ISIS and “Non-Interventionism”

I’ve written on the libertarians’ use of “non-interventionism” as a deceptive term to disguise their tacit kinship with anarchists. An article last month by a senior fellow at the Cato Institute provides a good illustration.

In “Will America Ever Learn From Its Middle East Mistakes,” Ted Galen Carpenter argues against taking any military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He writes: “The principal reason to avoid rushing into another Middle East war is the dismal record of our previous interventions. Each time the United States has meddled in that turbulent region, it seems to have made the situation a bit worse (and sometimes a lot worse) than it was before.”

He proceeds to list a number of such “meddlings,” starting from the early 1980s in Lebanon, to the two wars against Iraq, to Libya, to Syria—all of which, he says, demonstrate the futility of American military action. Those who now advocate fighting ISIS, he contends, must first “defend the record of the previous applications of that strategy. Otherwise, we face the prospect of expending even more blood and treasure while further destabilizing the region and creating more enemies.”

Now, it is true that those actions were largely failures. But the obvious question is: Why? What was the wrong principle we were following? What in the nature of the policy we adopted caused it to fail?

A proper foreign policy is based on securing America’s self-interest—which means: protecting against threats to the freedom of American citizens, nothing more and nothing less. If no such threat from abroad exists, our government should take no action. But if a demonstrable threat does exist, the government must take whatever measures are necessary to eliminate it—not to “contain” it, not to “degrade” it, but to eliminate it.

This is precisely what has not been guiding our Middle East policy. Some of our actions, such as in Libya, were entirely devoid of self-interest and were instead “humanitarian” endeavors, designed to introduce freedom to unwilling cultures that were steeped in tribalism and statism. Others, such as in Afghanistan, did have a definite element of self-interest, but were infected by altruistic motivations and quickly devolved into the same self-sacrificial, “nation-building” efforts on our part. Not a single undertaking represented a foreign policy based strictly on American self-interest.

Here, as illustration, is part of an op-ed I wrote, in the fall of 2003, several months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

We are inviting failure in Iraq, and in our overall war on terrorism, by conducting a campaign that is hopelessly apologetic and appeasing.

The Iraqis have long produced despotism. But instead of being morally confident in our right to establish a government that is no longer a threat to anyone—Iraqi or American—we are deferentially asking the Iraqis for permission to proceed. Afraid to offend them, we are reluctant to defend our interests and to uphold our values.

For example, we did not appoint the members of Iraq’s Governing Council based on their commitment to freedom; instead, we sought ethnic and religious “diversity” in order to placate the tribal and political factions that dominate Iraq. The 25 members include: the secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party; the founder of the Kurdish Socialist Party; a member of Iraq’s Hezbollah; and a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution—a group that was funded and partly founded by Iran and that advocates an Islamic theocracy. . . .

On the military front . . . we started by apologizing for our presence, when our invading soldiers were ordered to jeopardize their lives rather than risk harming civilians or damaging mosques. . . . Our soldiers face continuing attacks, but political considerations prevent us from disarming the populace. . . . We are at war, but our military planners apparently believe that a methodical, house-to-house search for guns—let alone a disarming of private “militias” in Fallujah and elsewhere—would be too “intrusive.” Iraqis—again, brandishing automatic weapons—stage public demonstrations designed to incite violence against us. Yet none are arrested, presumably because we don’t want to be regarded as overly assertive.

This same self-effacing policy is being practiced in Afghanistan, where the problem of “offended local sensibilities”—as a recent N.Y. Times article describes it—has led our policymakers to transform our soldiers into goodwill ambassadors, “whose focus is less on capturing terrorists than on winning public support.”

Is it surprising that the Taliban appears to be successfully regrouping?

In logic and in justice, there is only one means of “winning public support,” in Afghanistan or Iraq: eradicating every trace of the former enslavers. If that is not sufficient, then the support is not worth gaining. Our only concern should be toward those who value freedom enough to recognize the inestimable benefit our troops have given them. As to all the others—they need not like us, only fear us. . . .

