Tag: middle east

The Legitimacy of the Libyan War

President Obama’s speech last evening offers a chance to assess the implications of the war in Libya.

President Obama is not the first president to order attacks on another nation without the authorization of Congress.  This case, however, seems different. Prior to the intervention, the President’s national security advisors had determined that the nation had no vital interest at stake in the Libyan civil war. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeated that conclusion after the intervention began. For his part, President Obama emphasized in last night’s speech and before, that the war would preclude a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Why did that rationale win out over the realism of his advisors?

President Obama tends to see our nation and the world as divided between oppressors (victimizers) and the oppressed (victims).  In this view, politics should help the oppressed and do justice (i.e. harm) to the oppressor.  In Libya, this outlook provides a clear division between a oppressor (Qaddafi and his loyalists) and his victims (the rebels). Morality thus demands war against the oppressor on behalf of his victims.

But there is a problem with America acting alone. Many people in the Middle East and elsewhere see the United States not as a vindicator of the oppressed but rather as a oppressor.  Truth be told, more than few Americans share that view.

Those who share this view believe that the United States cannot act unilaterally to help the victims in Libya. This would be true even if Congress authorizes the war as required under Article I of the United States Constitution.  The authorization to go to war must come from someone else other than an American political official or institution.

Hence, President Obama sought international authorization for the war in Libya. True, he sought that authority for pragmatic reasons. A coalition meant shared burdens and (Obama believes) a quick way out of Libya. But the authorizations by the U.N. Security Council and earlier by the Arab League also could be seen as giving legitimacy to the enterprise. Those authorizations meant the United States could go to Libya as a true protector of the oppressed.

If you doubt any of this, examine closely what the President has said about the war. In his speech, the rebels become victims at the mercy of an oppressor. Congress gets a fleeting mention related to consultation about, rather than authorization of, war. True legitimacy for the war comes from a “U.N. mandate and international support.” In his letter to Congress announcing the war, the first sentence reads “at my direction, U.S. military forces commenced operations to assist an international effort authorized by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and undertaken with the support of European allies and Arab partners, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe…” Here again the legitimacy for the war comes the United Nations, the European allies, and the Arab League. Congress has neither power to deny the president nor legitimacy to bestow on his work.

There is much to say about these reasons for war. Some people might see in Libya a civil war between two armed gangs. Lacking the frame of oppressor and victims, they will be less willing than the President to assume that the people in the territory called Libya wear either black or white hats. We may learn to our cost that our new allies are victims now and oppressors later.  If we take the President seriously, we will be obligated to make war against them, too.

We have now taken on a default obligation to help every victim and to punish every oppressor throughout the world. We have two constraints on fulfilling that obligation. The first, mentioned by the president, is costs. Eventually the financial markets may limit our efforts on behalf of victims. Second, and more important legally, a president must seek authorization for war from the United Nations, the European union, the Arab League or….well, anyone except the United States Congress.

It is not just that this president, like others before him, ignored Article I of the Constitution. Nor is this president the first to shun moral complexity in favor of a Manichean outlook. President Obama is the first, however, to assert that his broad powers to initiate war should be limited primarily by people who are outside the American social compact.  On this account, sotto voce, the Constitution is not just ignored. It is irrelevant.

Monday Links

  • A year later, Obamacare makes Pennsylvanians say “no thank you.”
  • In a peculiar set of responses to inquiries about Libya, the Obama administration makes “kinetic military action” against the English language.
  • Full or substantial government health insurance makes for an inefficient and expensive health care system.
  • Emotionalism as democratic waves spread across the Middle East makes incoherent foreign policy.
  • As long as big ticket items continue to make the cut, our fiscal house will remain in disarray.
  • If you didn’t get a chance to celebrate Earth Hour Cato-style over the weekend, check out this clip of senior fellow Jerry Taylor making the case against “green” subsidies:


Should America ‘Liberate’ Libya?

In 2008, the election of President Barack Obama was widely touted as a repudiation of President George W. Bush’s messianic vision that “Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity—men and women—to reach their full potential.” In the years following America’s failed democratic experiment in Iraq, many Americans began to spurn the Bush era’s presumptuous conviction that “We have the power to make the world we seek.” Liberals in particular roundly rejected the supposed “unyielding belief” that America is called to lead the cause of “rule of law” and “the equal administration of justice” around the world. Such pious declarations are in keeping with Bush’s neo-Wilsonian foreign policy.  Does it surprise you then, that all of the quotes above were made by President Obama in his June 2009 speech at Cairo University?

Americans who favor establishing a no-fly zone over Libya hope that such an effort will save lives. What Americans have not learned is exactly what transgressions warrant the use of American force. The primary constitutional function of the U.S. Government is to defend against threats to the national interest. However, because the definition of “interest” has expanded by leaps and bounds, the United States now combats an exhausting proliferation of “threats” even in the absence of discernable enemies. Hence, the proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya is merely the latest iteration of a long-standing grand strategy that implicitly endorses an interventionist foreign policy.

Despite the fact that humanitarian assistance to Libya remains, in principle, morally defensible, the primary question is whether military action is best suited to such a task. As Christopher Coyne, Assistant Professor of Economics at West Virginia University argues, its the “Nirvana Fallacy.”

The Nirvana Fallacy is the false assumption that in the face of weak, failed or illiberal governments, external occupiers can provide a better outcome than what would exist in the absence of those efforts. But what authority does President Obama have to embark upon a mission to change the very structure of societies on the other side of the earth?

As a libertarian, I believe that intangible variables such as values, traditions, and belief systems, go beyond a U.S. policymaker’s ability—and jurisdiction—to control. Yet with worldwide attention now on Libya, it seems that once again the extension of freedom abroad is being subsumed under the mantle of America’s legitimate self-defense. Don’t believe the hype.

