It sounds cliché, but your average libertarian experiences an acute form of cognitive dissonance when considering whether to vote for a Republican presidential candidate. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have tended to enunciate free-market positions and argue that Washington should not impose its power on the rest of the country—while insisting that it should do exactly that when it comes to the rest of the world.
Once again the GOP is set to nominate a candidate who will blast President Obama for advancing a social-democratic agenda at home while at the same time bashing the “un-American” Obama for not doing enough to advance a “Freedom Agenda” abroad. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with a cadre of neoconservative advisors, including Robert Kagan, Michael Chertoff, Eliot Cohen, Paula Dobriansky, Eric Edelman, and Walid Phares—an academic who was involved with right-wing Christian militia groups during the Lebanese civil war.
The leading Republican candidate takes every opportunity to affirm his commitment to presiding over another American Century. And while decrying Obamacare, the architect of Romneycare criticizes the president for reducing defense spending. He also blames Obama for not being tough with Iran, for “throwing Israel under the bus,” and for the president’s decision to start withdrawing troops from Iraq.
The presence of anti-interventionist Ron Paul in the race provides some temporary relief for the alienation that many libertarians feel as they try to influence the battle of ideas on the political right, where foreign policy has become the domain of neoconservatives and Pentagon-puffing “defense intellectuals.” But their underlying unease raises a fundamental question: Why do libertarians, having played an important role in shaping economic and social policies under Republican presidents, fail to exert similar influence in the foreign-policy arena?
It’s not that they haven’t tried. In May 1993 I received a phone call from a leading activist in the Libertarian Party (LP). “You probably didn’t expect to get this call, but how would you like to become our shadow secretary of state?” Say what? Apparently the LP was planning to unveil a list of policy experts who would serve as members of the LP’s “shadow cabinet” and would assume corresponding positions in power once our candidate won the 1996 presidential election. (Under the late Harry Browne, the LP got 485,759 votes that year, but I doubt foreign policy played any role.)
I felt very honored and accepted the appointment, joining an impressive list of public figures and scholars—including Ron Paul (Treasury), John Taylor Gatto (Education), and James Bovard (Agriculture)—who were expected to review and comment on the actions of President Clinton’s cabinet.
For example, on July 26, 1993, the LP issued a press release warning that as “violence escalates in Somalia, and tension increases between the countries supplying U.N. peace-keeping troops to that strife-torn area, Libertarian Party Shadow Cabinet Secretary of State Leon T. Hadar today called for the United States to withdraw its soldiers before ‘we find ourselves hated by everyone’.”
No one paid any attention, of course. And the rest, as they say, is history. Launching an operation to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, U.S. forces found themselves in a desperate battle with a large number of heavily armed Somalis, as depicted in the book and the film “Black Hawk Down.”
While my term as non-salaried, un-chauffeured shadow secretary of state had no effect on U.S. policy, it did provide me and the other members of the shadow cabinet with an opportunity to attend LP gatherings at which we were asked to address activists about our respective policy issues. My ego was depleted when a seminar I conducted on foreign policy at one of the gatherings attracted fewer than ten attendees.
“Don’t take it personally,” a LP functionary was trying to cheer me up. “Libertarians in general are not interested in, and don’t put a damn on foreign policy,” he said. He went on to explain that for most libertarians foreign policy and national security are confined to the goals of defending the homeland and expanding international peace through free trade. “I doubt that you would find anyone here who would be interested in joining the Foreign Service or working in the Pentagon or CIA,” he added.
It may be unfair to suggest that libertarians spend more time debating strategies to privatize public toilets than discussing U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But reducing the power and size of government—not managing America’s relationship with the rest of the world—remains the top priority of self-described libertarians (which also explains why not many social workers, community organizers, or even teachers have not become part of the libertarian political milieu).
It is not that libertarians are a bunch of provincial types. At the LP events I attended in the early 1990s I met highly educated and multilingual entrepreneurs with MBA’s and ex-hippies who had spent years living and working abroad. These libertarians with a cosmopolitan bent were not interested in foreign policy as such, but they were paying attention to what comes under the rubric of “world affairs.”
It was not surprising that some of the most popular events at libertarian conferences in the 1990s were presentations by guests from the former Soviet bloc countries, recalling the years they had spent under communist rule furtively reading Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek. They dazzled libertarian audiences with their plans to implant free markets in Hungary, Poland, or Russia, or for that matter in the Third World, with China being the most dramatic example.
