In re David French’s National-Security Libertarianism

In response to David French’s “There Is a Responsible National-Security Libertarianism”:

Three cheers for Ramesh’s piece in Bloomberg critiquing Chris Christie’s attack on Republican libertarians. Governor Christie’s attack was terrible politics, but — more important – it traffics more in caricature than substantive debate. To be sure, many of us who write about the war against jihadists — and in particular supported the war in Iraq — are familiar with the sneering name-calling of a small libertarian fringe, but I don’t know any serious foreign-policy-minded libertarian who endorses the pre 9/11 national-security infrastructure, and I’ve certainly never met any in the military (which, as I’ve discussed before, contains a strong libertarian element).

French’s (presumably un-serious) “small libertarian fringe” is, judging from the noise they make in the public square, far more numerous than “serious foreign-policy-minded libertarian[s].” If the latter can’t manage to be heard over the din of the former, that is less the fault of conservative Republicans engaging in “caricature” than a failure of Republican libertarians to forcefully make a coherent case in the public square.

(And if by un-serious libertarians, you mean those who argue for a return to a pre-9/11 mindset, you must expect us to ignore all the libertarians making precisely that argument in the context of NSA/Snowden/Greenwald.)

In reality, a more libertarian, less interventionist foreign policy may be in the cards whether Governor Christie likes it or not. Multiple constraints are driving America towards less intervention:

Non-sequitur alert: Note how, in the preceding paragraph, French jumps from complaining about conservative Republicans supposedly engaging in caricature, to asserting historical inevitability.

That won’t be the last non sequitur, though. Not by a long shot.

First, our military infrastructure is shrinking, rapidly. With the drawdown [sic] from Afghanistan, the end of the Iraq war, the sequester, and continued budgetary pressures, we may well see an Army of less than 400,000 active-duty troops. Large-scale interventions require large-scale forces, and the smaller size of all the major branches of the military will create its own limitations.

French is presumably familiar with trends in military spending relative to other Federal spending. The Heritage Foundation points out that in 1962, defense spending was just under half of Federal spending; in 2012, it had dropped to less than 20%.

The third sentence in the preceding excerpt amounts to little more than circular reasoning. (For that matter, the same thing might be said of entire paragraph.)

Second, there is little military or civilian appetite for nation-building. Nothing short of a direct attack on our country or a close ally (like South Korea) would currently motivate Americans to put substantial numbers of troops on the ground in harm’s way. There’s a reason why millions of Americans grew tired of our engagement in Afghanistan (and, before that, Iraq) that had nothing to do with pacifism or even ideology: quite simply, while they wanted to defeat our enemies, they were weary of attempting to transform near-medieval cultures. By late 2006 the Surge may have presented the best chance to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, but let’s not forget that the Surge was made necessary by many of our own military and diplomatic mistakes.

OK, now we’re on to something: nation-building.  (Not sure what the Surge comment had to do with anything, but we’ll let that pass.)

While I am not a libertarian, let alone a fringe-type railing against neo-cons and “endless wars” (yes, I’m talking to you, Rand Paul), I agree that the whole neo-Progressive Bush Doctrine as it were of nation-building (or “exporting democracy”) is dangerously naive at best, and destructive of U.S. nationals security interests at worst. But I come at that issue from the standpoint of realpolitik, not from a desire to withdraw militarily, in whatever measure, from the world stage.

Oddly enough, I disagree with French’s apparent support of the invasion of Iraq from precisely that realpolitik viewpoint. In terms of furthering U.S. interests, I see no indication that the invasion of Iraq did anything but weaken us and benefited Iran. Iran has become a greater threat to regional stability than it was when Iraq served as a military counterbalance to Iran.

Third, we’re no longer naïve. We’ve spent decades throwing billions of dollars at ungrateful, brutal regimes. We’ve turned a blind eye to countless human-rights atrocities, and delivered pathetic platitudes about other nations, cultures, and religions — all in an effort to make sure that hostile nations (to paraphrase Sally Field) like us, really like us. Bill Clinton invited Yasser Arafat to the White House more than any foreign leader and the Second Intifadah was his gift in response. And can someone help me make sense of the administration’s bizarre embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt? There are good reasons why Rand Paul’s call to cut off most foreign aid strikes a nerve with Americans; most of the aid hasn’t worked, doesn’t work, won’t work, and still costs us billions.

Some of us most certainly are still naive, as the preceding paragraph demonstrates.

Gratitude is not the point. The point is, who steps into the breach if and when we decide to abandon realpolitik out of squeamishness?

How is criticism of the aforementioned neo-Progressive nation-building mindset–let alone calling out pandering to Islamists–an expressly libertarian argument?

It’s not.

Unless of course on engages in (ahem) caricature of conservative Republicans. But libertarians would never do that, would they?

Fourth, we trust the government less. It’s not just the corruption (IRS, Fast & Furious) or the political cowardice (Benghazi), it’s also the incompetence. Not even the most comprehensive security state in the world can survive incompetence. We have a distressing habit of identifiying [sic] and interviewing prospective terrorists — only to let them walk free and launch attacks. What if we’re not trading liberty for security but instead surrending [sic] liberty and privacy without getting a corresponding security benefit in return?

Until the final sentence (which has nothing whatever to do with the preceding four sentences, a tendency that seems to recur frequently in French’s piece), the author again makes an argument for realpolitik, not for libertarianism. As for the last sentence, it borders on the absurd, and mimics a lot of what passes for deep thinking on the part of the fringe libertarians he decries: Noting that the Obama Administration, rife with Marxist Lite-types and corrupt to its core, has made a hash of national security in no way amounts to an argument for libertarianism, let alone against a more robust (relative to libertarians) conservative foreign policy.

There is such a thing as a responsible and serious national-security libertarianism, and it’s simply a manipulative dodge to invoke the families of 9/11 victims to slander serious members of an opposing intellectual movement. I could just as easily invoke the families of those who died as a direct result of the utterly ludicrous political correctness that dominated many of our rules of engagement and targeting decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan to “rebut” nation-building and interventionism, but that would be just as much of a dodge. Let’s not play the victim card but instead grapple with the immensely difficult challenges presented by a hostile world, a decaying fiscal structure, and an increasingly incompetent and corrupt national government.

OK, let’s start by not expecting strings of logical fallacies, particularly non sequiturs, to be taken as a substitute for debate.

Does French think that conservative Republicans approve of the absurd rules of engagement he decries? If not, why on earth does he bring them up?  As a counter-example to people who invoke 9/11 when libertarians start talking about “endless wars”? This is a serious argument?

Does French think that conservative Republicans are ergo fans of neo-Progressive nation-building?

If libertarians want to be taken seriously, they should make serious arguments.

But at least French managed to avoid calling us neo-cons.

Baby steps.


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