Confessions of a Former (and Maybe Future) Hawk

Once upon a time, way back in 2002-03, I had my own blog. Unsurprisingly, given the times, I wrote frequently about issues relating to the war on terrorism. I took a hawkish line, supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resort to force, if necessary, to prevent other terror-sponsoring states like Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Based on my blog writings, I was invited to participate in a Reason online debate with John Mueller back in November 2002 on whether to go to war with Iraq. I argued vociferously in the affirmative.

The views I expressed were extremely controversial within Cato and the larger libertarian camp. Cato’s foreign policy scholars, reflecting the “orthodox” libertarian opposition to an interventionist foreign policy, strongly opposed the Iraq invasion. But for a minority of policy staffers at Cato, as well as many other libertarians, waiting for the other guy to take the first swing no longer seemed to make sense in a post-9/11 world.

Since the fall of Baghdad, I haven’t written a word about foreign policy. Virtually all my writing energies have been directed elsewhere: to a book, due out next spring, that examines the effect of mass affluence since World War II on American politics and culture. Much has changed in the past three-plus years, including my own views as I struggle to make sense of ever-changing circumstances. As a one-time outspoken “libertarian hawk,” I feel a responsibility to explain where I stand now and how I got here. Given recent (and incorrect) speculation about my views on the brewing crisis with Iran, now is as good a time as any.

First, on Iraq, my support for the invasion was based on the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs. That assumption, of course, proved incorrect. I also failed to anticipate the Sunni insurgency that has been at the root of Iraq’s post-Saddam problems. And, perhaps most egregiously, I placed my trust in the Bush administration to assess the Iraqi threat accurately and do all within its power to make the occupation of Iraq a success. That trust, however foolishly offered, was badly betrayed.

So, if I had it to do all over again, would I oppose the invasion? Honestly, I don’t know. I just can’t quite bring myself to wish Saddam back in power and, with the sanctions regime probably moribund by now, enjoying $75 a barrel oil and emboldened by having survived the Gulf War and its protracted aftermath. On the other hand, I certainly wish that the United States had not assumed responsibility for Iraq’s post-Saddam future. That mission was undertaken on the basis of totally erroneous expectations regarding its difficulty and without any Plan B in the event of unforeseen problems. Consequently, the occupation has been a fiasco – failing to accomplish its objectives, costing thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, tying down a major chunk of the U.S. military in what appears to be an exercise in futility, and highlighting the limits of U.S. power and resolve in a way that encourages our enemies.

And what to do now? For a long while I kept hoping that political progress in Iraq would lead to progress in subduing the insurgency. It hasn’t, and now the country seems to be spiraling into sectarian civil war. I don’t see any prospect for things to get better in the foreseeable future, and thus I see no U.S. interest in maintaining our presence there. So I’m in favor of getting out. We rid Iraq of a horrible tyrant and gave the country a new constitution and government. It’s up to the Iraqis now, for better or worse.

Meanwhile, the experience of the past few years, including but not limited to the experience in Iraq, has led me to reconsider my earlier support for preventive military action against Iran. I cannot say that there are no conceivable circumstances under which I would support such action. But for the time being, I do not think that preventing an Iranian bomb is worth hazarding another war – especially since it is probably the case that we still have several years before Iran succeeds in its quest for nukes, and it is certainly the case that our non-military options are far from exhausted.

My change in views is not due to any deep-seated philosophical reversal. Today, as before, I’m afraid I’m immune to the attractions of any grand foreign-policy abstractions, whether realist, idealist, or otherwise. And I’ve yet to find refuge in any bright-line rules on when military force is and isn’t called for. To my mind, international relations is a field that just isn’t amenable to much theoretical illumination.

As a libertarian, I have a healthy appreciation of the law of unintended consequences. Accordingly, I start with a strong presumption against doing anything as drastic as going to war. Unlike many of my fellow libertarians, however, I believe that this presumption can be rebutted in cases other than an outright or imminent attack on the United States.

So I muddle along, weighing the risks of action against the risks of inaction on a case-by-case basis. What has changed, for me, since the spring of 2003 is the weight I assign to the relevant risks. In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11. Yes, it is a very real threat, and one that should be addressed with the utmost seriousness. But my best reading of the available evidence tells me that both the scale and the sophistication of anti-U.S. terrorist activity are currently rather limited. Consequently, I am less persuaded than before of the need for bold and risky moves against terror-sponsoring states. At the present time, I therefore prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with rogue regimes.

But I stand prepared to flip-flop once again should changing circumstances warrant. In the words of Keynes (whom I don’t get to quote very often), “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”