David R. Henderson  

Question for My Foreign-Policy Critics

Three from the JEL... Reply to My Critics on Foreign...

In the comments on my post yesterday, Prakhar Goel, Patrick R. Sullivan, and Shayne Cook were critical of my views on U.S. foreign policy. All three implicitly or explicitly seemed to favor the U.S. government's attack on Afghanistan in 2001. So here's my question to them. I promise that I'll say more about my response in a follow-on post, but I'd like to hear their answers and/or the answers of those who agree with their criticism of my foreign policy views. Here's the set-up hypothetical, a question, and my answer to the hypothetical:

Consider the following hypothetical case. A terrorist blows up an airplane flying from country A and everyone on board is killed. A man from country B is alleged to be the head terrorist. He lives in country C. The government of country A has no extradition treaty with the government of country C. However, the government of country B, where the alleged terrorist is a citizen, does have such a treaty with country C and attempts to extradite him. Country C's government, however, refuses to extradite him, and the alleged terrorist is free to live in country C.

Does country C's unwillingness to extradite the alleged terrorist justify country B's government bombing or invading country C?

I believe that it does not. Bombing or invading will threaten or even kill thousands of innocent people in an attempt to apprehend one guilty person.

Prakhar, Patrick, and Shayne: what is your answer to this hypothetical?

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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime

COMMENTS (23 to date)
jc writes:

So the hypothetical trade-off is increased security for our country (are we assuming this, that this is the true motive and that security actually will increase?) in exchange for the deaths of innocents abroad (that exceed any deaths that may have already been happening under the removed regime?)...

What if the scenario is within in the same country? A Hawaiian, wanted in D.C., resides in Alabama. Alabama refuses to extradite him to D.C. (no agreement) or Hawaii (as they know Hawaii's just an intermediary to D.C.). Is it o.k. for D.C. to drop bombs on innocent civilians in Alabama?

Some may feel that it's not o.k. because *who* the innocents are matters, i.e., they feel that killing innocents within our own tribe (the U.S.) is much worse than killing other innocents.

Then again, some might argue that Alabamans aren't entirely innocent, as the leaders D.C. wants to punish are extensions of those civilians (it being a democracy and all, w/ voters putting, or at least allowing, the current leaders to hold power and make decisions). In many countries, citizens simply don't have a say as to who calls the shots or what the shots are.

(Of course, the flip answer is that that this scenario is unrealistic, one part of America invading another, so why worry about it.)

Of course, "countries" do not choose to invade one another. Only individuals choose, and even in the name of a collective, it is still individuals who choose, albeit in a social context. This observation is much more than a semantic distinction. Any arguments that run in terms of collective nouns such as "America" or "America's government," will be misleading at best and more likely incoherent.

If some individual in country B (call him Bill) chooses to initiate force against multiple unidentified persons in country C --- no doubt with the voluntary or coerced participation of many others who are members of country B's army --- then Bill would be choosing to act immorally. Probably, everyone agrees that immoral behavior is wrong.

My fundamental proposition is that compelling another person by force or deceit is the only immoral act. A full discussion of this proposition is too bountiful for this space, of course. This proposition is akin to, but not identical to, Kant's categorical imperative, and it can be stated quite compactly as "do not compel another sentient being." Clearly, Bill would be compelling other humans if he chooses to invade country C.

Suppose the terrorist in the hypothetical is called Joe. Bill can compel Joe, even to the point of compelling him to give up life itself. Compulsion to resist or even deny life to one who initiates compulsion is not immoral, because the initiator of compulsion (Joe0 has logically granted others the right to compel him, which makes the exchange voluntary, and therefore, not immoral. Bill may compel Joe and do so morally, but cannot compel even one (never mind hundreds of others)in country C.

As I noted already, a full discussion of my proposition about morality is out order in this space, but once one agrees that compelling another sentient being is immoral, the conundrum of the hypothetical David poses is easy enough to sort out.

Luis H Arroyo writes:

Strategy has its own logic, which is not the neutral and beautifull logic you use.
In the few days after the 11-S, The only objective was to strike the enemy with only one condition: the fewest lost for US. Why? US could have expected a futher terrorist act.
Is that legal? I don´t know. But I think that not to retaliate would have been a complete victory of Al Qaeda.
So, be care with the logic. It is quite confusing if you don´t include the main premises.

Hyena writes:

Prof. Henderson,

If Country C's policy of non-extradition is part of a clear pattern of behavior whereby the Terrorist can be considered a proxy for and tool of Country C's foreign policy, then the government of Country C can be held liable for the Terrorist's actions.

I believe that was the argument provided in the case of Afghanistan: Al Qaeda was acting as an arm of Afghan foreign policy. Ergo, the government of Afghanistan had engaged in an act of war against the US.

