Unintended Consequences

The following is a comment made by Bill Kelsey below in the post entitled "Libertarian Foreign Policy Debate".

There is more to this than just the very important fact that the Washington regime with its interventions has annoyed many people abroad, some of whom have chosen to attack us. And that is the law of unintended consequences. Many other things go wrong with interventions, especially military ones, besides antagonizing folks. Weapons sold to temporary allies outlast the alliances and end up being used for all sorts of mischief. Mercenary armies formed for a temporary purpose tend to be unstable and unpredictable after they have served their original purposes and are dumped. Assassins hired to kill the bad guys of the moment are still assassins after they have done their original contract killings.

In the late fifties when the communists were the most frightening thing on the planet to Americans, there was a very strong Communist Party in Iraq. There was also a rival party - the Ba?ath. The nature of political debate in the culture was for each party to have a few bodyguards and assassins who popped each other off every so often. A very competant teenage Ba?ath assassin named Saddam came to the attention of the CIA who felt he was doing such a great job that they should sponsor him throughout his career. And so they did until he broke away from his sponsors with the Kuwait invasion in ?90. I suppose that if the debate at hand were taking place forty years ago, interventionists would be using the same arguments one hears now to support the idea of nurturing this assassin as a means to the end of fighting the great evil of communism. So how many assassins is our government hiring at this moment and what will they be doing thirty years from now?

Mussadeq of Iran was not appreciated in Washington for his leftist leanings and he was replaced with the Shah. A few decades of festering resentment manifested itself with the revolution and the rise of Khomeini. In a little-known effort to make nice with him the CIA handed him some very complete lists of Iranian communists who Khomeini had executed. This guaranteed their demise but did not ingratiate Khomeini. To deal with his threat Saddam was unleashed on Iran.

One intervention after another, each to deal with the unexpected consequences of the previous one and eventually leading to the fiasco we see in Iraq today.

Okay, many people who are against the Iraq war support the Afghan war so let?s talk about interventions in that country. Let?s observe first that the justifications given by the Soviets for invading Afghanistan Christmas of ?79 were about the same as those given by Americans for our own recent adventure there. They too felt threatened by Islamic fundamentalists whose activities were spilling over into the Asian Soviet Republics. (Think back to how worked up the Reaganites were in the early eighties about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. Imagine how they and Americans in general would have reacted had Marxist revolutionaries seriously threatened Mexico and furthermore were monkeying around violently in Texas). At that time the ?muj? were viewed with great affection in the West. Pacifists renounced their pacifism. This was a just war. Libertarians renounced their non-interventionism and Reason sent its correspondents to do combat porn on Afghanistan, the Soviets, and the ?freedom fighters.? This was clearly a situation worthy of intervention. Those unaware of the level of covert involvement complained - ?How dare we let the Soviets get away with this??

One of the covert operations was the recruitment and financing of volunteers from throughout the Arab world. A very competent recruiter and financier was a fellow named Osama. A good guy to fight the bad guy. Who could complain? To disagree was a tough argument for this libertarian pacifist to make. What could I say beyond the fact that I was against this project on general principle? The best prediction I could make was that someday the Stinger missiles donated to the ?muj? might be used against western aircraft. I ask every libertarian who supported the mujahed project twenty years ago how they would have reacted had anyone suggested that their man Osama would eventually have a falling out with the US over the ?91 Gulf War and go on to to what he did on 9/11? What with the various mujahed and tribal warlords being hired and fired today, the weird international mercenaries being used, what can we imagine possibly happening - done not by the people we antagonize but by the people we are using to kill the people we have antagonized?

Dare I get into a discussion of Timothy McVeigh coming of age as a front line machinegunner in Desert Storm? How ?bout the Green Berets back from Afghanistan who shot their wives and then themselves? And the Beltway sniper? Any bets on how many domestic casualties we will suffer in the next two years from combat veterans whose minds and souls are being damaged at this moment in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Brothers and sisters in the struggle for liberty: our position on non-intervention is sound. Be proud of it! Stand by it! Even if you can?t marshall all the arguments have faith that when the facts of any war abroad are eventually gathered you will be vindicated. If you ever receive information that convinces you that a particular war deserves your support - know that based on past precedent, you have been lied to. Lie down till you feel better. Go to a holy person for excorcism. But do not support any war that will ever be waged by the Washington regime. Support all soldiers who refuse to go.

