Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.
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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.

The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

The Cruel, Conceited Follies of Trump’s Colonialist Foreign Policy

I typically prefer to abstain from writing too extensively on electoral politics. For one, it’s not my area of expertise and I simply don’t enjoy it that much, but also I think the type of issues that come up in electoral politics are a sensationalist distraction from the meaningful policy debates that actually go on in the back rooms of congress and think tanks, as well as the deeper and more important philosophical, economic, and cultural issues that plague our political situation. Thus, I prefer to write in more detail about public policy or more theoretical economic and philosophical issues rather than the day-to-day drudgery of superficial political news. However, the recent discussion on foreign policy on the campaign trail surprisingly has the potential to become at least mildly substantive, so it is in my mind worth analyzing in greater depth. It should be noted that I am far from an expert in foreign policy, so apologies in advance for any errors and if this article as a whole is a farce.

The purpose of this article is to lay out and critically assess Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It is my contention that Trump does have some fairly consistent underlying instincts, if not principles, on foreign policy that may be inferred from his public comments on the issue. This may be characterized by a concerning belief that the ultimate end of foreign policy should be to aggressively promote America’s interests abroad, akin to a radical, new type of Jacksonian colonialism. If I am right about Trump’s underlying views on foreign policy, a Trump presidency would result in disaster. It would mean massive violations of humanitarian rights and would fail to meet the goals even Trump himself is seeking to attain.

Clinton on Trump’s Foreign Policy

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech ostensibly criticizing Trump’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, most of her speech was more of an attack on the narrative of Trump’s campaign and Trump himself than his actual foreign policy. This is largely because she thinks Trump doesn’t really actually have a foreign policy; his positions, Clinton thinks, are incoherent, ignorant, or just not even positions at all. This is probably the most quoted passage of the speech:

Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different — they are dangerously incoherent.
They’re not even really ideas: just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He’s not just unprepared, he’s temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility. This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.

Clinton’s strongest case against Trump was that he is “temperamentally unfit to hold office.” She makes this case even more persuasively elsewhere in the speech:

Imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Situation Room, making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the United States. Imagine him deciding whether to send your children into battle. Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.

Do we want him making those calls – someone thin-skinned and quick to anger, who lashes out at the smallest criticism?

…I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants. I just wonder how anyone could be so wrong about who America’s real friends are. But it matters. Because if you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, men like Putin will eat your lunch.

I typically don’t find these types of arguments convincing. After all, it doesn’t matter so much the character of public officials as the institutional incentives they face. But in matters of foreign policy problems of temperament and character do matter because the social situation between foreign leaders in diplomacy can often make a huge difference. Bad manners can and have caused wars (eg., there’s an argument to be made that Jefferson’s bad manners towards British diplomat Anthony Merry helped lead to the War of 1812). These points are confirmed by the fact that world leaders are terrified by Trump and how the intelligence community is afraid he could spill security-sensitive confidential information. (Of course, Clinton also has a less-than-optimal track record on the matter of intelligence security).

What is Trump’s Foreign Policy?

However, Clinton is only partially correct in claiming that Trump’s ideas on foreign policy are “incoherent” or that he doesn’t really have a foreign policy at all. It is true that, as with every other issue save immigration and free trade, Trump switches his positions a lot. But underneath the prime facie incoherence is an overarching vision for a foreign policy that is both somewhat coherent and terrifying.

First, a common misconception needs to be clarified about Trump’s foreign policy views. The press commonly treats Trump as if he’s more of a dove on war and foreign intervention than Clinton, citing his recent criticisms of the Iraq War and Libya. This myth is particularly peddled in pro-Trump “libertarian” circles (with an emphasis on the scare quotes). It is widely accepted that Trump’s foreign policy are less interventionist than Clinton’s fairly hawkish views. However, this is decidedly not the case.

Zach Beauchamp has persuasively made the case that Trump is, in fact, more hawkish in some sense than Clinton. The most consistent point that Trump has made for years now is that America should be waging, in Beauchamp’s words, “colonial wars of conquest” for the purpose of taking resources from other countries. Beauchamp notes:

He first debuted this plan in an April 2011 television appearance, amid speculation that he might run for the GOP nomination. In the interview, Trump seemed to suggest the US should seize Iraqi oil fields and just operate them on its own.

