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Objectivists For Empire

What could the scorched-earth foreign policy of Rand's disciples mean for the Cato Institute?

In a recent Foreign Policy article, “Galt Goes Global,” objectivist international affairs analyst Elan Journo argues for the influence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy on Paul Ryan’s foreign policy views. As Journo admits, those influences are not substantive. And for that, we should be thankful.

But the question remains, what kind of foreign policy would Rand support? There are two ways of answering the question, the first would be to look at her opinions on foreign policy issues of her day. The second would be to look to the current banner-carriers of objectivism, foremost among them the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, with which Journo is affiliated, Rand’s “legal and intellectual heir” Leonard Peikoff. Scholars there have extended her doctrines to the foreign policy challenges of today.

This is necessarily a matter of interpretation, because though Rand opined about geopolitics in interviews, she was not a foreign policy theorist nor did she have any background in international politics. Her lodestar was individualism, the rational self-interest of the individual. Alliances, diplomacy, conquest, empire—these just didn’t factor into her best-known writings. So it’s difficult to draw straight lines from her thoughts on individualism and capitalism to particular opinions on foreign policy.

Nevertheless, as a novelist, popular philosopher, and icon, she was asked about her foreign policy views throughout her life. Perhaps first among these is her opposition to American involvement in World War II. Her opposition was rooted in part in the idea that Europe’s wars were for Europe, and part out of antipathy toward Roosevelt and his projects. In an essay titled “The Roots of War,” she argued that “World War II led, not to Four Freedoms, but to the surrender of one-third of the world’s population into communist slavery.” In other words, we shouldn’t overlook those who were condemned to communist tyranny by Soviet emergence from the war, or the possibility that the Nazis and Soviets may have bled each other white on the Eastern Front, possibly heading off the Cold War.

Journo notes Rand also opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In 1967 she wrote that not only was the war wrong, but “the ugliest evil of the Vietnam war [is] that it does not serve any national interest of the United States.” The bottom line was that we should never have gotten into the war, but since for Rand withdrawal would have meant appeasement and “the ultimate result of appeasement is a world war,” “in today’s conditions, the only alternative is to fight a war and win it as fast as possible.” More napalm, fewer strategic hamlets.

As a broader philosophical matter, Rand judged that “anyone who wants to invade a dictatorship or semi-dictatorship is morally justified in doing so, because he is doing no worse than what that country has accepted as its social system.” Her rationale on World War II and Vietnam was based on the view that since American lives weren’t threatened, it would be wrong to go on a crusade on behalf of foreigners. Later in life, Rand weighed in on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Appearing on the Phil Donahue show in 1979, Rand was asked what she thought of U.S. policy in the Middle East. She replied that the American government should side with Israel against Palestinians because, in her words, Israel was the “advanced, technological, civilized country” in the dispute, squared off against “a group of almost totally primitive savages who have not changed for years and who are racist and who resent Israel because it is bringing industry, and intelligence, and modern technology into their stagnation.”

Donahue pushed back, arguing that the Palestinians were in a terrible spot, and asking if she wasn’t too one-sided. Rand responded by saying that since the Arabs “go around murdering … innocent women and children … that’s what makes me condemn and despise them.”

Curiously, though, Rand also wrote that there was no reason to distinguish between innocent civilians from military targets. For her, there was no such thing when it came to citizens of enemy countries.

If by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, they couldn’t overthrow their bad government and establish a better one, then they must pay the price for the sins of their government, as we are all paying for the sins of ours.

When one squares this pre-Grotian view with the fact that she was contemporaneously endorsing a book by her successor, Leonard Peikoff, titled The Ominous Parallels: A Brilliant Study of America Today – and the ‘ominous parallels’ with the chaos of pre-Hitler Germany, the mind reels. Surely, if any country got what it had coming, it was Nazi Germany. And if America was on the road to Nazi Germany, and if there’s no such thing as an innocent person in an unfree country—well…

It is difficult to ignore that this is an even less persuasive version of Osama bin Laden’s logic justifying killing innocent American citizens. As bin Laden wrote, “the American people are the ones that choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies.” For Rand, people living in totalitarian states were similarly guilty because they should have overthrown their dictator. But surely it would be easier for citizens of a democracy to elect different leaders than it would have been for, say, a Vietnamese peasant to have affected the outcome of the Vietnamese civil war.

Based on Rand’s own foreign policy positions, then, one is left with a narrow and exclusionary conception of the national interest; a belief that once war has begun—even under dubious pretenses—the only exit is through victory, which becomes more likely the more force is applied; and a desire to side with what she deemed advanced and civilized countries against savages, in part because the savages wantonly killed innocent women and children. On the other hand, there is no need for America to avoid killing innocents because when we are at war all the residents of the enemy country are equally legitimate targets.

Rand’s unwillingness to differentiate between combatants and innocents and her antipathy for Israel’s enemies endure in the thinking of her exponents today. In an October 2001 appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, Peikoff proposed Americans must “exterminate an enemy who is trying to exterminate you”—in Iran. In an ominous parallel, he warned that if America failed to do so, “our name is mud and we deserve what we get.” O’Reilly, in the unusual position at the time of defending the less hawkish position, said Peikoff sounded “like Dr. Strangelove.”

