David R. Henderson  

Reply to My Critics on Foreign Policy

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Question for My Foreign-Policy... Arnold Kling with a Minus Sign...

I asked a hypothetical question in my previous post today. I'm glad that Prakhar Goel, one of the three people to whom I addressed the question, was willing to participate. Thank you, Prakhar. And, unlike commenter TA, I don't think you're being "dumb" by being willing to participate in good faith. There's nothing dumb about being willing to put your own ideas and principles to the test.

I ask hypothetical questions because it's a good way of teasing out if you really have a principle. The hypothetical I asked appears to apply--and does apply approximately--to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, where country A, the country whose airliner is attacked, is the United States, country B, the country where the attackers come from is Saudi Arabia, and country C, the country where the people behind the attacks hang out, is Afghanistan. The one thing I don't know is whether the United States had an extradition treaty with Afghanistan.

But those facts fit exactly the case I actually had in mind. Country A, the country whose airliner is blown up in mid-air, is Cuba, country B, the country where the alleged mastermind comes from is Venezuela, and country C, the country in which the alleged mastermind hangs out, with the cooperation of the federal government, is the United States.

So what this means is that if you say that given the facts of the case, the U.S. government has the right to invade Afghanistan and put innocent people at risk (and, of course, we now know that the various foreign governments whose agents are in Afghanistan have killed thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan), then it follows that the Venezuelan government has the right to attack the United States and put innocent Americans at risk.

It recently came out that 92% of Afghanis haven't even heard of 9/11. Probably many of you found that shocking. But it shouldn't be. I would bet that if you polled Americans, you would find that approximately 92% of Americans have not heard of the terrorist bombing of the Cuban airliner to which I referred.

If you want to know more details, I wrote about it at length here. As you know if you write free-lance articles for non-academic publications, authors rarely get to choose their own titles. I hated the title that the publication's editor chose. The reason is that I didn't make a particularly libertarian case against the war in Afghanistan. Instead, I made a case that a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican or almost anyone else would make if he held the view that governments of various countries ought to be held to the same standards.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime



COMMENTS (26 to date)

Indeed. An important principle is the core of the issue, isn't it? What is right for Bill is also right for Joe. So in the end, it comes down to what is right.

I think it is quite interesting that few of the folks engaged in this dialectic about your hypothetical seem to want to talk about what is right and what is wrong. But I think that is the crux of the whole question.

Jacob Oost writes:

My answer to your question, which I didn't bother to post, was "not enough information in the question to answer." That is, if you gave me that exact same question and put me in front of a device with a button saying "Country A goes to war on Country C" then I would not press it. But not because I'd categorically be opposed to such a war. Having read more about the Cuban case you're discussing, I think that there are considerable differences between it and the 9/11 attacks, which means that I couldn't provide the same yes/no answer to the war question to both situations.

For one thing, I don't think your description fits the facts of the Cuban case. The terrorists in question *were* brought to court by Country B and trials were carried out. The outcome of those trials may not be what the Cubans may have wanted, but it was nothing like the 9/11 case.

With all due respect, it seems like you are providing Granma version of events. You do not mention in your hypothetical scenario that the terrorist in question was in prison for eleven years, or that the request for extradition was made by a grand-standing dictator years *after* the trial and imprisonment, etc.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:
Prakhar, Patrick, and Shayne: what is your answer to this hypothetical?

My answer is that you've evaded answering my question about an invasion of Canada or Mexico by allies of a nation with a well known record of mass murder. And, as the previous poster points out just above, not very honestly.

So, David, if you want an honest exchange of views; you go first.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
You don't get far with me when you accuse me unjustly of dishonesty. I will answer your question but only if you apologize first for your false accusation.

Mikedc writes:

David H,

So what this means is that if you say that given the facts of the case, the U.S. government has the right to invade Afghanistan and put innocent people at risk (and, of course, we now know that the various foreign governments whose agents are in Afghanistan have killed thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan), then it follows that the Venezuelan government has the right to attack the United States and put innocent Americans at risk.

Perhaps the Cuban government has a cause to go to war with the US government, but again, I'd still argue there's a clear distinction between the US government's handling of Luis Posada and the Afghan government's handling of Bin Laden. Posada has been jailed and is the continuing subject of open legal processes in the US. As such, he's clearly not an ongoing at this point, and there he is, albeit very, imperfectly, facing "justice".

So on this point, I'd say Cuba doesn't have as legitimate case as the US. Because in the case of the US and Bin Laden, the latter wasn't subjected to any sort of sanction whatsoever, but was, in fact, given the full protection of the Afghan government (which, of course, he funded and had some measure of influence over).