“In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” Trump said. “We go fight a war for 10 years, 12 years, lose thousands of people, spend $1.5 trillion, and then we hand the keys over to people that hate us on some council.” He has repeated this idea for years, saying during one 2013 Fox News appearance, “I’ve said it a thousand times.”

Trump sees this as just compensation for invading Iraq in the first place. “I say we should take it [Iraq’s oil] and pay ourselves back,” he said in one 2013 speech.

As Beauchamp says, “To be clear: Trump’s plan is to use American ground troops to forcibly seize the most valuable resource in two different sovereign countries. The word for that is colonialism.”

This type of colonialism is even more extreme than the colonialism of American imperialism of the early twentieth century, where colonial wars of conquest were typically justified in terms of America’s “manifest destiny” to spread democracy throughout the world that would eventually benefit the conquered, often coaxed in racial terms (as typified by Kipling’s famous poem), rather than explicitly justified by looting natural resources.

Many people alleging Trump’s dovishness point to his recent criticisms of US intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The idea that Trump is a dove on these issues, however, is largely a myth. The actual record shows that what Trump’s comments over the past decade or so on foreign policy are largely in line with what Beauchamp sees as his colonialism.

As Beauchamp points out, Trump actually supported intervention in Libya at the time and called for even more aggressive intervention than the Obama administration engaged in (which, as a reminder, included Hillary Clinton at that point):

In a March 2011 vlog post uncovered by BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie, Trump full-throatedly endorsed intervening in the country’s civil war — albeit on humanitarian grounds, not for its oil.

“Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around,” Trump said. “We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives.” In a later interview, he went further, endorsing outright regime change: “if you don’t get rid of Gaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.”

Shortly after the US intervention in Libya began in March 2011, Trump criticized the Obama administration’s approach — for not being aggressive enough. Trump warned that the US was too concerned with supporting the rebels and not trying hard enough to — you guessed it — take the oil.

“I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff,” Trump declared. “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.”

What to make, then, of Trump’s more recent comments where he says he “would have stayed out of Libya”? He’s either incoherent, as Clinton claims, or he’s lying. The first possibility has largely been explored and, though plausible, is uninteresting for present purpose. Therefore, I’ll focus here on the latter (and, in my mind, more likely) possibility. I would argue that Trump is engaging in what could be called, in Arthur Melzer’s understanding of Straussian terms, a sort of dishonest perversion of political esotericism. But unlike the political esotericism of early modern political philosophers who sought to make the world more tolerant, Trump seeks the exact opposite ends. He’s recently been hiding his colonialist views in anti-war rhetoric to attract votes from Americans fatigued with perpetual nation-building through the Bush and Obama administrations. In reality, one of the only sincere substantive positions he’s retained throughout the years is a colonialist desire to wage war for oil. He could not be much further from an anti-war candidate.

As for Iraq, Trump has repeated the claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning many times. Just yesterday, in reaction to Clinton’s speech, he repeated this yet again. “Crooked Hillary said, ‘Oh, Donald Trump, his finger on the button,’,” he said. “I’m the one that didn’t want to go into Iraq, folks, and she’s the one that stupidly raised her hand to go into Iraq and destabilize the entire Middle East.”

In reality, Trump himself wanted to stupidly go into Iraq at the time. In a 2002 interview with Howard Stern he said he supported invading Iraq, adding “I wish the first time it was done correctly.” How did he think it should have been done? Though he wasn’t specific in that interview, his later comments suggest he thinks a “correct” invasion of Iraq would be more aggressive and, of course, focus on taking their oil. Despite being sharply critical of the war later in the Bush administration (though note how he critiques the way it was “handled,” not getting involved in the first place), he supported McCain’s position in favor of the Troop Surge when endorsing him in 2008, claiming, though he wanted to pull out as soon as possible, he wanted to pull out with a victory. Even his most recent comments “critical” of the war, when viewed in the context of his overall foreign policy motivations, aren’t really dovish at all. As he said in 2013, “When I heard that we were first going into Iraq, some very smart people told me, ‘Well, we’re actually going for the oil,’ and I said, ‘All right, I get that.’ [But] we didn’t take the oil!”