Peikoff has a podcast in which he gives Randian exegeses on a range of topics, and in 2010 he responded to a question about allowing an Islamic cultural center to be built in New York City near the site of the World Trade Center. He responded by saying that to do so would be “immoral and catastrophic,” arguing that today’s conflict between America and radical Islam was at the end of a period of “craven appeasement” stretching back to Eisenhower—this claim alone is a somewhat odd, as that administration helped organize the 1953 coup—and that America’s “metaphysical survival is at stake.” He recommended that “permission should be refused,” failing that, “the government should bomb it out of existence.”

Peikoff’s ARI colleague Yaron Brook, co-author with Journo of Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism, told O’Reilly that the reason things had gone badly in Iraq was that the rules of engagement were hopelessly constrained. It’s a common complaint, then as now, but Brook broke with even the most hawkish observers when he said that to win, America needed to “start bringing this war to the civilians.” Brook proposed that in pursuit of “self-defense for the United States,” Washington should “turn Fallujah into dust and tell the Iraqis, ‘if you are going to continue to support the insurgents, you will not have homes. You will not have schools. You will not have mosques.” Since “the only way you can establish a democracy in a culture which is so opposed to freedom is to bring their culture to its knees,” Washington needed to consider replaying Nagasaki or Sherman’s March. On Iran, Brook told an interviewer earlier this year, “I see no real solution without using military force. …  Ultimately, only changing that regime can eliminate it as a threat.”

Paul Ryan voted for the Iraq War and sanctions on Iran. That may be at odds with Rand’s qualified noninterventionism, but it is of a piece with the hawkish posturing of Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute, and they differ in their motives rather than proposed strategy. Paul Ryan believes in the neoconservative humanitarian project of exporting democracy; the ARI’s arch objectivists see altruism as evil.

Were it not for Peikoff’s connection to Rand herself, the ARI’s position might be dismissed as eccentric and cruel. With it, the institute represents a rigidly doctrinal, high-church Randianism, with Peikoff as the objectivist pope. They have excommunicated other objectivists such as David Kelley, for the heresy of working with libertarians (their differences are philosophical and epistemological, but I won’t get into them here). When libertarians parse the two groups you’ll often hear the apothegm ‘all objectivists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are objectivists.’ The ARI is among the handful that would disagree.

Less than a month after 9/11 and ten days before his appearance on O’Reilly, Peikoff took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times for an op-ed entitled “End States Who Sponsor Terrorism,” reprimanding President Bush for not targeting Iran for destruction. The choice, he wrote, “is mass death in the United States or mass death in the terrorist nations,” recalling Rand’s civilized vs. savage view of the Israel-Palestine conflict, or more recently Randian Pamela Gellar’s anti-Palestinian bus advertisements. In an ARI email newsletter dated November 9th, 2001, Peikoff credited several others for helping with the ad campaign. First on the list is John Allison, BB&T CEO and ARI board member, who he describes as, “my primary inspiration and unfailing morale-booster; he suggested the ads in the first place, and then, with another donor, financed them.”

Allison is the incoming president of the Cato Institute, and his ascension was part of a deal to avert a costly legal battle between the Koch brothers and Cato’s board. Cato is the leading libertarian think tank in Washington. Disavowal of libertarianism is a matter of official policy for the ARI, and board members are expected to hold the same view. This raises a number of questions. Now that Allison heads off to lead a think tank full of libertarians, will the ARI publicly repudiate him? Second, given the foreign policy views of the Ayn Rand Institute, what will Allison’s leadership mean for the Cato Institute, more or less the only voice for noninterventionism in Washington today? The newsletter suggests Allison might have been in favor of bombing Iran as early as October 2001. Does he still think that’s a good idea? Allison, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story and is not speaking to reporters until October 1, when he officially becomes president of Cato.

As Jeremy Lott reported, according to a number of tweets from an ARI-sponsored conference this summer Allison answered several questions about the pending leadership change and reportedly characterized their foreign policy work negatively, and said he would groom an objectivist successor. Lott and others claim it is highly likely the exchange was videotaped, though none has been released.

Allison attempted to defuse the fallout after word of his remarks got out. He sent an email to Cato staff saying, “I was being “grilled” at the event and will not guarantee that my answers were the best,” which is essentially an admission that he said things Cato staff might object to. He goes on to say that he and current president Ed Crane are in agreement on “all essential philosophical issues,” and that he believes “almost all the name calling between libertarians and objectivists is irrational,” and quotes a passage from his book supporting cuts to the defense budget. Were the Ayn Rand Institute less rigid in their refusal to work with non-objectivists, like the more moderate Atlas Society or New York’s Objectivist Society, that might be good enough. But the ARI takes it as a matter of institutional policy to anathematize libertarians as “evil” followers of “nihilism,” while at the same time advocating a wildly belligerent foreign policy that included bombing Iran as early as 2001—a position that John Allison apparently supported then and has not repudiated since.

It could be that Allison’s leadership won’t change Cato significantly, nor might the addition of several Koch-backed Republican operators to the Institute’s board. But the silence on the part of the ordinarily shrill ARI with regard to Allison’s heresy is cause for concern, and suggests some duplicity is taking place. Allison apparently wishes to play both sides by ignoring reporters’ requests for comment until he is safely installed. If it hasn’t compromised its fidelity to Ayn Rand’s teaching, Allison’s employment at the head of the libertarians at Cato should provoke an excommunication from ARI. That is, of course, unless he has given them some reassurance that he will steer the think tank in a direction more amenable to them. As Lott and Dave Weigel have reported, that is a possibility. But he can’t bring Leonard Peikoff’s idea of a reasonable foreign policy to Cato without causing an exodus and muting Washington’s strongest voice for peace.

Jordan Bloom is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.



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