Meanwhile I will vote for any and all Libertarian candidates appearing on my ballot except for those I find out are war-supporting infiltrators.


UPDATE: Brian responds with "The Trouble with Libertarians Today"

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"Dare I get into a

"Dare I get into a discussion of Timothy McVeigh coming of age as a front line machinegunner in Desert Storm?"

What happened to Timothy McVeigh has always irked me. He was trained by our government to be a killing machine, and he did it so well -- that he left Desert Storm a decorated Veteran.

He was taught our government's 'values', and what is considered worth fighting to protect. When he became a killing machine here at home, fighting to protect what he perceived as a threat against those same 'values' -- we executed him.

This especially irks me since foreign terrorists have been tried for similar crimes [in regards to attacks on US embassies]and they receive free room and board, cable tv, and health care for life.

Gotdamn, you found my hot button!

Damn, they didn't execute

Damn, they didn't execute Rambo! They used him for more military operations. :)

Funny, I recently said

Funny, I recently said something to the effect of "I will vote for any and all Libertarian candidates appearing on my ballot except for those who are irrational pacifists."

Yes, actions have unintended

Yes, actions have unintended consequences, and actions involving killing can have some really bad ones.

But, inaction has unintended consequences too.

Non-intervention is a good general rule for the US military to follow, but it's not obvious that there are no justifiable and worthwhile exceptions.

The rule doesn't settle the question. Knowledge that there will be unintended consequences doesn't settle the question. In order to decide, we need further arguments.

What lessons do you draw from our involvement in WWII in Europe?

(1) If the CIA was running

(1) If the CIA was running Saddam, then why was Iraq a soviet client state? Why were they fighting back with Soveit weapons?

(2) McVey was a soldier, but he was doing a *LOT* of Crystal Meth. That stuff is NOT good for your brain. Lack of sleep tends to induce paranoia.

You *have* been sleep well lately, right? Staying away from the speed?

Yes, intervention has

Yes, intervention has unintended consequences, and the example of the Middle East is a good one. I would agree with another commenter above, though, that non-intervention also has consequences, not all of them positive.

Anyway, I am glad that the US intervened in WW2, or I would be trying to write this comment in German.

Actually, WW2 provides one

Actually, WW2 provides one of the best examples of the unintended negative consequences of foreign intervention, since it probably never would have happened had Woodrow Wilson not made the worst foreign policy decision in US history: the decision to intervene in WW1.

Nick, Pointing out that WWI

Nick,

Pointing out that WWI intervention led to the necessity for WWII intervention does not really argue against intervention in WWII. Would it have been beneficial to American if either Hitler or Stalin controlled Western Europe?

Jonathan, > Would it have

Jonathan,

> Would it have been beneficial to American if
> either Hitler or Stalin controlled Western Europe?

Two points. First off, is it obvious that had we left them to kill each other off that either side would have ended up strong enough to take out Western Europe afterwards?

Also, I notice you conveniently ignore the fact that our victory in WWII made the world safe for some of the most bloodthirsty regimes that ever existed (ie the Soviet Union, and Communist China).

I'm not saying that we intentionally caused those problems, just that it isn't obvious even in the case of WWII that intervention was superior to abstaining from the conflict. Especially had we opened our borders to unwanted refugees from those conflicts.

~Jon

Jon, Two points. First off,

Jon,


Two points. First off, is it obvious that had we left them to kill each other off that either side would have ended up strong enough to take out Western Europe afterwards?