Recent comments by Trump against the Iraq War, I think, are well explained by his aforementioned dishonest political esotericism. The record shows Trump disagreed with Bush’s Iraq policy because the motivations were too humanitarian and weren’t aggressive enough prior to the surge. Indeed, Trump’s dishonest claim to dovishness on Iraq has been widely proven false in the press (and yes, each different word links to a different source saying the same thing).

Beauchamp points out that Trump’s views on Syria can’t be described as doveish, as he is largely in agreement with Hillary Clinton:

But the two of them support more or less the same military escalation in Syria. Both Clinton and Trump have proposed carving out “safe zones” in the country, which means clearing out a chunk of its territory and protecting it from aggressors.

Trump sees this as the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis — if you can keep the Syrians there, they won’t have to come over here (or to Europe). “What I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big, beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier,” he said in a campaign appearance. “I mean, they’re gonna learn German, they’re gonna learn all these different languages. It’s ridiculous.”

Similarly, both candidates have emphasized the need to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria — with Trump famously summarizing his policy as “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. But the way in which Trump plans to wage war on ISIS is far more aggressive — and illegal — than anything Clinton proposed.

He goes on to show that Trump endorses killing the families of suspected terrorists and supports torture for detainees, both of which are illegal war crimes. The killing of suspected terrorists’ families, in particular, is far more extreme than anything Clinton’s proposed and a violation of international law.

Trump essentially views other countries in one of two ways, the way he seems to view people: either as enemies to be defeated economically (eg. China and Mexico) and militarily (eg. Lybia and Syria) or assets to be exploited for American interests via colonial conquest (eg. Iraq). Indeed, he combines the worse elements of neoconservative interventionism with the worst elements of isolationism that my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen points out. Like isolationists, he opposes international organizations like NATO and the UN, is generally skeptical of alliances, and fiercely opposes trade agreements; but he also supports costly, unnecessary, and unjust foreign wars and efforts to intervene in other countries’ affairs like neoconservatives. He manages to be both an isolationist, thinking the American government should only protect its own interests at the expense of the citizens of other people, and an interventionist, thinking the government should wage unjust wars to that end, at the same time.

Beauchamp notes how Trump’s foreign policy positions can best be described as Jacksonian:

But historically, there are lots of other forms of American hawkishness. Trump fits well with one of those — one that Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition,” after President Andrew Jackson.

Jacksonians, according to Mead, are basically focused on the interests and reputation of the United States. They are skeptical of humanitarian interventions and wars to topple dictators, because those are idealistic quests removed from the interests of everyday Americans. But when American interests are in question, or failing to fight will make America look weak, Jacksonians are more aggressive than anyone.

… Unlike neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, who have well-fleshed-out foreign policy doctrines, many Jacksonians think about war and peace more instinctively. “With them it is an instinct rather than an ideology — a culturally shaped set of beliefs and emotions rather than a set of ideas,” Mead writes. Sound familiar?

Of course, Trump is Jacksonian in more ways than just his foreign policy. His general populism and affection for strong-man leadership are very Jacksonian through and through. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s criticisms of Andrew Jackson himself could just as easily be leveled against Trump today (and echo Clinton’s words):

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

A Critique of Trump’s Foreign Policy

Besides the obvious criticism made very persuasively by Clinton that Trump is temperamentally unfit to engage in diplomacy, what is wrong with foreign policy? In a word: everything. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll confine my criticism to three points.

First, Trump’s style of Jacksonian foreign policy is largely responsible for most of the humanitarian atrocities committed by the American government. Second, Trump’s economic foreign policy is antithetical to the entire spirit of the liberal tradition; it undermines the dignity and freedom of the individual and instead treats the highest good as for the all-powerful nation-state (meaning mostly the politicians and their special interests) as the end of foreign policy, rather than peace and liberty. Finally, Trump’s foreign policy fails for the same reasons that socialism fails. If the goals of foreign policy are to represent “national interest,” then the policymaker must know what that “national interest” even is and we have little reason to think that is the case, akin to the knowledge problem in economic coordination.

