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Iraq and the Democratic Empire

Mises Daily: Friday, February 17, 2006 by

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This talk was delivered to the Auburn University Libertarians on February 16, 2006.

As all students today know, Iraq is the country that the US invaded with the attempt to convert the state and the people from enemy to friend. On the face of it, this sounds rather implausible, of course. Good fences make good neighbors. Friendship and peace are not usually the result of insults, sanctions, invasions, bombings, killings, puppet governments, censorship, economic controls, and occupations. If this generation learns anything from this period, that would be a good start.

Earlier students thought of Iraq as the country that was forever being denounced by the Clinton administration and by Bush's father when he was president. Why? Iraq, it seems, had some crazy notion that the US might attempt an invasion at some point in the future, and thus thought it had better prepare by spending money on its military. Its weapons program, however, was quickly dismantled under pressure from the UN.

Doubtful that Iraq had really given up the idea of creating a viable national defense, the US cobbled together extreme sanctions against the country, preventing it from trading with the world. The standard of living plummeted. Middle class merchants suffered. The poor died without the essentials of life. The child mortality rate soared. The head of the US State Department told a reporter on national television that even if US sanctions had resulted in 500,000 child deaths, they were “worth it.”

Jumping back earlier, the US had waged another war on Iraq. Bush Senior saw it as the war to end all aggressions, in this case an aggression of Iraq against its neighbor called Kuwait, a name that has been strangely absent from the news for the better part of ten years. What was strange was how the US had given the green light to Saddam to aggress against its neighbor, with the US ambassador having told Saddam Hussein that the US took no position on its long-running border dispute with its former province.

Now, if we jump back still further and consider the Reagan years, students would remember a long and boring but truly bloody conflict between Iraq and Iran. It lasted eight years, between 1980 and 1988. The US favored Iraq in this war. Saddam was a friend of the US, a man on the payroll. The weapons he used in this war on Iran were provided to him courtesy of the US taxpayer, as weapons inspectors in the 1990s were reminded when they went hunting for WMDs. There is a famous photo of one of Reagan’s weapons emissaries, Donald Rumsfeld, smiling broadly as he shakes hands with Saddam.

The war did not fully wreck Iraq, though many of its sons died. The country was secular and liberal by regional standards. There were private schools, symphonies, universities, and a complex and developing economy. Women had rights. They could drive and have bank accounts. They wore Western clothing. You could get a drink at a bar or buy liquor and have it at home. Christians were tolerated. They could worship as they pleased, and send their children to Christian schools. The electricity stayed on. You could buy gasoline. It was an old-fashioned dictatorship but it was, in regional terms, prosperous.

The war between Iran and Iraq was inconclusive. But today, we've come full circle. Iraq is a wreck. The Wall Street Journal ran a story the other day that documented how the prevailing political influence today in Iraq is Iran's ruling Shiite political party, which hopes to add another country to those ruled by Islamic law. So, from the vantage point of twenty-five years, it appears that the winner has finally been decided in the great Iran-Iraq war. The side that the US favored lost.

This is increasingly the pattern in the post-Cold War world. The US spends money, invades countries, sheds blood, and becomes ever more powerful at home and unpopular abroad. In the end, no matter how powerful its weapons or how determined its leaders, it loses. It loses because people resist empire. It loses for the same reasons that socialism and its central plans always fail. Large-scale attempts to force people into predetermined molds founder on the inability of the state to allocate resources rationally and to anticipate change, as well as the ubiquitous and pesky phenomenon called human volition. Mankind was not meant to live in cages.

Why did the US win wars in the past? Because it fought far poorer governments. Today it loses because it fights populations – people acting on their own, forming their own associations, using their brains to outwit bureaucrats, and cobbling together resources from underground markets. The market always outruns the planners for the same reason that guerilla armies usually win over regular armies. Decentralized and spontaneous associations of dedicated individuals are smarter and wiser and more committed than centralized and planned bureaucrats who follow their rule books.

This is a point well elaborated by the Austrian School of economics. The full critique of war would involve an elaboration on the work of F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard and their modern disciples. Time and space does not permit, so let me quickly draw your attention to the writings of Mises on this point.

