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October 27, 2004

Libertarians Face Off on Intervention


by Jon Basil Utley

The Cato Institute and the Objectivist Center on Friday offered a full-scale inter-libertarian debate on war. Topics included "Principles Guiding Military Intervention," "Has the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq Advanced America's Interests in the Middle East?," and "Reflections on the Iraq War."

Luncheon speaker was Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason magazine, on "Why Libertarians Should Debate the War." When he called for a show of hands of how many had supported the invasion, about 35% raised their hands. Gillespie said that was about the percentage of division among libertarians nationwide. He said the core beliefs of libertarianism and true liberalism were tested by the war. He added that the fall of Communism had virtually ended the alliance of libertarians with conservatives.

Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation and Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute put forth the hardline libertarian views. Hornberger said the attacks on America were because of Washington's blind support for every Israeli government and because of what was done to Iraq after the first Gulf war. He said a Lexis-Nexis search about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement on 60 Minutes to the effect that, yes, it was worth the death of half a million Iraqi children to blockade Iraq, revealed not a single comment in the major media decrying the policy. Hornberger said many surveys of Arab public opinion show there is strong admiration for American values and our freedom, but Washington's policies engender fear and hatred, the war in Iraq was all about installing a friendly regime and establishing American air bases, and that is why there is no trust in American motives.

Robert Higgs argued the war brought America less liberty and security, American presidents are the "new Caesars" going to war as they please, Congress committed a "grotesque abandonment" of its duties, and the Constitution's 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments have been "shredded." They concern the writ of habeas corpus, rights to a speedy trial, due process, and search and seizure restrictions on government.

The pro-war positions were put out by Brink Lindsey of Cato, Ronald Bailey of Reason, Deroy Murdock of National Review Online, and Ed Hudgins and David Kelley, both of the Objectivist Center, a think tank founded in the tradition of Ayn Rand. Murdock restated the solid Bush line. Hudgins said the deaths of a million Iraqis from starvation and disease were Saddam's fault, and Kelly argued that Islamists object to American popular culture, our cell phones, and TV. He said the government has a responsibility to fight international terrorism in any way it can. However, he also warned of Hayek's law of unintended consequences.

Bailey went all the way in presenting libertarian arguments for interventions. He argued that military interventions under Reagan had been successful, that all unfree societies threaten free nations, and that America should actively support and train insurgents fighting for freedom all over the world. He said America can teach others about free markets and free governments. He argued that Americans should not die for the freedom of others; instead, we should help them to fight for their own freedoms. He said "aggressive expansion of liberty worldwide" would help protect America and our own freedoms. However, he admitted there are no guarantees that new regimes will necessarily be free. He also said America should welcome foreign students instead of making it harder for them to come here, and vigorously promote free trade, both of which strongly help America's interests in the outside world.

Chris Preble of Cato responded, arguing that libertarians should have more skepticism about government efficacy overseas. He said, "Yes, we can be free while others are slaves," and libertarian distrust in big government should not stop at the waters' edge.

Muslim issues were put forth by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, Cato scholar Patrick Basham, and Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. Telhami explained that the rise of Islamic nationalism had more to do with anti-corruption voting than with religion, as happened in Turkey, where moderate Islamists won power. He said Egypt's former president Abdel Nasser and Jacques Chirac of France, neither Islamists, are the most admired world leaders in consistent polling in Muslim nations. He said polls also show most Muslims think oil and Israel were the reasons for the Iraq war, as well as America wanting to weaken the strongest nation in the Arab world. He called for debate in America about the policy wisdom of establishing permanent air bases in Iraq, which the administration is building.

Basham explained how nepotism is considered a moral duty in tribal societies and is not looked upon as corruption in nations with a 16th century political culture. He said political freedom is an "alien concept," and economic development is the most vital key for Muslim political development and freedom.

Nawash explained how American Muslims who return to their homelands are appalled at the difficulty and corruption involved in trying to set up a small business (a main subject of Hernando de Soto's writings on the reason for misery in almost the whole Third World – except for East Asia). He also said that for peace and development, nations must separate church and state – and he included Israel as a Mideast religious state.

Cato's Ted Carpenter wrapped up the conference, arguing that foreign policy should not be so divisive for libertarians. He said Washington's "promiscuous interventions" overseas, nine times since the end of the cold war, are deplorable, and that making war demands "compelling reasons," not just "good reasons." He said terrorism is a modest risk for America compared to the nuclear annihilation risk of the Cold War, and, consequently, it should not cause us to panic and give up our Constitutional freedoms, which we did not lose even during the Cold War.

The conference can be watched in its entirety on the Cato Web site.


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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