There was certainly something very inspiring in this vision—a variation on the “End of History” and the wider globalization narrative of the 1990s—in which the free flow of information, ideas, people, labor, products, and finance was going to erode the foundations of the nation-state and create a more prosperous and peaceful world. In that bright future, issues of national security and traditional diplomacy, or for that matter national sovereignty, were going to become passé. Wake up and smell the free-market cappuccino and democracy espresso. We’re all liberals now!
The problem was that the Political Man remained alive and well, including in these United States. Notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, fresh rationales emerged for perpetuating our warfare state—political Islam, a resurgent Russia, a rising China, climate change, humanitarian disasters.
Paradoxically, the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a challenge to U.S. global power—which was supposed to have produced a “peace dividend”—allowed the Iron Triangle of government officials, congressional lawmakers, and lobbyists, along with their cheerleaders in the media and the think tanks, to increase American military involvement around the world: to enlarge NATO towards the borders of Russia, to establish U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and to keep American troops in East Asia.
These policies were advanced by both Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton, leaders who branded themselves as promoters of democracy and free-markets here, there, and everywhere. In a way, pseudo-libertarian principles served as the basis for their campaigns to isolate or attack dictators (Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic), warlords (in Somalia and Haiti), and “rogue states” (Iran, North Korea).
George W. Bush went further: he transformed himself into the armed prophet of classical liberalism. Through his military crusades and “color revolutions”—collectively, the “Freedom Agenda”—he was going to establish democracy and capitalism in the “Broader Middle East” and beyond.
The libertarian response to W’s Freedom Agenda ranged from enthusiastic support to spirited opposition. Some libertarian thinkers rationalized the U.S. drive towards global hegemony in political-economic terms, arguing that creating an international system based on classical-liberal principles required a global power that had the diplomatic influence and military means to establish governing rules and institutions—think of the British Empire in the 19th century.
Indeed, as classical liberal economic historian Deepak Lal put it, “the major argument in favor of empires is that they provide the most basic of public goods—order—in an anarchical international societies of states.” This view is shared by left-wing imperialists who argue that only a U.S.-imposed international order will allow the global advancement of social democracy. (Left out of consideration are the side effects of America’s militarization on its own political and economic system. Also overlooked is what has become quite obvious since the Iraq War—that imposing liberal values on foreign countries through military force is self-defeating.)
The notion that individual liberty is a universal principle and that everyone wants to live under political and economic freedom—to be “like us”—has long been a libertarian axiom of sorts, and it resonated strongly after communism’s collapse. Iraqis, Afghans, Lebanese, or Ukrainians, it was assumed, longed to join the Free World and were only denied the opportunity to do so by their freedom-hating rulers.
After 9/11,“Islamofascism” was conceived of as a threat that arose from rejection of “freedom” and required a tough military response. Americans needed to help Iraqis, Afghans, Lebanese, and indeed Ukrainians help themselves, even if that meant employing American military power, in a process that was going to lead to free elections and was bound—for sure—to create the conditions for democracy and free markets.
Readers of this magazine are familiar with the libertarian critique of Bush II’s military adventures: bombing and invading other countries without provocation not only runs counter to fundamental tenets of classical liberalism but also provides the state with more power to control the economy and violate the rights of citizens.
That this criticism received very little attention in the first stages of the military response to 9/11 and during the invasion of Iraq could be explained by the disproportionate influence of pro-war libertarians operating from think tanks and magazines affiliated with the movement. Brink Lindsey, for example, then with the Cato Institute, called for invading Iraq in a January 2003 Reason online debate, suggesting among other things that regime change “offers the opportunity to attack radical Islamism at its roots: the dismal prevalence of political repression and economic stagnation throughout the Muslim world” and that “the establishment of a reasonably liberal and democratic Iraq could serve as a model for positive change throughout the region.”
One libertarian interventionist intellectual, Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution, put his money where his mouth was and served in Iraq as senior adviser for education to Administrator L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority—alas, we know how that worked out. Incidentally, Evers was the one who asked me to serve as the LP shadow secretary of state in 1993.
There was also a powerful political and institutional force that explains why antiwar views were marginalized on the right, even in libertarian magazines and think tanks, as long as the war in Iraq seemed to be heading towards victory. The war, after all, was orchestrated by a Republican administration that was also committed to free-market policies like cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. And the same businesses that helped fund President Bush and other Republican politicians also provided financial backing to the leading libertarian think tanks.