So the basic point is that in the Posada case, there's still some semblance of "the rule of law", however flawed, that might eventually give some satisfaction to his victims, and seems to practically limit the possibility for further harm.

While that's extremely frustrating, it actually defines a reasonably workable approach (in my mind) to justifying military action. When there's a possibility of legal action effecting security (against future threats) and justice (consequences to past actions), it seems unreasonable to use military force.

When there's no real possibility of legal force effecting security (especially security... we can stamp our feet about the injustice of it all but we're fools if we sit around and let folks plot our demise), I think resorting to military force is just as justifiable as any individual's act of self-defense.

rapscallion writes:
When there's a possibility of legal action effecting security (against future threats) and justice (consequences to past actions), it seems unreasonable to use military force.

Then I think you might be against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. We gave the Taliban a non-negotiable ultimatum to turn Bin Laden over, but they asked for evidence and made inquiries about extraditing him to a neutral country that the U.S. might have been able to work with subsequently. We refused to negotiate and invaded.

David R. Henderson writes:

Except for the "we" part, rapscallion reports this correctly. As I recall, Bush told the Taliban that he had shown the evidence against Bin Laden to Tony Blair and he had found it convincing. That didn't persuade the Taliban.

Blackadder writes:

Prof. Henderson,

If you're against the invasion of Afghanistan because it cost thousands of innocent lives, does this mean you think fewer innocent people would have died in Afghanistan if the Taliban had remained in charge? What reason is there for thinking that?

David R. Henderson writes:

Blackadder,
First of all, good question.
Second, I never said that that was the only reason I was against the invasion. I also said that I don't think the U.S. government has a right to coerce us to help others.
Third, the reason for thinking that fewer innocent people would have died in Afghanistan under the Taliban is that war takes many lives, even relative to cruel, authoritarian, non-Communist, non-Nazi regimes.
Fourth, I don't think it's a good argument to say, "If we invade, we will kill innocent people but you would have killed more innocent people and so it's alright to invade." Do you?

MikeDC writes:

On the contrary, the Taliban were presented with evidence of Bin Laden's and given opportunity for negotiation for several years prior to 9/11. He was wanted from 1998 with respect to the killing of two German citizens and from early 1999 was under indictment in the US.

In that full context, you've got:
1. Nothing at all done by the Taliban in response to those legal requests while Bin Laden conspired to commit more acts of mass murder.
2. Probably because Bin Laden was, effectively, a member of the ruling elite of the Taliban.

So from that perspective, it seems quite odd to me to be negotiating and taking the Taliban claims as anything approaching good faith.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:
As I recall, Bush told the Taliban that he had shown the evidence against Bin Laden to Tony Blair and he had found it convincing. That didn't persuade the Taliban.

Bin Laden had famously declared war on the United States. The Taliban didn't know about that?

Sorry, David, no apology earned yet.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Dear Dr. Henderson,

Thank you for responding to my comment. I was not aware of the incident with Posada. In this case, my previous post applies almost perfectly. Venezuela is not deeply involved but it certainly deserves commendations for attempting to prosecute a terrorist. If classical international law was in force and the US weren't the thousand pound gorilla on the playground that it is today, I am sure it would find many sympathizers for its declaration of war and I would be one of them (regardless of where I lived)[1]. In that case, I hope the US would behave like a sane sovereign and when given the choice between turning over a known terrorist or getting bombed, would pick the former choice. If not, well, I hope I have the funds to move.

As it is, the US is the thousand pound gorilla in international relations. However, it supports Posada only through organizational paralysis. The immigration judge was just following the law and this law in particular is just one of the thousands of well-meaning but ultimately naive and foolish law that our congress has gotten in the habit of passing because fighting them costs too much political capital. Thus Venezuela's best option (of it cares enough about this matter) is to assassinate Posada. While it will not receive any material aid from myself in this endeavor (I am a neutral third party and therefore not involved. Also, I am not a sovereign but a resident of the US and therefore subject to the laws of the US), I would certainly think no lesser of the Venezuelan government for taking this path.

Also, many commentators here and you seem to think this is a binary choice: give up the terrorist or declare war and bomb thousands of people. It is not. A country that follows the etiquette of classical international law has a reputation for defending its interests in the same fashion that law enforcement has a reputation for upholding the law and prosecuting criminals. A declaration of war informs the offending parties that their actions are not acceptable and that the offended country is willing to defend its interests.

[1] The word sympathizers is very carefully chosen. Any other country (except obviously for Cuba) are third parties (barring exigent circumstances like citizens on the bombed flight). Classical international law frowns on third parties getting involved. The US and NATO are very much against the spirit of CIL.

