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The War on Terrorism vs. the NIFP

A friend of mine recently asked me the following question (paraphrased): How can someone who supports the Non-Initiation of Force Principle also support the United States's war against Iraq?

This is an excellent question, because there is a prima facie conflict between the war and the NIFP. After all, Iraq had not attacked the United States and was not in a position to do so. Importantly, many libertarians vocally opposed the war. (The Libertarian Party membership form asks people to agree that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.)

The NIFP states that it is wrong to initiate the use of physical force; that physical force should only be used in retaliation against those who have initiated its use.

It is beyond the scope of this discussion to defend the NIFP as an ethical principle or as the basis for government, but on this latter point the interested should read paragraphs I.8-I.11 in Frédéric Bastiat's The Law (1850) ... and then read the rest of it. :)

For an exposition on causes, scope, and strategy of the overall war against terrorism, Steven Den Beste's overview is essential reading, particularly sections I-A, II, III-D, VI-A,B,C, VIII, and IX. It contains many links to other articles; these two are particularly important:

To escape the charge that war against Iraq violates the NIFP, it must be shown either that the NIFP is not applicable in this instance or that this use of force is retaliatory and therefore justified.

I argue that this use of force is retaliatory because it is directed against the Hussein regime which has brutally repressed its own people. Such a government is illegitimate and has no right to exist. The Iraqi people attempted to rise up against Hussein in 1991, but that revolt was suppressed, largely because the United States didn't deliver the help we promised to them.

With the Iraqi people unable to remove Hussein themselves, it would take foreign intervention to overthrow the regime. Any country willing to overturn that government and replace it with one that respects human rights would have the moral authority (but not the obligation) to do so. This is compatible with the NIFP because force is being used for the purpose of removing the force-initiator (the regime).

The United States decided to invade Iraq after 9/11 as part of our larger war against terrorism. Our goal is to effect a cultural Reformation in the area, to create a legitimately prosperous state that will be a model for others to emulate, thereby defusing the anger that has been fertilizing terrorism. This is why invading Iraq serves the interests of the United States.

The interests of the United States (create a legitimately prosperous state in the region) coincide with the interests of the Iraqi people (to live in a legitimately prosperous state). It's more than the United States simply seizing an opportunity — we have explicitly the same goals as the Iraqis. If this is imperialism, it is of the most benevolent kind possible. This is why I celebrate the humanitarian good we are doing in Iraq.

Most of the libertarian opposition to the war is over fears that it will enlarge government and entangle us in foreign affairs, not that it violates the NIFP. For example, take Arthur Silber's very lengthy but carefully presented argument that the war will strengthen the fascist element that is already present in our government. His position in his own words is, I fully support a war on terror, terrorism and terrorists — but not in the manner being pursued by this administration, a manner which arises out of, depends upon, and necessarily reinforces and extends a fundamentally statist form of government.

I am very sympathetic to arguments of that kind and many of his points may be correct in the short run. However, I find his argument unpersuasive because he does not show that he is correct in the long run. During World War II the United States was more controlled by the government than at any other time in its history, yet we have dismantled most of that state control. In particular, I cite the end of price controls and the end of Japanese internment as evidence that we can come "back from the brink." The current war will be much less intrusive to the normal functioning of the country and I do not see why any distortions it introduces will be permanent. Indeed, major portions of the USA PATRIOT Act are scheduled to sunset at the end of 2005.

Further, I do not understand his opposition to outsourcing of military work to private companies. The structure of bidding and payment may well be prone to abuse, but I view that as an indictment of the current structure rather than of the idea as such. I much prefer a military dependent on commercial cooperation to one that is totally autonomous. Plus, government outsourcing on all levels reduces the number of permanent civil service jobs.

I consider the terrorist threat to be critically important and something that must be countered. Whatever the ultimate correctness of Arthur's fears, he has not offered a plausible, practical alternative to the manner in which the war against terrorism is currently being waged. Is there a way to defeat the terrorist threat other than the strategy outlined by Steven Den Beste (which the United States appears to be following)? If there is, I haven't seen it. Until I do, I shall continue to support the present war against terrorism.

To stand by and do nothing while terrorists attack us, paralyzed by an inability to wage war in an "acceptable" way, is unacceptable. American lives are at stake and it is the responsibility of the United States government to protect them. If you want to change the way our armed services operate, fine, but push for those changes within the context of an ongoing war that we are already fighting and absolutely must win.