The USSR's influence spread all over that part of the world to involve Russia, the Ukraine, Central Europe, the Baltic states, the Balkans, China, Vietnam, and North Vietnam. The USSR was an aggressive empire. When Russia needed bread, Stalin starved the Ukraine. Empires need fresh economies to feed on. So did Hitler have imperialistic ambitions. Perhaps, weakened by war, the winner would not have been able to fulfill its totalitarian imperialistic ambitions. But it would have tried.

Also, I notice you conveniently ignore the fact that our victory in WWII made the world safe for some of the most bloodthirsty regimes that ever existed (ie the Soviet Union, and Communist China).

By using the word "conveniently", you accuse me of deliberately ommittng facts that weaken my argument. I assure you I did no such thing.

My response to you is this: are you claiming that without US involvement in WWII, the Soviet Union and China would not have gained the amount of power they eventually did?

I?m not saying that we intentionally caused those problems, just that it isn?t obvious even in the case of WWII that intervention was superior to abstaining from the conflict. Especially had we opened our borders to unwanted refugees from those conflicts.

I am very much pro-immigration for exactly this reason: as a means to provide Exit for those people living under totalitarian regimes. WRT WWII, I complete agree that the US should have accepted refugees.

However, that does not address whether or not the consequences of involvement in WWII were decidedly negative, as you appear to have concluded. Call me a sellout libertarian, but I am not at all convinced that had the US stayed out of WWII, the world would be a better place, or that Americans would be better off today.

It's one thing to argue that foreign military intervention, like most govt intervention has a strong tendency to result in unintended consequences. It's another to automatically conclude that every single instance of military intervention has lead to negative consequences. That is not a search for truth; rather; it's establishing the conclusion that fits the ideology and then looking for facts that fit the conclusion.

Julius, Doing history and

Julius,

Doing history and making ridiculous, baseless, borderline Moore-like conspirational assertions are not one and the same.
If you claim that the humiliation of the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles, combined with German forces remaining largely intact and Germany unoccupied lent themselves to conpiracy theories and feelings of betrayal that resuled in(but was not the single cause of) WWII, that's one thing. To say that US intervention, and it alone, caused WWII, is quote another, and is indeed facile.

Jonathan: yes, I do think

Jonathan: yes, I do think that *considered by itself*, US intervention in WW2 was a net positive. But my point is that when evaluating what our general attitude toward interventionism should be, you can't consider any single example by itself: you have to look at the overall effect of a policy over time.

If the general policy you support is "allow intervention when you think you have a Really Good Reason (tm)", you'll occasionally get a positive intervention such as that in WW2, but far more often you'll end up with stupid interventions whose negative long-term consequences outweigh the positives, and even the "good" interventions will typically involve cleaning up messes made by previous interventions (as with WW2).

If your general policy is "never intervene except in (extremely narrowly defined) self-defense"-- that is, if you believe the US should have a foreign policy like that of Switzerland-- then you'll occasionally fail to do good, but far more often you'll save blood and treasure and avoid creating new enemies. After all, how many enemies has Switzerland got? How often has its security been threatened?

Note also that even the narrowest, Swiss-style restriction to self-defense would not have enjoined the US from intervening in WW2 after Pearl Harbor. It would have forestalled any sort of preventive "let's attack Hitler in 1937 before he gets too powerful" sort of thing, sure; but for every such opportunity you miss, you'll stop ten dumb crusades to make the world "safe for democracy."

I am re-treading some ground

I am re-treading some ground here, but this piece and some of the comments seriously simplify and mislead. As has been pointed out, looking back only at the unintended negative consequences of an action distorts the past. Every example given has omitted all the positive consequences of the actions taken. Our previous intervention in Afghanistan had many positive results also, many of those consequences being unknowable (which of course is true of unknowable negative consequences as well.) The post also neglects that history would have moved forward anyway. Afghanistan's conflict would not have gone away without us, Islamic terrorists still would have existed and nothing that I have read here can say the world would have been better sans our involvement and I look at the action very skeptically myself.