It's basically an extension of the concept of agency you see in corporate law.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Luis H Arroyo,
I asked, "Does country C's unwillingness to extradite the alleged terrorist justify country B's government bombing or invading country C?" So am I right to conclude that your answer is "yes"?

TA writes:

Anyone dumb enough to fall into this trap is about to find out that country A is Cuba, B is Venezuela, and C is the US.

Scott writes:

Do you mean "country A's government bombing or invading country C"?

As stated, no, country B does not have this right, because there is/was no threat to country B. Country A was attacked, not country B. The only thing that country B has suffered is something of a diplomatic insult.

However, if we assume that governments are supplying the public good of "national" defense, then the government of country A has both the right and obligation to defend it's citizens. If the appropriate strategic move is to invade country C to take down the head terrorist, then yes, country A has that right.

(I'm not saying this is necessarily the appropriate strategic move, although it may be.)

Prakhar Goel writes:

Dear Dr. Henderson,

In response to your scenario, country B is not really involved. It has not been attacked. Furthermore, it is clearly not hostile to country A since it is trying to extradite the terrorist from country C (presumably for incarceration/trial/whatever...). Country A has a valid claim against country C as the place had not landed yet and therefore the terrorist attack was conducted on country A's soil. If countries D, E, and F had citizens on that plane, they all have a valid claim against country C and all of them are justified in declaring war against country C.

Of course, justified does not imply advisable. If country C is undoubtedly militarily superior and actively supports the terrorist, A et al. are just SOL. Their best option is probably to find out what country C has against them and resolve the dispute as cheaply (read: with as few dead) as possible. If country C refuses to extradite the terrorists due to organizational paralysis, then it may be worthwhile to contemplate an assassination.

However, if A et al. are militarily superior or at least comparable, I would advise that they declare war immediately and make their reasons clear.

In response to your argument that innocents will die:

1) This is very much a matter of ex ante incentives. If country C is allowed to continue with impunity, then another terrorist attack is inevitable. Are the people in airplanes not innocents?

2) Such a war need not continue for long with a viable and sane sovereign. Some possibilities:

a) Country C is not viable (i.e. is not capable of extraditing the terrorist) OR has a vested interest in the terrorists. In this case, it is almost certain that they will attack again if they know that they can do so with impunity as long as they use nominally non-state actors. The same also applies for all the other enemies of country A. If country A et al. were to let this incident slide, they would just put off the inevitable and endanger more of their own civilians (until they are forced to retaliate anyway).

b) Country C does not have a vested interest in the terrorist beyond just that of a sovereign to a resident. In this case, it doesn't make sense for country C to go to war with country A. A truce conditioned on the extradition of the terrorist is a straightforward choice and one that would be made by any major sovereign (like the US, China, Russia, UK, France, etc...) today.

US in Iraq: The US invasion of Iraq was a bad idea but not because invasion itself is a bad idea and not because it wasn't "morally justified"[1]. The Iraq invasion was a bad idea because the US Army as it is currently organized is incapable of occupying a foreign country. Instead the US should have carried out a series of surgical strikes against all known Al-Qaida locations. Such a strike could have been carried out using ICBMs and Bombers in a month and would have yielded far better results.

On the US Army and occupying a foreign nation: The US does have the resources to occupy pretty much any country on this planet (except perhaps China and Russia). It does not have the organization or the will however, to occupy any country. This is because the US Army does not act like army but rather a stylized international emergency police force. To act as an army and to be as effective as an army, the US Army needs the will to rule and the will to suppress dissenters against its rule. It needs the sense of ownership that comes with sovereignty. It had it in 1945 which is why Germany didn't turn into a hell-hole of domestic terrorism and civil strife. It had it in 1898 which is why the Philippines didn't turn into a hell-hole of domestic terrorism and civil strife. However, around the late 1950s and certainly by the 1960s, this will to rule was gone. This is why Vietnam and Iraq have turned into hell-holes plagued by domestic terrorism and civil strife. The US occupation of the Philippines especially is an excellent example of what Iraq could have been like.

[1] There is a fundamental disconnect between our arguments because you see moral implications in the actions of sovereigns (like the US). I, on the other hand, ascribe to classical international law which takes as its base principle "Might makes Right" and then tries to build on top of this a set of rules that would be to the mutual benefit of all the parties involved thus ensuring that the rules are followed. Therefore if country B wishes to declare war on country C, I see no moral implications in this action. However, I do not see what country B gains from this action.

Dan S writes:

I think Prakhar hit the nail on the head. A country's military exists to protect its citizens from external threats. There's no reason why this can't include individuals or non-state entities. It's simply a matter of historical fact that prior to the 20th century, military conflict was always between states.