Against the backdrop of rising public disenchentement with the Iraq War, the media started to pay more attention to the antiwar agenda of Ron Paul and other figures on the right—including such conservatives as former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, columnist George Will, and historian Andrew Bacevich. But contrary to the wishful thinking among antiwar libertarians, the Republican Party and most of the conservative movement—including the Tea Party—remained committed to America’s strategic preeminence and role as a crusader for freedom.
That some Republicans and conservatives occasionally rebuke “nation building” and U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention the limited military operation in Libya—has much to do with the fact that Democrat Barack Obama now occupies the White House. But with the exception of Congressman Paul and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, the leading Republican presidential candidates—surrounded by coteries of neoconservative advisers—are echoing the Bush agenda that brought about some of the worst foreign-policy disasters in American history.
Unlike most libertarians, neoconservatives are very interested in foreign policy, and their movement has trained a generation of defense intellectuals who are now the top national-security and diplomatic minds of the Republican Party. They dominate the foreign-policy debate taking place in conservative think tanks and media outlets, and they have had great success in securing strategic posts at the National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department, and among congressional staff.
While conducting foreign-policy research for many years at the Cato Institute, I discovered that while Republican officials and lawmakers often approached Cato for advice on economic policy—such as proposals to privatize Social Security—very rarely have they been receptive to the foreign-policy positions advanced by Cato’s scholars, such as opposition to the expansion of NATO and to both Gulf Wars.
Hence there is neither much supply of libertarian foreign-policy “product” nor is there much demand for it by officials, lawmakers, and the media in Washington. Neoconservatives do foreign policy, and as a result they dominate the debate on, for example, U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Libertarians do economic policy, providing strategies for privatizing the public sphere. At best, several libertarian-led outlets—Antiwar.com comes to mind—perform great work in offering intelligent criticism of American foreign policy based on classical-liberal principles. But at worst, some libertarians utilize the same classical-liberal principles to help market U.S. global interventionism.
Moreover, while libertarian economic policies have been tried out by Washington, with self-described libertarian officials and lawmakers doing the trying, aside from Ron Paul there has been no instance of policymakers of the libertarian persuasion embracing, or even considering, the noninterventionist strategies advocated by Cato. If anything, it is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has been trying—and not very successfully—to promote such policies, which Republicans typically bash as “anti-American.”
In a way, underpinning the philosophy of American libertarianism—and mirror-imaging that of 19th century socialism—has been the belief that the political institutions of the nation-state would fade away as the principles of political liberalism and the free market spread worldwide, making traditional foreign policy irrelevant. Nations would focus most of their energies on trading with each other: making money, not war. All we need to do is reduce the power of government over the economy, ensuring that governments don’t have the resources to fight wars. That is a more important goal than considering the intricacies of, say, American policy in the Middle East.
But to paraphrase what Trotsky said about politics, “You may not be interested in foreign policy—but foreign policy is interested in you!” At a time when almost 40 percent of the expenditures of the federal government go to America’s wars and other defense and defense-related tasks, the notion that cutting taxes can bring us to the libertarian Promised Land sounds delusional. That is exactly what President George W. Bush and the neocons tried to do for eight years—and failed. The problem is not going to be solved by reducing Pentagon waste, but only by transforming U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
American libertarians need to recognize what socialists and classical liberals in Europe came to conclude after the two world wars—that nationalism remains a mighty political force that cannot be overwhelmed by the power of markets and globalization. That explains why Bush’s Freedom Agenda helped release the power of tribalism, ethnicity, and religion in the Middle East, as opposed to creating liberal political and economic systems. It also explains why the American people and right-wing elites remain attached to their own form of nationalism, American Exceptionalism.
Such nationalism may not make much sense from the economic point of view that drives libertarianism, yet it is a reality that is not going away any time soon. Under these conditions, libertarians can only do foreign policy by working with other groups on the left and the right, including the members of the somewhat dormant realist wing of the Republican Party, traditional conservatives, and progressive Naderites. This is their only hope to counter the influence of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists.
At the same time, libertarians following in the footsteps of classical liberal political forces in Europe—Germany’s Free Democratic Party comes to mind—need to draw an outline of a pragmatic, less militarized, and less interventionist foreign policy, while still working to strengthen political liberty and free markets at home. In short: advancing Classical Liberalism in One Country.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.