In 1919, he wrote a book called Nation, State, and Economy. One of the many great discoveries of Guido Hulsmann was that Mises's original title is better translated in one word: Imperialism. It is a relentless attack on the idea of democratic empire, and an investigation of the role of the democratic state in foreign policy matters.

In the old world that was then passing, Mises wrote, imperial monarchs had ruled over large-scale, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and sometimes multi-religious territories with an eye to carefully balancing the relationships among groups and avoiding policies that set group against group. It was the only policy that made their rule viable. If they failed to do this, their rule was threatened. Royal families specialized in linguistic proficiency. They adopted an air of fairness, and tended over time to liberalize economic structures in the interest of harmonizing groups.

Mises welcomed the age of democracy because he believed that political democracy was the closest analogy to applying a market principle to the sphere of civic life. But he made an important proviso. Under a democratic regime, empires would have to come to end. There could be no rule over multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious populations. Every group would need to be permitted self-determination. Democracy meant, in Mises's view, the right of groups and even individuals to choose their own state. There could be no rule over a people or part of a people without their consent.

Mises then observed a dangerous paradox. The onset of the age of democracy was also the age of the rise of socialism. Socialism requires control, not only over economic structures but also over all of civic life, including religions. The most extreme form of socialism was totalitarianism. Mises saw that socialism and democracy were based on incompatible principles. If people are given true choice in regimes, they can also choose the rules under which they live. But socialism is predicated on the supposition that people can be permitted no choice. They must live under a plan as crafted by a dictator.

Mises saw that the attempt to wed socialism and dictatorship would lead to unparalleled calamity, which indeed it did because Mises's pathway out of this problem was ignored. He mapped out his solution in his great book Liberalism, which appeared in 1927. Here he said that the foundation of liberty is private property. If property were protected from invasion, all else in politics follows. The state cannot be imperialistic because it cannot raise the funds necessary to fund adventures in foreign lands. On the other hand, he wrote, the more the state is given control over private property, the more it will be tempted toward imposing its rule via arms and war.

Therefore, he said, war and socialism are both part of the same ideological apparatus. They both presume the primacy of power over property. In the same way, peace and free enterprise are cut from the same cloth. They are the result of a society with a regime that respects the privacy, property, associations, and wishes of the population. The liberal society trades with foreign countries rather than waging war on them. It respects the free movement of peoples. It does not intervene in the religious affairs of people but rather adopts a rule of perfect tolerance.

I don't need to tell you that this is not the kind of regime under which we live in the US. The state is an empire, a democratic empire. It is aggressive internally and externally. Indeed, it is the richest and most powerful government on earth and in all of human history. Along with this has come a cultural change. The founding fathers loathed and feared war. They said that nothing ruins a country quicker than the warlike spirit. It brings bankruptcy, corruption, and tyranny. George Washington warned against war, and called for trade and friendship with all nations.

The ideology of war has infected our rulers. Mises explained it in his book Liberalism. This is an ideology against which rational argument does not work. If you say war leads to suffering, pain, and death, they will say: so be it. Instead, writes Mises, the warmongers claim that "it is through war and war alone that mankind is able to make progress. War is the father of all things, said a Greek philosopher, and thousands have repeated it after him. Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation."

I submit to you that this is precisely the ideology that reigns in such publications as National Review. This is the view propounded from the lecterns at Republican gatherings. Speaker after speaker at conservative conferences echoes this very view. I've heard it again and again in private conversations among diehard Republicans. This view that war is good for us is sheer fantasy, a dangerous and violent fit of utter irrationality. But it persists. It infects. It kills.

What view should replace the ideology of war? Mises again:

"It starts from the premise that not war, but peace, is the father of all things. What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation. It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man. War only destroys; it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic. The liberal abhors war, not, like the humanitarian, in spite of the fact that it has beneficial consequences, but because it has only harmful ones…. Victorious war is an evil even for the victor…peace is always better than war."

The US has already lost the war on Iraq. It should pull out. When? Now. What will happen? I don't know. No one knows. What will people do when you let them out of their cages? What will slaves do when you free them? What happens when you free those who are imprisoned unjustly? I don't know the answer to these questions, and no one does. I will observe that other countries count the day that the US soldiers left as the beginning of a bright future.