On the first note, Beauchamp quotes Dr. Mead on how the Jacksonian tradition in America has resulted in some of the most atrocious abuses of human rights in American history:

In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Japanese civilians—not counting the casualties from the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined…

Since the Second World War, the United States has continued to employ devastating force against both civilian and military targets. Out of a pre-war population of 9.49 million, an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians are believed to have died as a result of U.S. actions during the 1950-53 conflict. During the same war, 33,870 American soldiers died in combat, meaning that U.S. forces killed approximately thirty North Korean civilians for every American soldier who died in action. The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War, and something on the order of 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are believed to have been killed during the period of American involvement.

This is because the Jacksonian view dictates that we should use full force in war to advance our interests and the reasons for waging war are for selfish rather than humanitarian purposes. We have good reason to think human rights under Trump will be abused to an alarming degree, as his comments that we should “bomb the hell out of” Syria, kill the noncombatant families of suspected terrorists, and torture detainees indicate. Trump is literally calling for the US to commit inhumane war crimes in the campaign, it is daunting to think just how dark his foreign policy could get in practice.

As mentioned earlier, many “libertarians” such as Walter Block seem to be under the delusion that Trump’s foreign policy is somehow compatible with the liberal tradition’s aspirations of individual liberty and peace. As he wrote when he endorsed Trump and created the oxymoronically named group “Libertarians for Trump:”

When put in this way, it is clear that The Donald is the most congruent with our perspective. This is true, mainly because of foreign policy.

…We readily concede Mr. Donald Trump is no Ron Paul on foreign policy or anything else for that matter. However, compared to his Republican alternatives, the Donald stands head and shoulders above them. He has said, time and time again, things like “Look at what we did in Iraq. It’s a mess. Look at what we did in Libya. It’s a mess there too. And we’re going to repeat our mistakes in Syria? Not on my watch.” …Yes, future President Trump wants a strong military, but with only a few exceptions, fewer than the other Republican candidates, only to defend our country.

Ignoring the glaring factual inaccuracy that Trump’s criticisms of Iraq and Libya were that we weren’t fierce enough and the main reason why he wants war is not to defend our country but to loot oil, nothing could be further from the truth that Trump’s foreign policy views are anywhere near to congruent with libertarianism.

To reiterate: Trump’s foreign policy views are just a particularly nasty version of imperialism and colonialism. Mises dedicated two entire sections of his chapter on foreign policy in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition to critiquing colonialism and revealing just how contrary these views are to liberalism’s commitment to peace and liberty. In direct opposition to Trump’s assertions that we should go to war to gain another country’s wealth and resources and that we should expand military spending greatly, Mises argues:

Wealth cannot be won by the annexation of new provinces since the “revenue” deprived from a territory must be used to defray the necessary costs of its administration. For a liberal state, which entertains no aggressive plans, a strengthening of its military power is unimportant.

Mises’ comments on the colonial policy in his time are extremely pertinent considering Trump’s calls to wage ruthlessly violent wars and commit humanitarian crises. “No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism,” Mises argued. “Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified.”

Trump says the ends of foreign policy are to aggressively promote “our” national interests, Mises says “[t]he goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace.” Trump views the world as nations competing in a zero-sum game and there must be one winner that can only be brought about through military conquest and economic protectionism, Mises says liberalism “aims at the peaceful cooperation between nations as within each nation” and specifically attacks “chauvinistic nationalists” who “maintain that irreconcilable conflicts of interest exist among the various nations[.]” Trump is rabidly opposed to free trade and is horrifically xenophobic on immigration, the cornerstone of Mises’ foreign policy is free movement of capital and labor over borders. There is no “congruence” between Trump and any classically liberal view on foreign policy matters in any sense; to argue otherwise is to argue from a position of ignorance, delusion, or to abandon the very spirit of classical liberalism in the first place.