Also, I would like to reiterate one critical difference between our positions that really doesn't show up here. You ascribe moral implications to the actions of Sovereigns and I do not. Every sovereign has the inalienable right to declare and wage war with or without cause --- war is an eternal part of foreign relations. Rather, what I should say is that only the nations involved in the conflict are in a position to judge the moral righteousness of the conflict. CIL is concerned with coming up with etiquette to try to minimize the occurrence of war and containing the damage when it does break out. This is why on occasion, I may seem to play fast and loose with what a nation is justified in doing.

PS. I am not an authority on CIL by any stretch of the imagination. Corrections and suggestions are welcome. As are interesting hypothetical testing the strength of my understanding.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Some answers to comments from the last post on this subject:

@David Kendall,

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"?

Maybe because these rules (really manners/hints) are to the mutual benefit of all the parties involved. CIL is designed so that if a country follows CIL, it gains wrt other countries that follow CIL due to easier communication/collaboration/trade and is no worse off wrt countries that do not follow CIL.

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?

They wouldn't. One of the core precepts of CIL is that third parties need not get involved and are in fact, not competent to judge the specifics of the case. According to CIL, 9/11 is a "private" matter between the US, Al-Qaida, and the countries harboring Al-Qaida (like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc...). There is no rationale for why Canadian, English, or French troops should be in Iraq. CIL very much frowns upon organizations like NATO because they tend to have catastrophic failure modes (like for example, WWI).

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

The first part makes sense. The second part does not. Please think about this for just a moment. Why massacre a population when they can instead be taxed? The name we have for this is colonialism. It is precisely what the European powers, being the ones with the biggest guns, did in the past. Before them, this was just plain old conquest used to great success by the Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Frankish Empire, the US (Louisiana and CA for example), etc... The list goes on and on. Contrary to the pervasive rhetoric about how this "corrupts" the occupier, the colonial administrations were generally a boon to the colonies. This claim is backed by hard evidence. For the tip of the iceberg, see this article on the Congo: http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,866343,00.html

If you want more, I suggest you start here (where the last article is from): http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2009/08/from-cromer-to-romer-and-back-again.html

It turns out that amount of guns are proportional to the amount of free cash a country has sloshing about. In turn, this is correlated to various measures of good government like rule of law and free enterprise. Colonialism extended these good governments to places without good government, like Africa and India.

* Dear Dr. Henderson, Dr. Kling, and Dr. Caplan: While I have your attention. I mentioned earlier that colonialism is just an efficient version of mass immigration and didn't hear much on that. Any thoughts?

NormD writes:

"I also said that I don't think the U.S. government has a right to coerce us to help others."

Just watched "Escape from Sobibor" last night.

What kind of moral code allows you to sleep at night allowing millions to be killed by evil people???

If you sit by and allow mass murder and do nothing because you don't want to coerce someone then you are guilty of a crime and if the survivors track you down and kill you, I will shed no tears nor will I defend you.


David R. Henderson writes:

@NormD,
I love "Escape from Sobibar." I have a copy and I've watched it at least three times. I allow people to be killed all the time, as do you. I'm not sure why you're asking me this.

David R. Henderson writes:

@NormD,
With your statement that you would not defend me from people who attack me, you're saying, in effect, that you would sit by and allow me to be killed. Which makes your self-righteous question of me, shall we say, ironic.

rapscallion writes:

I've seen many reports and studies arguing that the U.S. might have been able to get Bin Laden extradited both before and after 9/11 if it had played its card differently. Would it have been possible to get him?--I dunno; I'm not sure that anyone can know with much certainty. What's clear, though, is that we lost him when we invaded.

rapscallion writes:

Sorry about the "we" above. I'll watch that from now on.

Tom writes:

The idea of going to "war" because of essentially an extradition issue (bin Laden) is preposterous.

Going to war over land or resources is reasonable, in that when you have the land/resources, the war is over.

With the "war on terror" we have no stated, or even implied, goals. So we are in the middle east aimlessly and indefinitely.

Well... the implied goal is to fund the military industrial complex which is being accomplished very very successfully.

Mikedc writes:

The folks I see defining it as essentially an extradition issue are you guys why seem to think any war is preposterous in the first place.

It largely seems to be a way to redefine the issue in a manner that makes it easier to ignore the variety of tangible points raised against David's point in the first place.

David L. Kendall writes:

@Prokhar Goel,

I guess I didn't make my real point clear. I believe it is immoral, and therefore wrong, to compel another person. The only exception is to directly resist compulsion from another.

All this talk about CIL leaves me quite inattentive. Counting up net souls lost or benefited as a result of state decisions is a bogus approach, in my judgment.

I do realize I'm talking about the topic from a philosophical perspective, while others engaged in the dialectic are more interested in the "if this, then that" sort of considerations.