I think of Somalia, which – after a Bush Senior invasion – Clinton wisely left in a lurch after violence against American soldiers. Today warlords still compete for control of the capital. The CIA factbook contains a sentence that might have pleased Thomas Jefferson: Somalia has "no permanent national government." But the rest of the country has moved on. It has prospered.

Here is more from the latest CIA factbook:

"Despite the seeming anarchy, Somalia's service sector has managed to survive and grow. Telecommunication firms provide wireless services in most major cities and offer the lowest international call rates on the continent. In the absence of a formal banking sector, money exchange services have sprouted throughout the country, handling between $500 million and $1 billion in remittances annually. Mogadishu's main market offers a variety of goods from food to the newest electronic gadgets. Hotels continue to operate, and militias provide security."

The CIA chooses the word "despite" the seeming anarchy. I would like to replace that with "because" of the seeming anarchy.

If the US leaves Iraq, a big cost will be born by Americans. We have lost freedoms and rights. The military and spying sector has grown enormously. Big government abroad is incompatible with small government at home. To the extent we cheer war, we are cheering domestic socialism and our own eventual destruction as a civilization.

When you consider the full range of social, economic, and international planning on which it has embarked, you can know in advance that staying cannot work. Government is not God, nor are the men who run it impeccable or infallible, nor do they have a direct pipeline to the Almighty. Even if they were angels, they couldn't do it. The method they have chosen to bring about security and order is destined toward failure. But they are not angels. Their power has corrupted them, and the more absolute the power they gain, they more damage they create.

Let me state plainly too that we should end the entire war on terrorism because it cannot work and it is killing us instead of them. The pool of potential terrorists is unlimited, and it has been unleashed by the very means the state has employed.  Bin Laden is still on the loose, and everyone knows that there are hundreds or thousands of additional Bin Ladens out there.

But can't the state just kill more, employ ever more violence, perhaps even terrify the enemy into passivity? A bracing comment from Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld: "The Americans in Vietnam tried it. They killed between two-and-a-half and three million Vietnamese. I don't see that it helped them much." Without admitting defeat, the Americans finally pulled out of Vietnam, which today has a thriving stock market.

Can the US just back out of its war on terror? Wouldn't that mean surrender? It would mean that the state surrenders its role, but not that everyone else does. Had the airlines been in charge of their own security, 9-11 would not have happened. In the same way that the free market provides for all our material needs, it can provide our security needs as well.

The War on Terror is impossible, not in the sense that it cannot cause immense amounts of bloodshed and destruction and loss of liberty, but in the sense that it cannot finally achieve what it is supposed to achieve, and will only end in creating more of the same conditions that led to its declaration in the first place.

In other words, it is a typical government program, costly and unworkable, like socialism, like the war on poverty, like the war on drugs, like every other attempt by the government to shape reality according to its own designs. You can see the results in the fatality figures. You and I paid for those flags on the caskets of the soldiers. We paid for the war that cost them their lives. We paid for the cheaper coffins of the far more numerous Iraqi dead. We didn't do it voluntarily. The state forced us to do so, just as it is forcing Iraq to endure a dreadful occupation.

What is in the past is gone, a cost that is sunk and never to be regained. But we can control the future. Now is the time to end this ghastly undertaking in Iraq.

In American political culture, which is dominated by the competitive interest groups we call the two main political parties and their ideological compatriots, we are asked to choose between two false alternatives.

In the first, as that offered by the Left and the Democrats, we are asked to think of the state as an expansive Good Samaritan who clothes, feeds, and heals people at home and abroad. They completely fail to notice that this Samaritan ends up not helping people but enslaving its clients and leaving the rest of us like the robbery victim on the street.

In the second, as offered by the Right and the Republicans, we are asked to think of the state as an expansive Solomon with all power to right wrong and bring justice and faith to all peoples at home and abroad. They completely fail to notice that Solomon ends up behaving more like Caesar Augustus and his successors, sending all the world to be counted and taxed and then plotting to kill any competitive source of authority.

Are you independent minded? Reject these two false alternatives. Do you love freedom? Embrace peace. Do you love peace? Embrace private property. Do you love and defend civilization? Defend and protect it against all uses of Power, the evil against which we must proceed ever more boldly.

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Lew Rockwell is president of the Mises Institute and editor of LewRockwell.com. Rockwell@mises.org. See his Lew's Columns on Mises.org.