Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

October 17, 2001

Wartime Resignation or Endorsement?

I can understand a libertarian deciding that the war we are in is virtually inevitable, and that to argue against any kind of retaliation in the wake of the terrorist destruction of September 11 is fairly fruitless right now. I can understand a decision to pick and choose one's propaganda targets of opportunity as the war heats up, and choosing to criticize aspects of the war that are likely to resonate with most Americans rather than indulging in reap-what-you-sow/America-deserved-it rhetoric.

I have a hard time, however, with the official statement of the Libertarian Party's National Committee, passed at a meeting this last weekend in Atlanta, that endorses the military action now underway in Afghanistan. The statement did take some pains to say it favored only a "measured" military response against Osama bin Laden's network, involving "clear, measurable and finite goals for this War on Terrorism." It does try to distinguish between an attack on bin Laden and an attack on the Taliban regime (although perhaps for the wrong reasons). It does call for a new, noninterventionist foreign policy.

But the statement avoids some hard choices and accepts certain of the War Party's premises that are unproved or clearly counterfactual. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a statement that is so clearly a result of committee deliberation. But it doesn't strike me as evidence that this is really a party of principle.


Understand that this statement was composed over the weekend and released Monday, October 15, during the second week of the U.S. bombing campaign. It should be clear to almost anybody by now that the bombing campaign has not been directed specifically against Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, but against the military infrastructure of the Taliban regime. Indeed, certain US spokesmen have been rather clear about this. They acknowledge that bin Laden has not been hit, killed, and perhaps not even personally targeted yet. Part of the stated objective of the campaign has been to do damage to government military targets in hope of "smoking out" some of bin Laden's network, either through attempted communication or though personnel movements.

Clearly, the US does not know for sure where bin Laden actually is, despite several leaks to the effect that special operations forces have been in and out of Afghanistan fairly often since September 11 (and perhaps sporadically for years before that). The current bombing campaign is not directed against Osama bin Laden and his group. (Well, a few alleged training camps might have been hit.) If it has any purpose other than creating panic, demonstrating "will" and satisfying a psychological need to retaliate, it is to try desperately to cause bin Laden or a few lieutenants to panic and reveal themselves so the real retaliation can begin.


One can understand such an action from the US military, which has certain weapons and knows how to use them. Perhaps it will even succeed in smoking bin Laden and some of his associates out. But it is clearly not, as the LP statement would have it, "forceful action against terrorists who have already killed thousands of Americans, and who have threatened to kill more."

The US military knows how to do state-against-state military action and that is what it is doing. (To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.) If it gets an actual bin Laden-linked terrorist during the current wave of bombing it is as likely to be incidental to the main targets as the Afghan civilian casualties have been.

If anything should be characteristic of libertarian thought and ethics, it is that responsibility is individual rather than collective. Treating people as members of groups rather than as individuals is supposed to be anathema. Punishing one person, or a group of persons, for the actions of another, is not justice but injustice. Viewing people primarily as members of groups rather than as individual persons is unfair, unjustified and socially corrosive.

If you want to take that kind of analysis to the limit, those who perpetrated the terror of September have already been punished (or rewarded, depending on how you interpret certain somewhat ambiguous verses of the Koran). Those who actually did the terrible deeds died in the doing of them. Even the all powerful State cannot reach them now. It may be frustrating to acknowledge this, but we can't punish those directly guilty.


That doesn't preclude the likelihood, of course, that the actions of the 19 terrorists who shocked the world September 11, were planned, aided and abetted by others. Most codes of law can hold those who aid and abet a crime as bearing some responsibility and deserving of some punishment, and an individualistic ethic can do so as well.

The question is, who exactly did the aiding an abetting? Was there a mastermind who planned and financed the outrages? Although there is certainly a good deal of circumstantial evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden or to people in his network, even now, more than a month later, the precise identities of those behind the terrorism are somewhat unclear. The LP National Committee finally gets around to acknowledging this in its fifth paragraph, after it has already explicitly endorsed the bombing campaign. There it "call[s] on the United States government to publicly reveal the evidence that conclusively links bin Laden and his terrorist network." The statement acknowledges that most of the evidence released to date is circumstantial and "the US government has an obligation to conclusively demonstrate that he is guilty of mass murder."