WWII was caused by our intervention in WWI? Talk about a facile interpretation. Nobody can have such knowledge. Are not libertarians supposed to be skeptical of such after the fact social constructions? The factors influencing such events are well beyond anyone?s easy analysis and are a prime reason why we should be suspicious of interventionism. You are in effect making the same mistake as those being criticized.

As for the history in the original post as per Saddam Hussein it is ridiculous. The original point has merit but in total the story given of our relationship with Iraq is false. We might have cheered Saddam on against Iran but we didn't "unleash" him. This is an old rhetorical trick. Show we have relations or preferred a particular side in a conflict and elide to we actually controlled the event. Our CIA seems to be either laughably incompetent or capable of running entire regions with a few advisors depending on what suits peoples arguments. Saddam invaded Iran, not the US. No amount of handshakes or whispered secrets changes that.

Protest this war all you want, I suspect there will be plenty of unintended negative consequences to justify your stance as the years wear on, just know that there will be good consequences also, and that not fighting the war would have led to all kinds of consequences good and bad as well. As libertarians we should avoid any belief in grand theoretical constructions that will guide us. Hayek?s work on information in the economy should tell us how difficult it is to make such an analysis in a field as complex as foreign policy. No, we will have to muddle along making best guesses and hoping we get more things right than wrong. Non-interventionism may be the first choice, but it shouldn't be the only one. Sometimes the affairs are so bad that if things change, the likelihood is that it will in the long run be of benefit even if many negative consequences accompany it. In my opinion WWII is an affirmative example (regardless of whether we were attacked first or not,) Korea is another. I think even less clear examples such as Grenada, Nicaragua, etc. can be argued for on balance, but the story certainly isn't clear.

What is clear is that inaction in each of these and other cases (including Afghanistan) could have led to far worse outcomes than are described in the post or some of the comments. That they didn't "solve" the world?s problems is insufficient in critiquing them. You also have to show that inaction would have resulted in a better world. Even defeats and disappointments that avoid an even worse outcome are not worthless.

Lance: "WWII was caused by

Lance:

"WWII was caused by our intervention in WWI? Talk about a facile interpretation. Nobody can have such knowledge. Are not libertarians supposed to be skeptical of such after the fact social constructions?"

Since when were libertarians supposed to abstain from doing history?

There's a difference between

There's a difference between a single cause and a "but for" cause-- a necessary condition. WW2 happened because a whole bunch of things went wrong; putting any one of those wrong things right could probably have prevented it.

The particular argument that but for US intervention in WW1, WW2 would *probably* (not certainly) not have happened is quite simple, not baseless, and not conspiratorial. If the US hadn't intervened, then the Central Powers would very likely have either won WW1 or forced a status quo ante peace agreement with the Allies. Either way, the German Empire would not have collapsed. No collapse of Germany, no preconditions for the rise of Nazism.

As one example of another "but for" cause, if the British had had the sense to remain neutral in August 1914 instead of taking the French side, that also probably would have prevented WW2. On this subject read Niall Ferguson's excellent _The Pity of War_.

I like how the US is

I like how the US is supposed responsbile for each and every consequence of its actions, no matter how distant and indirect the connection, whereas people like McVeigh and Al Qeda are somehow blameless for even the direct intended results of their actions because 'society made them do it!'

"The particular argument

"The particular argument that but for US intervention in WW1, WW2 would probably (not certainly) not have happened is quite simple, not baseless, and not conspiratorial. If the US hadn?t intervened, then the Central Powers would very likely have either won WW1 or forced a status quo ante peace agreement with the Allies. Either way, the German Empire would not have collapsed. No collapse of Germany, no preconditions for the rise of Nazism."

One could also argue quite convincingly (as libertarians such as Richard Maybury have) that even given the rise of Nazism, had the US chosen to stay out of that *second* war it would never have become a "WWII" but would almost certainly have remained "Great European War."

"yes, I do think that

"yes, I do think that considered by itself, US intervention in WW2 was a net positive..."

Could you please further elaborate tn this? How could slaughter of people and destruction of property be a "net positive" result. Or by positive you mean for the winning side. But then all wars must be "net-positive" ... so are they?