again. The defense budgets in almost all European NATO members have decreased drastically since the early nineties, which is plainly immoral if you are in the world’s most important security organization together. So hopefully Trump will pressure them to the max.

He is also right in pointing out that many US foreign interventions 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 liberal tradition). Many of the interventions over the past few decades have lead to nothing though, and created their own follow-up problems. So it’s pretty good if that same Mrs Jones is not likely to lose her son or daughter at the battlefield in some faraway country.

And of course Trump is right in asserting that the government is not ruling the citizens, but is just a service provider on behalf of the people, and fully accountable to them. Sure this is bit more complicated in practise, but it is the only proper principle.

So in these three respects: hail to the new chief! Hopefully he sticks to them and does not screw up too dramatically at all other policy fields.

From the Comments: Military intervention, democracy, and stability

Longtime reader (and excellent blogger in his own right) Tam has an interesting response to Chhay Lin’s thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks:

It is an interesting read indeed but there are two or even more sides to every story. What we are also noting is that many of these groups that hate Western interventionist policies also hate their own people for being different in one way or the other. However, I agree that the misplaced perception of democracy as the superior form of governance overlooks the essential internal historical and socio-political factors behind the politics of the different countries that have become victims of Western ‘sanctification’ processes fronted by bombs after daring to opt not to embrace democracy. Libya and Iraq were stable before Western intervention.

Tam’s point strikes at the heart of the difference between military interventionists and non-interventionists, I think. Libya and Iraq were indeed stable, but not everybody was free. In Iraq, Shias, Kurds, liberals, and religious Sunnis were all brutally suppressed, and this oppression stood in stark contrast to the freedoms that secularists, women, union members, some socialists, and the politically apathetic enjoyed. The sociopolitical dynamics in Libya were the same, though with different local actors.

This reality is something that both sides of the interventionist debate recognize, though the interventionist side seems to place much more faith in government when it comes to “doing something.” Jacques and Edwin, for example, have both argued that bombing ambiguous factions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya would contribute to the freedoms of the oppressed factions in those countries. Looking back on the debate makes it clear that they weren’t wrong, but look at what those freedoms have produced. Those freedoms have come at the expense of the freedoms of the factions that the dictators were protecting.

What this situation shows me is that the states of the post-colonial world are unviable. Stability comes at too steep a price (dictatorship), and democracy’s unpredictability only leads to predictably violent results in the post-colonial world.

This impasse, which I cannot be the only one in the world who recognizes, has led me to take a hard glance at two specific peace processes in the Western world: The diplomatic efforts of Europeans after the Napoleonic Wars (“Concert of Europe”) and the founding of the American republic, which is, in my mind, the most successful endeavor in the history of international relations. Neither of these efforts led to the complete abolition of war, but both have helped to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence between large numbers of factions for long periods of time.

The Concert of Europe bought time for factions in the region to solidify their legitimacy at home, culminating in both the creation of Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century and the infamous overseas imperial  domains of France, the UK, and the Netherlands (among a few others). While this peace process brought about prosperity for Western Europe, it was not inclusive and it still adhered to the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. What state sovereignty means is that each state, in the context of international affairs, has a right to do whatever it pleases within the confines of its own borders (such as massacre hundreds of thousands of people in the name of stability). The Concert of Europe was also the precursor to the post-1945 peace process that created the state system that we all live with today, though I would argue that there are some elements that could be republican, such as the IMF and World Bank, provided some changes in mindset.

Aside from the problems produced by the notion of state sovereignty, the states of the post-colonial world today suffer from an issue of legitimacy, both from domestic populations and from foreign ones. Domestically, all of the factions that stability-inducing dictatorships oppress do not buy in to the argument that the states purporting to govern them are legitimate. In foreign affairs, many factions do not believe that these post-colonial states are legitimate either. Hence the calls for bombing campaigns, proxy wars, or outright invasions and occupations of states like Iraq and Libya by states like the US or France (even if these invasions come at the expense of domestic and international rule of law).

This situation, where post-colonial states claim to have sovereignty within an international state system but where domestic and international factions ignore such claims, is where we’re at today. It’s the status quo, and while it worked relatively well in a small part of the world for about hundred years or so, it’s obviously failing today.

Enter the founding of the American republic. Unlike the Concert of Europe, self-determination à la breaking away from the UK was a guiding principle of the federal system, rather than state sovereignty. Like the Concert of Europe, the statesmen who crafted the American republic were concerned about invasion, hegemony, and all of the other bad stuff that happens in the international arena. So they set up an inclusive, republican system of states rather than attempt to balance power off on each other, like they did in Europe. The republican, or federal, system tied each state up into the affairs of the other states, whereas the balance of power system contributed to the formation of rival blocs within the system. This is why Europe switched from trying to maintain yet another balancing act to building an actual confederation (though one that is far too complex than it has to be) after World War II.