And as far as innocent people are concerned, they are just as much a victim of the actions of their government as they would be in a war between two countries. For their part, I see no moral difference between:

1. Country Z attacks Country Y, Country Y retaliates and declares war, and thousands of innocent people in country Z die, and

2. A person from Country Z attacks Country Y, and Country Z refuses to extradite him. Country Y retaliates and declares war, and thousands of innocent people in country Z die.

Prakhar Goel, if might makes right, why would anyone be interested in building a "set of rules that would be to the mutual benefit of all the parties involved"?

If might makes right, just get bigger guns and blow everyone else involved away.

The notion that morals are not involved is quite astonishing. If right vs wrong isn't involved, why would anyone even care what happens to either the residents of country C or the terrorist?

MikeDC writes:

As Prakhar says, isn't the meat of the issue between country A and C? At least, that seems the more obvious parallel to 9/11 (A=US, B=Saudi Arabia, C=Afghanistan)

In general, I look forward to an explication of the hypothetical, because as it stands, it's too incomplete for me to come to any sort of reasonable conclusion on. I think in general, C's simple refusal to extradite a criminal to B does not give B grounds to make war on C. For example, I wouldn't support an invasion of Switzerland to apprehend Roman Polanski. But the grounds you've established are insufficient grounds from which to propagate a general rule.

So what's the difference between, say, Roman Polanski and Osama Bin Laden?

Were Polanski to:
1. Credibly threaten to appear in or send proxies to the United States to rape more American citizens.
2. Appear to be, in practice, an influential and in fact inseparable member of the Swiss regime.

then he would be much more similar to Bin Laden and I may begin to support military action against the Swiss regime. That's not an exhaustive list, of course, but it quickly gets to a key point that's being left out of things here.

rapscallion writes:

[I originally accidentally posted this in the previous thread]

I don’t think there’s any hope of consensus regarding when war is justified in non-consequential term—i.e. when a nation has a “right” to invade other nations. It’s hard enough to figure out all the murky hypotheticals for individuals, and collectives are an order of magnitude trickier.

I think there might be a bit more hope of consensus if we agree to accept a consequentialist line. Most people probably agree that a minimum consequentialist condition for justifying a war is that it should be expected to save many lives on net.

Invading a country just to apprehend or kill a small group of people almost never meets this standard, especially when obvious alternatives like embargoes, sustained legal lobbying, international arrest warrants, and beefing up domestic security are taken into account. It’s very rare that a few are so dangerous that killing many to get them will save lives.

Dan S writes:

@David L. Kendall:

I don't think you need to bring right and wrong into the discussion in order to suggest that the people in Country A care most about what happens to the people in Country A; similarly for B, C, etc.

Further, there are perfectly legitimate self-interest reasons for a country to not just "get bigger guns and blow everybody else away." The costs of war are high, and it's good to have friendly countries to trade with and serve as allies.

rapscallion, I believe you are offering the utilitarian remedy of counting net souls to determine right or wrong in Prof. Henderson's hypothetical.

Utilitarianism is definitely a popular perspective among people who want to justify their acts of compelling others. After all, killing one to save two does have a certain appeal. Nonetheless, in Threesville, it would still be immoral for Bob and Joe to kill and eat Sam, to stay alive. That would make Bob and Joe immoral actors, wouldn't it?

But what if morality isn't like value preferences that can be ranked on an ordinal scale. What if morality is absolute? What if it simply is immoral to compel another human, which I think is the case?

Unless someone can explain otherwise, I think Prof. Henderson's hypothetical does depend on what is moral and what is not.

rapscallion writes:

Maybe morality is absolute, but I don’t buy that anyone has reliable knowledge of this absolute. Apparently, you take it as axiomatic that compulsion in most cases is immoral, but the majority of humans disagree (would it matter if Sam were a serial rapist and Bob and Joe were saints?) and will never change their minds.

With consquentialism, at least there’s in principle a standard that allows for empirical falsification (admittedly, ignoring the deeper issue of just what consequences we ought to care about).

mikedc writes:

I don't think a consequentialist argument can make sense one way or another. From a utilitarian perspective, you'd still have to consider the various non-lethal positives and negatives, and they can only be measured if you impute some moral component to them.

It's not even clear something like an embargo is better from that perspective.

Suppose the cost of an embargo is inconveniencing 300M Americans with increased security (TSA!) and killing 10,000 innocent Afghans through malnourishment. But cost of war is 1,000 dead Americans but less inconvenience for the other 300M. However, now you have 15,000 dead innocent Afghans, and (a bonus) 2M Afghans with somewhat improved living conditions (eg various ones who won't be as abused by their new govt as they were by the prior one).

The consequences of almost everything can be murky.

On the flip side...

