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).
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:
First, our military infrastructure is shrinking, rapidly. With the drawdown 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.
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.
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.
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 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 liberty and privacy without getting a corresponding security benefit in return?
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.