From a strictly war and peace view, the republican state system has led to one war so far (dating from 1789). From the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, to today, the balance of power state system has led to numerous wars.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was based on self-determination, and his foreign policy was a disaster. This is true, though I would argue that Wilson was simply confused about what self-determination actually implied. For Wilson, recognizing the self-determination of various groups within empires would lead to state sovereignty for these groups, and that this state sovereignty would then be protected by the institutions trying to maintain a balance of power. Wilson never entertained the notion of republicanism when it came to recognizing the self-determination of peoples living in empires, he simply thought empires were undemocratic. Thus, he was actually a proponent of state sovereignty rather than self-determination.

What I am not arguing for here is a Concert of Europe-type effort for Middle Eastern actors. I think it would be a disaster, largely because regional efforts at peace-building (rather than, say, trade agreements) are useless in today’s globalized world. The Middle East needs the West, and vice-versa. Peace will only be achieved if self-determination is embraced (by not only large swathes of Mideast factions, but Western ones as well) and the new polities can be incorporated into existing republican-esque institutions. This way, more factions have a voice, and bad actors can be more easily isolated. I am not necessarily arguing that the US or EU should welcome burgeoning Mideast states into their federations, but policymakers and statesmen from these countries should at least start thinking about how to encourage and embrace the notion of a Middle East that looks a lot like our own republican world and less like the one we gave them following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

Stability is overrated, especially if the notion of creative destruction is taken into account.

A Quick PSA: Putting “boots on the ground” in Syria is still a dumb idea

Readers might be mistaken into thinking that I am some kind of statist or rabid interventionist because I often put forth arguments that are nowhere to be found at the Cato Institute or the Mises Institute when it comes to American foreign policy.

I have argued that the federation of countries would be a good idea. I have argued that multilateralism is of the utmost importance when it comes to solving problems. I have no problem using IGOs like the UN or the IMF to bolster diplomacy. I have entertained the notion that the US should take a back seat in hot spots in order to better bait autocratic states into committing blood and treasure to the said hot spot, and then unleashing hell. Sanctions are dumb and never work, but building closer trading ties with an adversary’s enemies is a underdeveloped path.

Statist AF, right?

Wrong!

I am trying to put forth alternatives to “boots on the ground.” I understand that military interventions are a bad thing. I don’t want “boots on the ground.” I understand that the costs far outweigh the benefits. I understand that war is the health of the state. What I don’t understand is how “doing nothing” is a libertarian position. Dogmatic slogans made us lazy a century ago. We lost our claim to the title “liberal” because of it. Dogmatic slogans made us lazy a century and a half ago, and we lost our claim to the title “internationalist” because of it. What will our laziness cost us today?

Boots on the ground? We should be so lucky.

Turkey just shot down a Russian fighter jet

Yes, folks, things just got way more real in the Levant.

Here is NOL‘s first-ever post on Syria (by yours truly). It’s from 2012 (which means NOL is nearly four years old!) and it holds up pretty well if you ask me.

Jacques Delacroix, an ardent hawk who recently quit NOL (again) and who ironically criticizes libertarians for being “dogmatic” and “predictable,” had this to say about Syria in 2012:

Russia would not risk to go to war with us on behalf of Syria because that country is just not important enough to the Russians’ game.

And also this:

The current murderous situation [in 2012 Syria] is not acceptable. Therefore, the risk of some sort of Islamist take-over is worth running.

Jacques and other military interventionists have been getting the Middle East wrong for decades, and yet people still take them seriously. Just to be clear: Jacques and other hawks were perfectly aware that attacking Assad would mean opening up a space for ISIS and other nasty Sunni organizations to grow. Jacques just thought Islamists would be better than Assad because they’d at least have some form of democratic legitimacy. Then, after the recent massacres in Paris, Delacroix and other hawks began arguing that Islamists have to go, too (along with Assad). The Russians, who Jacques (and other hawks) confidently told the public would not dare intervene in Syria, think that Islamists have to go (too many Russian commercial airliners are blowing up in the sky) but not Assad. Not a pretty picture, and Western hawks are largely responsible for the mess.

Here is an old post detailing just how wrong Jacques was on Libya, and instead of acknowledging just how wrong he was (he was really wrong), Jacques changed the subject and repeated oft-debunked litanies.

Anyone can be wrong, of course. I thought Mitt Romney would beat Obama back in 2012 (the economy was in terrible shape…), but I learned from my mistake and people can generally learn something from me (even if it’s only to see things from a slightly different angle) when I write on American politics.

When Jacques and other hawks are wrong they become dishonest about their past mistakes, though. They don’t acknowledge them. They don’t try to learn from them. They instead repeat their sacred litanies over and over again, hoping that they will eventually be proved correct (a broken clock is right twice a day, after all). This moral failing on the hawks’ part is what’s responsible for the violence and carnage in Syria. It might be responsible for World War 3 (Turkey is a NATO member). Their dogmatism and the dishonesty it entails is far more of a threat to individual liberty than Islamist terrorists or even the violent policy prescriptions (and cultural chauvinism) Jacques and his ilk call for (and rely upon in the public sphere) on a daily basis.

Jacques and the interventionists (cool band name, by the way) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead people and millions of displaced ones. They initiated this carnage using made-up “facts,” poor logic, and appeals to violence. Where is the outrage? How can we change the climate of opinion so that those who lie constantly and unabashedly lose influence and prestige? Is incompetence that prevalent in our open society, or is dishonesty to blame?