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An Open Letter to My Libertarian Friends Who Don’t Understand My Opposition to the War in Iraq

Dear Friends:

The issue today on which libertarians are most divided is the war in Iraq. I am decidedly in the anti-Iraq-war camp; others – many of whom are people whose opinions and judgment I respect enormously – are in the pro-Iraq-war camp. Quite a few of these friends take issue with me for opposing the war. “Don’t you understand,” they ask, “the unseen costs of not going to war? Didn’t Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler teach you anything?”

I’m well aware that failure to take action when it should be taken can cause ill consequences just as much as can taking action when action should not be taken. I am also aware that being weak and irresolute invites bullying. Nevertheless, the truth of these general principles is insufficient to justify this war.

Before I spell out my reasons for believing the war in Iraq to be unjustified, I emphasize that I am no pacifist. That is, I don’t believe that love (or negotiation) can conquer all; I don’t believe that violence used in self-defense is inappropriate; I don’t believe that proclaiming a commitment to peace is sufficient to prevent others from aggressing against you; and I do not believe that the fist used by Saddam Hussein to crush the Iraqi people was anything other than iron. Hussein is a beast who deserves no mercy.

Still, the war in Iraq is unjustified. By this I mean that the justifications offered for the war by the Bush administration have proven to be mistaken or empty. Most obviously, Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Nor is there any credible evidence that the 9/11 attackers were in any material way aided by Saddam Hussein. And while it’s true that Hussein was an evil tyrant, this fact is neither among the chief reasons first offered by the administration for going to war in Iraq, nor is it a sufficient reason for going to war.

The world is full of evil tyrants. But given the nature of government, it’s not the role of government A to sit in judgment of government B. The most legitimate role for any government is to protect its own people from violence. Whenever Uncle Sam unleashes his mighty military in foreign countries for the purpose of protecting foreign citizens from their own governments, he weakens his ability to protect Americans.

This weakening takes place on three fronts. One is that troops, munitions, and other resources are diverted away from the task of protecting Americans. Even a country as wealthy as the United States does not have unlimited resources to devote to military excursions.

The second (and I think more serious) reason that such interventions imperil Americans is that no one – often including the intended beneficiaries of our intervention – likes a powerful entity unilaterally throwing its weight around. The reasons for resenting even well-intentioned foreign interventions by powerful militaries are complex, likely involving a suspicion that the intervening military really has a hidden motive, or that despite its good intentions, a foreign power has too little understanding of the nuances of the situation to do anything beyond kill today’s bad guys.

Who among us trusts a powerful and heavily armed foreign behemoth – an alien giant capable of killing millions in short order – merely because the behemoth assures us that it means well? Who among us would not be inspired to do all that we can to terrorize that behemoth if we feared (accurately or not) that it really intends to harm our homeland and loved ones?

The third and related way in which even ‘benevolent’ foreign interventions put Americans in deeper peril is that our interventions are too likely to backfire. Even if everyone from the President down to the junior janitor at Lockheed Martin intends only to help foreigners escape the grips of their home-grown tyrants, political and cultural situations are always more complex than politicians imagine them to be. Why was Saddam Hussein ruling Iraq? Were Iraqis just incredibly unlucky that such a vile dictator somehow grabbed power and ruled ruthlessly for so long? Or was Hussein’s tyranny at least as much a consequence as a cause of a dysfunctional cultural, political, and economic situation? If so, then removing the dictator does not remove the complex underlying causes that fueled his tyranny.

Removing a dictator is child’s play for a military as awesome as that of the United States. So Hussein is now history. But because the underlying causes that put him in power to begin with are still in place in Iraq, that country likely will soon revert to another dictator – one different in name and different in style, but a brute nevertheless. He will oppress, kill, and impoverish. (The notion that a poweful military can uproot dysfunctional cultural, political, and economic root causes of tyranny strikes me as naive in the extreme.  Just as your local policeman can protect Ms. Jones from her husband’s physical abuse but can’t hope to counsel their marriage into a happy one, so, too can a military remove a tyrannt like Hussein but can’t hope to cure that society of what really ails it.)

And Americans will be blamed for this tragedy. The fact that our President meant well will matter little to people tyrannized by the government that replaced the one we abolished. Americans will be hated more intensely, and suffer greater danger of terrorist attacks.

Of course, the Bush administration insists that removing Hussein from power was done not just to help ordinary Iraqis but also to help protect Americans – that this war is in America’s self-interest.

Perhaps. Those of us not privy to the intelligence that the President receives cannot say for certain that, in early 2003, it was unreasonable to suppose that Hussein posed a serious-enough threat to Americans to justify a military invasion. The fact that weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq doesn’t prove that the risk that was then perceived wasn’t high enough to justify the invasion.

But surely in matters of war we must hold leaders to a super-high standard of accuracy. Because military intelligence is secret (meaning that ordinary people have no knowledge of its details), it’s simply too easy for politicians to lie about it or to misrepresent it — to use it for political purposes. This reason alone counsels that we insist that those who exercise power in a free society be especially cautious before launching military invasions.

But when combined with the fact that even many people who distrust the government to deliver mail and regulate factory safety lose their reservations of that same government when it is off on military adventures, the case for heightened skepticism of military adventures grows even stronger.

Why should we believe George Bush that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a significant threat to Americans? Because he says so? He also says that ‘price-gougers’ are a real villains who should be punished. Why should we believe him when he assures us that U.S. troops and guns will eventually bring freedom and prosperity to Iraq? Because he says so? He also said that steel tariffs will help the American economy.

What reason is there – beyond the mere will to trust leaders who send troops into harm’s way in foreign lands – to believe that these politicians are acting wisely and non-politically?

Without very hard evidence that American lives were at real risk of violent attack by Saddam Hussein, I cannot help but suspect that those in power in the U.S. have abused the vast trust that Americans give them in military matters. Libertarians properly don’t trust government to run our pension plans, to deliver health care, to educate our children, or to provide disaster relief. Why be so trusting of government to wage war?