Mises wasn’t the only classical liberal critical of Trump-style colonialist foreign policy. The classical liberal editor of The Nation Edward Lawrence Godkin was also sharply critical of the imperial foreign policy of the progressives and populists in his time. In a 1900 article entitled “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” in which he lamented the decline of the liberal emphasis on limited government, Godkin wrote:

Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism. It is an old foe under a new name. By making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind, it has sophisticated the moral sense of Christendom. Aristotle justified slavery, because Barbarians were “naturally” inferior to Greeks, and we have gone back to his philosophy. We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale. At home all criticism on the foreign policy of our rulers is denounced as unpatriotic. They must not be changed, for the national policy must be continuous. Abroad, the rulers of every country must hasten to every scene of international plunder, that they may secure their share. To succeed in these predatory expeditions the restraints on parliamentary, even of party, government must be cast aside. [Emphasis mine]

Though Godkin’s broader arguments against the “inferior races” argument for imperialism may not apply to Trump himself per se, it certainly does apply to some of Trump’s dangerously backward white nationalist supporters (at least one of whom Trump has publicly appointed) who are helping to drive his rise.

It wasn’t just Godkin in the United States, an entire organization was formed to oppose these policies: The American Anti-Imperialist League, which formed specifically in opposition to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippians and Cuba. Though it was certainly a diverse collection of anti-imperialists with a wide variety of motives, many of them were classical liberals. Their platform emphasized the incompatibility of small government and imperial conquest:

We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is “criminal aggression” and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.

Trump’s incompatibility with classically liberal goals is not of unique interest to libertarians. In many ways, both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists aim for a similar end of peace among nations in foreign policy for which classical liberals aim (or at least, I hope they share such an aim). The three viewpoints just disagree on the best policy means to reach those ends. Trump decidedly does not take peace as the end of foreign policy. He takes the ruthless promotion of America’s economic interests to be the goal, often at the expense of peace and at the expense of the lives of innocent people.

Additionally, even if we take Trump’s nationalist ends as given, the policy means Trump prefers of violent military intervention likely will not be successful for similar reasons to why socialism fails. Christopher Coyne has argued convincingly that many foreign interventions in general fail for very similar reasons to why attempts at economic intervention fail, complications pertaining to the Hayekian knowledge problem. How can a government ill-equipped to solve the economic problems of domestic policy design and control the political institutions and culture of nations abroad?  Coyne mainly has the interventionism of neoconservatives and liberals in mind, but many of his insights apply just as well to Trump’s Jacksonian vision for foreign policy.

The knowledge problem also applies on another level to Trump’s brand of interventionism. Trump assumes that he, in all his wisdom as president, can know what the “national interest” of the American people actually is, just like socialist central planners assume they know the underlying value scales or utility functions of consumers in society. We have little reason to assume this is the case.

Let’s take a more concrete example: Trump seems to think one example of intervention in the name of national interest is to take the resource of another country that our country needs, most commonly oil. However, how is he supposed to know which resources need to be pillaged for the national interest? There’s a fundamental calculation problem here. A government acting without a profit signal cannot know the answer to such a problem and lacks the incentive to properly answer it in the first place as the consequences failure falls upon the taxpayers, not the policy makers. Even if Trump and his advisors could figure out that the US needs a resource, like oil, and successfully loots it from another country, like Libya, there is always the possibility that this artificial influx of resources, this crony capitalist welfare for one resource at the expense of others, is crowding out potentially more efficient substitutes.

For an example, if the government through foreign policy expands the supply of oil, this may stifle entrepreneurial innovations for potentially more efficient resources in certain applications, such as natural gas, solar, wind, or nuclear in energy, for the same reasons artificially subsidizing these industries domestically stifle innovation. They artificially reduce the relative scarcity of the favored resource, reducing the incentive for entrepreneurs to find innovative means of using other resources or more efficient production methods. At the very least, Trump and his advisors would have little clue how to judge the opportunity cost of pillaging various resources and so would not know how much oil to steal from Libya. Even ignoring all those problems, it’s very probable that it would be cheaper and morally superior to simply peaceably trade with another country for oil (or any other resource) rather than waging a costly, violent, inhumane war in the first place.