Tom writes:

As far as I can tell, the only argument being raised against David's point is that it's a broken analogy because Luis Posada was brought to justice by our government/legal system.

So the implication is that if bin Laden were brought to justice somehow, then there would be no need to go to war, right?

Which means that either Afghanistan has to prosecute him or we do, i.e., it's an extradition issue.

I do not think war is always preposterous (and I said as much in my post) ... but going to war against a government and a civilian populace for basically no reason and with basically no goal IS preposterous.

Seriously, what is our goal in Afghanistan even supposed to be? I literally have no idea. If it's anything to do with terrorism then we've failed--even our own CIA director admits that there are probably only 50-100 Al Qaeda left in the country. They've all gone to Pakistan.

Blackadder writes:

Prof. Henderson,

You say: "I never said that that was the only reason I was against the invasion. I also said that I don't think the U.S. government has a right to coerce us to help others."

My response: I don't think our purpose in attacking the Taliban was to help others. We wanted to capture Bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda bases so that they would not be able to attack us. The fact that more innocents would likely have died absent our intervention is relevant, however, to counter the objection that our actions were unjustified because innocent people ended up getting killed.

You say: "Third, the reason for thinking that fewer innocent people would have died in Afghanistan under the Taliban is that war takes many lives, even relative to cruel, authoritarian, non-Communist, non-Nazi regimes."

My response: At the time of September 11th, Afghanistan was already in the midst of a Civil War which had gone on for years (indeed, our "invasion" of Afghanistan consisted mainly of giving air support to the opposing side in the war). So the ravages of war were already occurring and would have continued to occur regardless of whether we intervened.

You say: "Fourth, I don't think it's a good argument to say, 'If we invade, we will kill innocent people but you would have killed more innocent people and so it's alright to invade.' Do you?"

My response: This is not a sufficient reason to invade. However, if we have other reasons to invade, then this counters the objection that invading is nonetheless wrong because it will result in the loss of innocent life.

Shayne Cook writes:

Dr. Henderson:

First, my apologies for being tardy in my response to your previous post question.

Second, I want to emphasize that I consider you, and ALL of the people who've commented moral people, irrespective of their positions. My point is that discussing the merits of use of force, either by an individual or nation, in moral terms alone has historically led to greater, not less, armed conflict.

Karl Marx, among others, recognized that all conflicts in human history had economic (not moral) reasons at the foundation - one of the few things he got right. Tom Clancy, among others, called the act of initiating an aggressive war nothing more than an "act of armed robbery, writ large." I consider these perspectives true and valid, irrespective of any argument for or against human conflicts in allegedly moral terms. My own sense of morality dictates that attempting to justify either an offensive or defensive use of force as a "moral" act is a fraud. Alleged "Christians" used Christianity as the "moral" grounds for the Crusades, just as current Islamic factions are using passages of the Quran as justification for their acts.

Understanding and applying the foundational principles of economics - choices based on the perceived costs and benefits of the choice - are extremely effective in dissuading and ending armed conflict. Demonstrate to an aggressor that their choices will entail vastly greater costs, or vastly less benefit than they had envisioned, and they will re-consider their choice to engage or continue an aggression. That demonstration has to entail both the will and the means to inflict high costs on an aggressor.

mdc writes:

Stop thinking about states and extradition treaties and other aspects of positive law.

In a natural law sense, did Bin Laden commit a crime? Yes.

Is it therefore just to punish him in some way? Yes.

Is it therefore just to use force to procure him if he refuses to submit to justice peacefully? Yes.

Is it therefore just to use force against people who violently attack the bailiffs you send? Yes.

That doesn't excuse USgov's complicity in appointing a new government that goes on to do nasty things to the populace, like tax them, impose Islamic law, etc. Nor does it justify staying there forever even if you can't find Bin Laden or he goes somewhere else (unclear if this has happened). Nor does it necessarily excuse things like bombing weddings (but these were accidents anyway).

Opposing the Iraq War has much firmer footing, but I don't think Afghanistan was that objectionable on lib grounds.

Paul writes:

Your perspective seems based on the premise that countries are moral actors in the same sense as individuals. Country A does something to Country B in the same sense as Bill does something to John. Whether applying the standards of interpersonal morality to international relations is suitable depends on whether you think countries are moral actors. I do not. Are a nation's "actions" not better understood as the outcome of social, political and economic exchanges by less abstract social actors, all the way down to the level of individual agents? These actions, of course, cannot be treated as aggregates of individual choices as these social actors are often in conflict with one another. And if so, can we not agree to give up on the principle of a universal moral standard for international relations?

Do as thou whilst, and that shall be the whole of (international) law.

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