As George Kennan, American diplomat and “father of Cold War containment” strategy once said:

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before…In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.”

Kennan continues: “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

Now imagine if a politician wanted to build a bridge and said “I don’t know how much it will cost. I don’t know how many engineers I need. I don’t know how long it will take. And I don’t know whether it’ll even get built or stay up if it is. But give me the money and I’ll build the bridge anyway.” Yet this is exactly what we do when it comes to intervention. Never mind how long a no-fly zone will last, how many soldiers we would commit, or how whether it may precipitate a ground invasion and possibly regime change. We apply more stringent criteria to domestic policy than to proposals to pacify a foreign population.

Like most Americans, I too have a natural desire to see human suffering alleviated.  And so the United States can and should support people’s power and other anti-government movements when possible. But Americans have become confused over what “support” really means. Not backing dictators with billions of dollars would be a start. Another would be, when feasible, resorting to economic sanctions, though they have a poor track record. But we have come to rely too heavily—almost as an option of first resort—of relying on military intervention. Luckily, the shockwave of mass protests sweeping through the Middle East finally gives America the opportunity to support freedom in the Middle East in a non-military way. Accordingly, a foreign-led effort to liberate Libya will implicitly deprive local people of their ability to deal with this political conflict on their own. As British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes in his classic text “A Few Words on Nonintervention,” the subjects of an oppressive ruler must achieve freedom for themselves:

The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.

But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.

Intervention and Its Unintended Consequences

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region.  Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:

No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”

…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances.  It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

Click here to read the full post.

U.S. Should Stand With the Egyptian People

Oppressed people rarely get opportunities to express their anguish and disillusionment. Today in Egypt for the seventh straight day, thousands of ordinary citizens are pouring out onto the streets, demanding the expulsion of President Hosni Mubarak, calling for an end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention, and claiming the legitimate right to run their own country. It is well past time for U.S. policymakers to stand with the Egyptian people and rethink Mubarak’s purported role as an “anchor of stability” in the Middle East.

Many in Washington fear that the path Egypt takes after Mubarak might not lead to a freer and more prosperous future and that an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, will assume power. This concern, however legitimate, is largely beside the point.

First, the Ikhwan is popular for very legitimate reasons. Like Hezbollah, Ikhwan’s social-welfare programs provide Egyptians cheap education and health care. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has even formed a loose union with the movement, which over the years has become relatively more moderate.

Second, even if Egypt’s revolution does not bring about the political or economic freedom that Washington deems fit, it is not for the United States to decide whether Egyptians choose wisely the interests and concerns that lie within their limited grasp. Events have certainly moved quickly, and fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, but Americans should not be reluctant to embrace a political emancipation movement for fear that it might be worse than whatever it replaces. After all, history shows that forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel, often in spite of the United States. Even if the Brethren does take control, it’s emergence would be a natural consequence of the lifting of Mubarak’s repressive police state. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted repeatedly that Egypt’s future will be decided by the Egyptian people, not by Washington, even though the notion that U.S. officials can be neutral simply by not taking sides is demonstrably false, as protesters are being arrested by a U.S.-backed security apparatus and sprayed with tear gas manufactured in the United States.

Third, it is not clear at all that Mubarak is a reliable American client. Yes, he has kept peace with Israel, but the veneer of control under this Caesarist despot has faltered in the past several days. His curfew, rather than discourage Egyptians from rising up, has given them the opportunity to stand on the threshold of a political renaissance. In fact, reports on the ground suggest that lives may have changed completely. For instance, what was depicted over the weekend as a massive prison break was apparently Mubarak releasing criminals from jails in order to unleash terror in the streets and punish Egyptians for recent riots. Is Mubarak really the political figure that America should be supporting? Does this question really need to be asked?

The Obama administration can extend diplomatic support to a political emancipation movement in Egypt, thereby visibly abandoning its long-time dictatorial client and pushing other U.S.-backed autocrats to end censorship, political repression, and address their people’s demands for economic and political reforms. This change, however belated, can help salvage a decent relationship with a successor government and with the population of the country– similar to moves President Ronal Reagan made during the 1980s toward both South Korea and the Philippines. Although such a stance would likely do little to limit recruitment levels of militant outfits in North Africa, it does have the potential to substantially enhance America’s image in the Muslim world.

Although Mubarak has promised reforms, economic growth cannot act as a substitute for political liberty. Mubarak oversees a corrupt and exploitative political system that relies on patronage and cronyism. Economic opportunity and political expression have stagnated over the last fifty years (not just the last 30). Mubarak is now grasping at straws, pledging to institute economic reforms and policies that will just keep him in office longer. Despotic leaders like Mubarak love to adopt pseudo-economic reforms to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot endure. Sooner, rather than later, Washington and Cairo must acknowledge and embrace the Egyptian people’s instinctive desire for freedom.

C/P on The Huffington Post.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.

So Much for That Argument for War!

Remember when President George W. Bush was pushing war for democracy? Excited neoconservatives promised that a new wave of democratization was about to roll through the Middle East, sweeping out authoritarian and anti-American regimes.

Oops.

Reports the Washington Times:

The most significant finding of the latest report is the decline in freedom in the Middle East, [Arch Puddington] said.

Three countries — Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain — were reclassified from “partly free” to “not free,” and freedoms declined in Morocco and Iran.

“Freedom House saw the region as a whole as headed slightly in the right direction after 9/11,” he said. “But that has changed.”

Not only are countries moving backwards, but America’s friends and allies are leading the parade:  Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain.

So much for that justification for invading and bombing other lands.