Of course, I’m probably giving Trump way too much credit in that critique. Chances are, given Trump’s (nonexistent) economic literacy, he is just under the delusion that more resources always mean a better economy no matter what–opportunity costs, resource allocation, and entrepreneurial innovation be damned–and that government policy can be run just like a business.

Not only is it difficult for policy makers to know what the national interest is, as Christensen has argued it is unclear what “national interest” even means to begin with. He defines national interest as “an excuse for a policy or set of policies that should be taken in order to strengthen a state and its citizens (but not necessarily strengthen a state relative to other states…).” He further claims, “There’s no such thing as a national interest.” I’d take it even one step further: the rhetoric of “national interest,” it seems to me, is just an ideology (in the critical theory sense) for the foreign policy elite and their lobbyists to justify using coercive force to advance their arbitrary private interests rather than the (largely indeterminate) interests of the public or the country at large. Even if the “national interest” does have any meaning other than as a rhetorical ideology for the military industrial complex, the only way such a concept could become known is via the spontaneous process of the voluntary interchange of individuals, often time between citizens and non-citizens, and will likely never be known by a single individual mind. At the very least, there’s a public choice problem here: how is Trump realistically to differentiate his personal interests and those of his cronies from those of the general public? Given the fact that Trump likely has narcissistic personality disorder, I don’t have faith that he will.

The only positive potential to foreign policy under a Trump administration is the possibility that he will wisely not intervene in foreign affairs when no argument can be made that such an intervention would be in the national interest or give us oil. But given Trump’s record on the matter, and the arbitrary and elusive nature of the concept of “national interest,” I doubt that this will be a major factor in the way Trump actually implements foreign policy.

Trump vs. Clinton on Foreign Policy: Who is Preferable?

It is clear that underneath the prima facie inconsistencies in Trump’s comments on foreign policy, there is an underlying consistency that he thinks the goal of foreign policy is to quite aggressively promote US interests. This goal is impossible to reach as it represents a naïve understanding of the knowledge public leaders can possess, and generally represents a selfish, reckless, nationalist disregard for human dignity. The means he wants to undertake for this end are unnecessarily cruel and would likely constitute massive human rights violations. They contradict the high (and in my mind correct) aspirations of classical liberals of peace and individual liberty, and they’ll likely fail to accomplish their stated goals.

However, none of this necessarily means that Clinton’s foreign policy will be all that much better. Sure, Clinton’s motives are likely purer, but her record shows that the means she undertakes are uncannily similar to Trump and fail for similar reasons. She’s shown a similar lack of judiciousness in her handling of classified materials, just what the intelligence community fears of Trump. Her record shows her diplomatic skills yield mixed results at best, and she’s widely a progressive interventionist on foreign policy matters whose policies will subvert the liberal goals of peace and individual liberty. It is somewhat ironic that the Democrats have such great opportunity to go after Trump on foreign policy, but have chosen the absolute worst person in their party to make that case as their nominee (akin to Republicans and Romney on ObamaCare in 2012).

Comparing the two candidates point-by-point, therefore, is very difficult. Though there are many underlying consistencies to Trump’s comments on foreign policy and Clinton is still largely right that his stated positions have been somewhat incoherent. Unlike Trump, we have a record of Clinton actually implementing foreign policy and our only knowledge of the Donald’s policies only comes from occasionally off-the-cuff and contradictory remarks about others’ policies. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty as to what Trump’s foreign policies will actually look like and, though I think his comments reveal there is a high probability they will be atrocious, there is a small chance that they could be marginally better than Clinton’s (whose record shows she will implement almost certainly failed foreign policies). Trump’s very concerning comments on foreign policy alone do not make a slam-dunk case that Clinton is preferable on these matters.