That's an interesting inversion of priorities. You would think that if you were endorsing something as destructive and so certain to cause collateral damage including the death of at least some innocent civilians as a bombing campaign, you would demand proof first. But the LP endorses the bombing a campaign clearly aimed at people other than the alleged guilty party or parties before demanding the proof.

And let us be clear, while the proof of bin Laden's guilt may well be available, it hasn't yet been made public. The UK government did put out a white paper of sorts on the Internet. However, the Independent's Chris Blackhurst ["Missing: crucial facts from the official charge sheet against Bin Laden," October 7] calls it "a report of conjecture, supposition and unsubstantiated assertions of fact," and backs it up reasonably well.

You can't analyze a 21-page report line by line in a newspaper article. But it is true that the UK report dwells almost entirely on previous bin Laden actions – the African embassy bombings, Cole bombing, public declaration of jihad – and doesn't really tie bin Laden directly and indisputably to the September 11 bombings. The most important paragraph ends: "There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release."

Well, perhaps there is. Certainly much of the circumstantial evidence is suggestive and there aren't a lot of other potential suspects who seem to have the resources, hatred and resolve required. But what has been provided so far is much less than would be required to convict bin Laden in a court of law.

Whether there's enough evidence to justify killing agents of a government that has harbored bin Laden though it may have been ignorant of and not directly implicated in the specific acts of September 11 is a question worth pondering.


The LP statement actually acknowledges some uneasiness, noting that military action against the government of Afghanistan is somewhat more difficult to justify than direct action against bin Laden and the boys. Its reason is a little curious: "But it is a sovereign nation, and a military strike against it is an act of war."

Well, the LP is a political party which is presumably dedicated to achieving elective office in a sovereign nation, though there's some evidence that its real purpose these days is to provide fundraising lists to candidates and campaign managers past and present. But this solicitude for the dignity of a "sovereign nation," while it might be consistent with certain brands of limited-government libertarianism, is hardly the most essential first principle of a freedom philosophy properly understood.

Some of us think the nation-state is a phase – and a not especially healthy one – humankind is passing through just now. I fully recognize that the nation-state rules, and I share the preference that if the government that rules me wants to go to war with another government it would be nice if it formally declared war, if only to precipitate discussion. But some governments are less legitimate than others. None, in my view, deserves automatic special recognition by virtue of being a "sovereign nation," whatever that rather amorphous concept might be.


The LP statement does, toward the end, assert that a noninterventionist foreign policy in the future "would reduce the chance that terrorists will ever again want to strike a bloody blow at America." And it expresses concern that unnecessary civilian casualties would create future enemies for America. It doesn't take fully into consideration, however, the very strong likelihood that the present campaign – even if conducted without mistakes and with scrupulous regard for avoiding civilian casualties, which is virtually impossible in the real world – will create enemies for the United States who will haunt us for years and decades to come.

President Bush and his men can insist all they want to that this is a campaign against terrorism, not Islam, and I happen to think it's true in the main. But it's too late to convince a substantial number of Muslims. They may be wrong, they may be misguided, they may be jumping to unwarranted conclusions, but more Muslims now believe that the United States bears a special hostility toward Islam than did before the bombing started. We can deplore it, but it would be foolish to deny it. The bombing is a powerful symbol that will never be erased in the minds of many.


I have known since early in the day September 11 that Afghanistan was likely to be bombed sooner or later. But I don't know that bombing is necessary to take out bin Laden. Indeed, US authorities have hinted or even stated that removing the Taliban – a "sovereign" government if you will – was one of the objectives of the campaign. (A few even hoped the regime would collapse without bombing.)

I acknowledge the virtual inevitability of this bombing campaign – another undeclared war to feed the apparently insatiable hunger of the state for more power. But I don't have to endorse it or try to make a case that it is a good thing. Too bad the Libertarian Party thought otherwise.

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