David Kendall,
I interpret your principle differently. The only logical targets of B's use of force would be folks in C who actively abet Joe the Terrorist. And by abetting him, they make themselves subject to compulsion as well.

Obviously there's the thorny issue of how much care B must use to avoid any truly innocent deaths in C, but I don't think that can be grounded on a clear moral foundation. In that respect, there probably does need to be some sort of utilitarian accounting as well.

Pandaemoni writes:

I am definitely more in the utilitarian ethical tradition, and so firmly a consequentialist.

Since the hypothetical features one terrorist, I agree that (barring some extraordinary additional facts) a full scale war would often not be warranted. That said, in part I feel that way because I believe that one man can be tracked sufficiently well to neutralize the threat he poses.

In cases here that is not possible, though (as would be the case with a leader of al Qaeda, a broad network of many operatives for the terrorist to direct), a nation is justified in taking further action--not to punish the terrorist or past crimes (as the dead can't be brought back anyway), but to avoid future crimes.

Are bombing campaigns and invasion the only route available? No. In fact, if the terrorist were in the United States, such action would be suicidal for the nation deciding to attack the US. (I think it is okay to weigh the expected losses you will suffer as a result of warfare against the losses you expect the terrorist will cause in the future. Actually, to modify that, leaving the terrorist to live a long and happy life unmolested may encourage others hostile to your nation. So, it's not just the deaths the terrorist is directly responsible for, but simply the expected number of deaths that would be precipitated by inaction against that terrorist).

One problem is that pre-2001, assassination squads were probably a political no-go, and assassination within the territory of another state is still an act of war in any event, so stealth would be at a premium. One other possibility, slightly removed, is to issue the equivalent of a fatwa demanding the terrorist's death...simply encourage people to kill the target in exchange for a large reward funneled through private sources.

While I admit that if the country harboring the terrorist is the U.S., then I do have an immediate negative reaction to the possibility of allowing another nation to take aggressive action within our borders.

That said, on further reflection, I think my negative reaction is the thing I should dismiss, as it's merely an emotional response to the image in my mind of Americans being killed (and I am assuming implicitly that those Americans are "innocent"). What really should happen in that circumstance is that good Americans should rise up and demand we extradite the terrorist. If there are not enough good people in America to make that happen, then it is less clear that America doesn't have some of the blood of the terrorist's victims on its hands. Luckily, I view that as largely hypothetical, because I do not tend to believe that America would go to extraordinary lengths to protect a terrorist that posed significant and ongoing risks to other nations.

rapscallion writes:


I’m offering up “expected to save many lives” as a necessary, not sufficient consequentialist condition for justifying war. I think the real world works out such that benefits other than directly saving many lives are rarely so great that most people would agree that they outweigh the good of lives saved. Note, too, that if all benefits are murky, inaction is the default (i.e. do nothing if it looks like a wash).

Mikedc writes:

It's just my speculation, but I think costs can be just as murky as benefits. Nor are they all equally murky. I don't picture, for instance, any subsequent Afghan rulers being as cartoonishly evil as the Taliban, though, of course, it is a possibility.

Craig writes:


Are you really arguing that it was immoral to liberate Afghanistan - that is, to make a good faith effort to remove a brutal dictatorship which knowingly harboured the perpetrators of 9/11. And to do while operating under very restrictive rules of engagement which put a premium on protecting innocent civilians even at the cost of endangering Nato forces (a point which you and Will Wilkinson continually refuse to acknowledge - see his recent posts about the US killing tens of thousands of innocent Muslims).

Luis H Arroyo writes:

Yes, pr. Henderson. I believe Al Qaeda would have stroke shortly after if US had not retaliate.

Various writes:

Well I think your analogy has a lot of merit. But....I would point out one difference. For me at least, the significance of 9/11 wasn't the loss of life, it was the realization of our vulnerability to Weapons of Mass Destruction....a term no longer in vogue due to the apparent absence of such devices in Iraq. Prior to 9/11, I would have imagined the probability that 4 teams of hijackers would have been able to perpetrate such a scheme as remote. Similarly, I had thought the probability that a group of persons, perhaps assisted by a nation, could set of a nuclear device in the U.S. was also remote. I think the 9/11 event changed my assessment of this probability. Furthermore, for better or worse, the economic damage sustained by the U.S. from the denotation of a nuclear device would likely be extreme, at least in my opinion.

Shayne Cook writes:

Dr. Henderson:

Actually, I probably concur with your position in this purely hypothetical situation. It is unclear what would be the costs/benefits to Country B of bombing/invading Country C, other than 'show of force' - demonstrating will and means.

I'm looking forward to your follow-on posts on this topic. Just to clarify and reiterate, I'm not at all convinced the U.S. administration policies/actions you mentioned in your previous post were at all optimal in terms of costs and benefits to the U.S.

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