Upon ousting the governments of Germany and Japan in World War II, we did not proceed on tiptoe. We did not express regret at having to stop traffic, search homes and shoot fleeing suspects. We were morally certain—certain that their system was wrong and ours right, certain that their system threatened us and needed to be eliminated. As a result, the enemy was eventually demoralized, allowing freedom to take root. The identical approach should be adopted now.

In postwar Japan it was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who unilaterally drafted a new constitution—over the objections of many Japanese—and paved the way for a radical shift from tyranny to liberty. Emulating MacArthur, by imposing upon Iraq a U.S.-written constitution that champions the principle of individual rights, including the separation of mosque and state, would be an ideal means of asserting our interests—along with the interests of those Iraqis who genuinely value freedom.

The conclusion to be drawn is that our military measures in the Middle East failed because they were based on a wrong philosophy. And that we need a radically different one in order to succeed. If our policymakers were on the premise of self-interest, our military would not be unleashed unless an objective danger to America exists—and then it would be unleashed decisively. We have failed because when force was in fact justified, too little, not too much, was used. Our soldiers died, in retrospect, for nothing. They died so that the Taliban could eventually retake Afghanistan and so that Iraq could eventually become a satellite of Iran. They served as sacrificial fodder for the creed of altruism.

But to the “non-interventionists,” the problem is simply our “meddling.” The problem is “intervention”—and the solution therefore is “non-intervention.” This is equivalent to declaring that because intervening in the health care system has been harmful, the government should also stop “intervening” in robberies and murders. While such a declaration would be too blatant an embrace of anarchism, the call for a “non-interventionist” foreign policy has a semi-respectable veneer. But beneath that veneer is the lunacy of regarding two very opposite actions—the use of force against innocent, non-threatening parties and the use of force in retaliation against those who have initiated it—as identical. This is why the very term “interventionism” is a duplicitous “anti-concept,” deliberately designed to blur the distinction between those two types of action.

As to ISIS, it is certainly a threat to Americans. It has openly declared its enmity toward us. It is willing and able to physically harm us. It has beheaded two U.S. citizens, and announced its intention to destroy us on its way to establishing an Islamic caliphate. But this means nothing to the “non-interventionists.” Despite their seeming interest in intellectual issues, they are actually dismissive of the role of ideas in human life.

They refuse to see that there is an ideology of Islamic totalitarianism that poses an armed threat to the Western world. To them, the threat comes only from America’s desire to “meddle.” Our “interventions” in the Middle East, according to Carpenter, “intensified Muslim animosity towards the United States.” He sees the jihadists as people who have no motive and no desire to harm us. Indeed, he says, “U.S. intelligence agencies contend there is no evidence the organization [ISIS] has formulated plans to attack the American homeland.” (These are, presumably, the same myopic agencies—now suddenly to be trusted—that saw no evidence of possible attacks by al Qaeda on, say, September 10, 2001.)

Ron Paul, a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate, condemned America’s overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. That government—which shielded and provided a haven for al Qaeda—is not our enemy, according to Paul. The only reason they are fighting us, he says, is because we invaded their country—just as we would fight any invader of our country: “The Taliban just says, ‘We don’t want foreigners.’ We need to understand that, or we can’t resolve this problem in the Middle East.”

So Islamic totalitarianism is not the root of the problem; American “interventionism” is. Only “hawkish types,” according to Carpenter, believe that ISIS poses a threat to us. And if we just leave ISIS alone—he claims—it will leave us alone.

This is the lethal mindlessness of “non-interventionism.”

What then should be done with respect to ISIS? It should be militarily destroyed. (More importantly, the regime in Iran—the source of Islamic totalitarianism—should be forcibly ousted.) Unfortunately, that is a hopeless goal under the current administration. President Obama, driven by a need to appear decisive before the November elections, has launched a perfunctory bombing campaign against ISIS. If that is our only alternative, we’d be far better off doing nothing. At present, therefore, we can only hope that some future administration will grasp the urgent need to take appropriate action in defense of America.♦♦

(See also “Libertarianism vs. Liberty.”)

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