Saturday, October 31, 2009

Live and let live

I hesitated to write this blog. It involves venturing into an area beyond my expertise – foreign policy.

On the other hand, how can a blogger stay silent on the most relevant issues of the day?

I offer these comments with uncharacteristic humility.

I refer to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, to a lesser extent, other places). This involvement is very costly – in terms of dollars and lives (even though modern technology has limited the loss of life in comparison to past wars, resulting, however, in a larger incidence of serious injury with enormous costs in dollars and pain and suffering). Like all government programs, military involvements must be financed by taxation and/or borrowing (future taxation). Like all government programs they are essentially parasitic on the productive efforts of private Americans – they result in a smaller and less productive private sector. Like all government programs they involve huge bureaucracies vulnerable to corruption and institutional inertia – they establish vested interests in their continuation. And like all government programs they have unpredictable unintended consequences.

The justification for all military projects is protection. In order to function a civil society must have secure property rights protected by the rule of law, which guarantees freedom of non-coercive action. With these basic, but elusive, institutions, any society will prosper, regardless of its circumstance or natural resources. But prosperity breeds resentment and envy which often results in foreign threats. There are few, if any, examples of democracies going to war with one another. Threats from outside are invariably from repressive dictatorships or fanatical revolutionary movements. The biggest threat facing the United States today is the one from Islamic fanatics who regard the existence of free societies as an unacceptable threat to their religious mission to impose Sharia law on the whole world.

This is the justification that was used for the invasion of Iraq (bolstered by the bogus accusation of weapons of mass destruction) and Afghanistan. Clearly the case for the latter is much stronger than the former, Afghanistan being the source of the 9/11 attacks. But both cases deserve further scrutiny.

The argument for military expenditures rests on the assertion that they are necessary to keep us safe from those who would destroy us. The most basic level of protection is protection from foreign invasion. One can, therefore, credit the need for an effort designed to identify and apprehend terrorist attacks on American soil. The argument extends, however, to efforts to root out terrorism abroad, before it becomes stronger and to establish "democracy" so as to export freedom and to deny the fanatics environments in which they may grow and expand. In other words, foreign military initiatives are seen as ideologically congenial preemptive efforts. But how is one to weigh the substantial costs of these efforts against the alleged benefit that they keep us safe for the long term?

One reason for skepticism is an evaluation of the results that have been achieved or could be achieved. Are these goals achievable by military efforts? Consider the establishment of "democracy." It is not clear what is meant by this term – hence the scare quotes. In practice it often seems to mean the establishment of open and free elections. This has proven very difficult to achieve, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Free elections often give way to predatory behavior based on deep seated tribal/ethnic rivalries. The kind of "democracy" we are seeking goes much deeper that the showcasing of people voting. It involves the acceptance of private property, protected by a viable legal system, one based on the rule of law, not the rule of a dictator or a privileged group. Without this, elections could not be free for very long.

But this kind of civil society cannot be imposed by military effort. It can only be the result of the voluntary efforts of the indigenous population over a long period of time. To imagine the emergence of a free and open society overnight in societies with centuries of tradition alien to such ideas, is an exercise in foolish wishful thinking.

Let me be clear. I am not defending some sort of moral or cultural relativism. I regard these systems as primitive and I would like to see them replaced so that more people could reap the substantial fruits of the prosperity that comes from Western (Classical) Liberalism – free trade, freedom of expression freedom of movement, and the explosion of options that this brings. What I am saying is that these things cannot simply be planted wherever we think they ought to be. Where they do emerge they are always the spontaneous flowering of local initiatives based on local conditions. I am not aware of any really successful exercise in the forceful imposition of democracy (in this broader sense) by a foreign power.

And if we fail in this "nation building" exercise we find ourselves in a prolonged and increasingly futile struggle that must ultimately be abandoned at great cost to those we leave behind, the best of intentions notwithstanding. (Of course, for many the intentions are not so good – being the protection of a reliable flow of oil – but I speak here of the widespread acceptance of military missions by the public at large being based on moral values).

How likely is it that viable durable democracies will be established in Iraq and Afghanistan? If the answer is not very likely at all, then what are we doing there and how and when will it end? Would we, and they, not be better off with a much more limited effort, one aimed at containing the export of nefarious ideas and actions. America has no imperialistic ambitions, yet we are continually being drawn into military adventures in far off places, often as a result of the past colonial screw-ups of the European governments who are now our biggest critics. Less idealism and more realism would result in more limited aims. We cannot save the world. And we cannot repair all the wrongs of the past. If we are to win this battle against terrorism it will only be because enough people in Moslem countries have rejected them and their message in favor of something more peaceful and tolerant of us. For the rest we have to be less ambitious.

Supporting Israel and Pakistan may, indeed, make sense, for different reasons. These are indigenous democracies and their collapse would credibly threaten the free world as a whole. In the case of Israel more effort should be involved in persuading Middle Eastern governments to help the Palestinians move beyond grievance to the pursuit of prosperity - by encouraging open institutions of learning, of trade, of development – but his will only happen when the Moslem world gets comfortable with the existence of a Jewish state, a free democratic state.

In the case of Pakistan, much depends on how far the Pakistani people are prepared to go to rid themselves of the Taliban. The Taliban are not going away. They have infinite patience and when suppressed simply fade away only to emerge another day. But they do rely on local support and that will be the key. In the meantime the U.S. is just pursing a holding action and maybe that is the best we can do.

So, thinking it through, I wonder if, instead of debating the commitment of more troops, we should not be pulling back, focusing on the possible and leaving the rest for another kind of fight, the battle of ideas. Having achieved unprecedented and unimagined freedom and prosperity, America is now in danger of destroying it at home by unrealistically attempting to impose it elsewhere. Live and let live.

And, by the way, we should abandon the terrible and costly "drug-war." But that is a subject for another day.

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