Especially in light of the looming threat of a wasteful, counterproductive US military intervention in Syria, it is necessary to offer a resounding refutation to the recommendations of those who consider themselves individualists to engage in any sort of mass military action – commonly known as war, declared or not – against large numbers of people in the Middle East. Some such persons, especially those affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), advocate a foreign policy more aggressive and, in its consequences, far more destructive than even the actual interventionist measures undertaken by the United States federal government during the Bush and Obama administrations. In a recent speech at the 2013 Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference, Yaron Brook, ARI’s executive director, put forth his recommendation for solving the persistent threat of politicized Islamist regimes and the terrorism that stems therefrom: completely destroy either Iran or Saudi Arabia and threaten the surviving country into submission. Brook also reaffirmed his consideration of General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the first practitioners of modern “total war” and an instigator of untold damage to the lives and property of innocent civilians during the American Civil War, as his personal hero. As an advocate of reason, a person of conscience, and a staunch individualist, I strongly, emphatically object to this course of action. As foreign policy goes, I cannot think of one less productive, other than perhaps indiscriminately launching nuclear weapons everywhere.
In March 2012 I made a video, “Refuting Ayn Rand on War”, where I specifically described my objections to Rand’s and Brook’s advocacy of warfare. I refer there to some of Brook’s previously stated views, including his admiration of William T. Sherman, which he again articulated during his Steamboat Institute speech. While most of Brook’s speech is sympathetic in its emphasis on individual freedom and a rolling-back of the economic burdens imposed by the federal government domestically, his foreign policy would clearly undermine this path. Indeed, if one wishes to reduce the scope of the federal government and its intrusiveness into individuals’ lives, deep cuts on both the domestic and foreign fronts are needed. US government debt is already spiraling out of control, and it would not be practically feasible to balance the budget (avoiding increased taxation, inflation, or borrowing) without cutting military spending and eliminating numerous wasteful and deleterious foreign occupations. As long as self-proclaimed individualists, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives resist an enormous reduction in US military budgets and overseas intervention, at least one, and probably all, of the three consequences of continued budget deficits will inevitably occur.
But there is a deeper, moral case to be made against war in general. Some might allege that this time it is different. But when was it ever not different? The regime of the Soviet Union posed a far greater danger to liberty in the 20th century than rag-tag groups of fundamentalist Islamist terrorists and the regimes backing them ever could. Yet war between the United States and the Soviet Union was fortunately averted, aside from some admittedly destructive proxy wars, and billions of innocent people can live in relative peace and comfort today due to the avoidance of nuclear Armageddon through a more restrained foreign policy than the “hawks” of the Cold War era advocated. I do not oppose targeted strikes that specifically eliminate violent terrorists and only such individuals. A good example of this was the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. However, a state of war is completely unnecessary to carry out such limited actions.
War attacks not just an armed band of terrorists, not just a regime, but an entire country and its people. This is especially true since the shift in the 19th century away from limited battlefield engagements involving professional armed servants (and mercenaries) of powerful interests competing for natural resources and prestige, and toward “total war” fueled by nationalistic and ideological animosities – where all of a country’s population is considered “the enemy” or at least an asset to “the enemy”. Such warfare is inherently collectivistic in its premise. It fails to recognize that individuals ruled by hostile regimes or terrorized by armed criminals still have minds of their own, that they may disagree with and indeed be oppressed by those regimes and criminals. Targeted assassinations of dictators and terrorist leaders are one matter, but indiscriminate “collateral damage” against peaceful civilians is morally unacceptable for an individualist. Anyone claiming to follow the philosophy of Ayn Rand, including Ayn Rand herself, should know (or, in Rand’s case, should have known) better.