Having said that, I’d still argue Clinton’s foreign policy is at least marginally preferable to Trump’s. With Trump we risk not only a fairly high probability of atrocious policies—quite possibly worse than Clinton’s—based off of his comments, we also risk the added problem of regime uncertainty in foreign policy. Also, some of the concrete policies Trump has called for—like torture and the murdering of families—are a cause for serious concern. Further, Clinton is likely to be far more diplomatic and will be less likely to offend other leaders and alienate the US from the world. Her point that Trump is “temperamentally unfit to lead” is very well taken, and was only confirmed by Trump’s response to her speech which in which he largely stuck to the non-substantive screaming of insults in his typical childish fashion. None of this at all means anybody should vote for either candidate as there is a lot more to voting than the issues of foreign policy. For what it’s worth (which is very little), I for one will most likely not be voting in the next election. If I were forced to, it would be for the Johnson/Weld ticket.

From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

Dr Gibson notes:

I’d say the “big question” makes no sense. Surely some Syrians would be better off under ISIS and some under Assad.

And there’s a bigger question: who the hell cares? Few if any of us Americans have enough information to judge this issue nor should we. We have our own fish to fry. The Washington politicians have done incalculable damage with their ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the Middle East and elsewhere. Let the Syrians and their immediate neighbors sort this out.

I wanted to draw this excellent comment out for two reasons. Reason number one has to do with Dr Gibson’s first paragraph. Questions rarely make sense (which is why you ask people for help), but suppose you asked whether Syrians would be better off under capitalism or socialism. Some Syrians would be better off under socialism than capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as capitalism. Right? One of those systems is better for far more people than the other, and as an individual don’t you have a moral duty to support the more just system in some form or other? These are questions that libertarians, especially libertarians in the United States, should be asking themselves more often than not. There is a disturbing tendency among this faction of libertarians to lean in the direction of nationalist parochialism when it comes to matters outside of our borders. This brings me to reason number two for highlighting Dr Gibson’s (quite excellent) comment: Reminding libertarians and classical liberals that our creed is an international (and a humble) one.

War refugees represent the humblest of our species. The UN estimates that the war has affected nearly 12 million Syrians so far and, of course, that doesn’t include all of the people outside of Syria’s borders who have been affected. Russians, Europeans, North Americans, Syria’s immediate neighbors, and East Africans have all been affected by the ongoing war. How could you not be interested, especially from an individualist point of view?

I think the problem of the American libertarian’s parochialist nationalism stems from Murray Rothbard’s Cold War-era writings. Unlike F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were both big supporters of more international cooperation (but who both saw the glaring flaws in organizations like the UN and what is now the EU), Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs were heavily influenced by the fact that the world was dominated by two superpowers and that the government he lived under used lies and deceit to counter Moscow’s power plays. Rothbard’s world of bi-polar geopolitics is long gone. It doesn’t exist. It will not exist again in my lifetime. Ours is a world of multipolarity. Yet somehow Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs (which descended into outright incoherence near the end of his life) still have a profound impact on the American libertarian movement.

Much of my work here at NOL is dedicated to eviscerating this long-expired mindset from the American libertarian movement. Isolationism is nationalist, plain and simple (just pay attention to the rhetoric of libertarians like Justin Raimondo or Doug Bandow if you need more convincing), but Warren’s point about Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other states remains pertinent. So perhaps a different question to ask (even if it doesn’t make sense) is what a more internationalist-minded, in the vein of Hayek and Mises and Adam Smith, US foreign policy would look like. (I’ve been asking this question for a while now.)

“If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad…”

 

…we’ll take ISIS. ISIS has flatbed trucks and machine guns. Assad represents the strategic arch from Tehran to Beirut, 130,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program.

That’s from Michael Oren, a prominent Israeli lawmaker and a former ambassador to the United States. I got the quote from an excellent bit of reporting in the Wall Street Journal by Yaroslav Trofimov on the Syrian war as viewed by the Israelis. (Read the whole thing.)

ISIS isn’t a privatized security force per se, but it is definitely a denationalized one. So the Israelis, or at least one prominent faction of Israelis, prefer ISIS to Assad. The big question, though, is whether or not people in what is presently called “Syria” are better off under ISIS (a non-state actor) or under a pseudo-state that is inevitably going to be governed by a strong man…

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.