The current case of violent crime fueled by fundamentalist Islamist ideology is no exception. The world has over a billion Muslims, who are overwhelmingly peaceful (like most adherents of all major religious and ideological systems), even if one legitimately considers them mistaken in their theological beliefs. Many prominent Muslims have condemned the attacks of September 11, 2001, and other attacks on peaceful civilians in the West. Some Muslims are secular in their political outlook and, indeed, have made efforts to maintain secular governments in the face of threats by Islamist political parties to implement sharia law and religiously motivated restrictions on personal freedom. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, despite their sub-optimal outcomes and the eventual emergence of dominant factions advocating the politicization of religion, were initially driven by freedom-respecting, secular, yet largely Muslim individuals. These people set the spark for the overthrow of the long-standing authoritarian tyrannies of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi. They now contend against political Islam in their troubled countries, but it is essential for any individualist to respect them and their plight, and for any government that even pretends to respect freedom to leave them alive to have any positive influence of which they are capable. Often, the infighting within the turmoil-ridden Middle East results in tragedy on all sides; surely, this ought to be the glaring lesson of the current Syrian situation. However, American bombs, missiles, and drones are surely not the answer. These weapons kill indiscriminately. Even drone attacks allegedly “targeted” toward terror suspects (still often without due process or convincing evidence of their criminal intent) end up killing far more innocent bystanders, including children, than actual would-be terrorists. Are the relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the victims going to acknowledge the “moral legitimacy” of their deaths by the brutal calculus of Yaron Brook and those who think like him? Or, more realistically, are they going to experience a justified outrage and forever despise the government – and, if they are themselves collectivists in mindset – the entire country and people whom they blame for these terrible killings?
There is no quick, easy solution to the turmoil in the Middle East, nor to the violent threats that such turmoil sometimes poses to the lives of people in the Western world. However, there are some clear changes of direction that can gradually curtail the major risks. First, it is essential for governments in the Western world to refrain from actions that curtail the liberties of their own citizens, allegedly to respond to this threat. In fact, the terrorists and political Islamist regimes have won a greater victory than they could ever have achieved by force of arms, as a result of the pervasive civil-liberties violations instigated by Western governments since September 11, 2001. The omnipresent surveillance, the bodily violations at airports, the increasing militarization of the police force surely have more in common with a totalitarian regime than with the freedom that the fundamentalist terrorists allegedly hate. The more aggressive American military interventions become, the more animosity and blowback they generate, the more inclined Western governments will be to crack down on their own citizens’ freedoms further. Thus, militarism abroad directly causes unfreedom at home – as it has during every major war in American History, from Lincoln’s imprisonment of dissident newspaper editors during the Civil War, to Woodrow Wilson’s World War I propaganda machine and imprisonment of opponents of the military draft, to Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. The present period of the never-ending “War on Terror” is no exception. There is no way for a government to respect individualism and the rights of its own citizens while it turns civilians abroad into fodder for bombs and drone strikes.
Second, it is essential to treat “acts of terror” no differently from “ordinary” crimes – attacks on human lives and property. The criminal-justice system has various ways of dealing with gangsters, murderers, street muggers, arsonists, and common vandals. Domestically, the same standards should apply toward the same acts, no matter whether or not they were motivated by Islamist ideology. A person who bombs a building or a public event is a criminal murderer and should be dealt with accordingly. It is time to dismantle the exceptional category of “terrorist acts” as distinct from ordinary crime. That category is the linchpin by which all of our Constitutional freedoms have been rendered moot. As regards armed military-style groups operating abroad, it is acceptable to use truly targeted strikes limited to neutralizing members of those groups (and not “signature strikes” that attack an entire area, irrespective of the known presence of militants). But this is not war against an entire people or even a government; it is more akin to a targeted action. As former Representative Ron Paul has recommended since the September 11 attacks, issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal specifically against such militants is a desirable, Constitutionally authorized remedy quite distinct from war.
Finally, to end the threat of militant attacks on Westerners, it is essential for the Middle East itself to become transformed over time, both economically and culturally, into a place where individual rights and intellectual progress are fundamentally respected and appreciated. Bombs could never effectuate such transformation; they only breed hatred and backlash. Instead, individuals and companies in the West should entice the Middle East to join them on a more enlightened trajectory. Commerce and cultural diffusion can bring economic opportunity and prosperity to millions who are currently in dire poverty. Ayn Rand recognized and appreciated the power of free-market capitalism to bring not just peace and prosperity, but moral elevation, to vast numbers of people. This should be the path embraced by decision-makers in the West, echoing the sage advice of Thomas Jefferson: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”. Over the coming decades, a steady application of this approach will diminish the militant threat, though not overnight. Still, it is a far preferable alternative to the recommendations of those whose policy of mass destruction would only fuel the fires of militant attacks and reduce Western governments, militaries, and their supporters to the same level of inhuman barbarism against which they are allegedly defending us. True individualism – indeed, true humanism – would demand no less than a complete rejection of the killing of innocent civilians as a solution to any problem.