Murray Rothbard once observed that it was getting harder and harder to use the reductio ad absurdum device to ridicule U.S. government policy. Things haven’t changed. Thanks to recent events, we may no longer use “Timbuktu,” a name associated with a far-off middle-of-nowhere location, in a reductio about U.S. interventionist foreign policy. The U.S. government has helped the French government to intervene in the northwest African country of Mali, where Timbuktu is located. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. support role in Mali “is the kind of model that you’re going to see in the future.”
Mali is just the beginning of intensified African intervention. The Washington Post reported in January that Africom, the U.S. military’s Africa Command, was “preparing to establish a drone base in northwest Africa [Niger] so that it can increase surveillance missions on the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that American and other Western officials say pose a growing menace to the region.” But before that word “surveillance” can bring a sigh of relief, the Post adds, “For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.” The Pentagon and the government of Niger quickly approved the base.
Meanwhile Bloomberg, citing American military officials, says Niger and the U.S. government have “reached an agreement allowing American military personnel to be stationed in the West African country and enabling them to take on Islamist militants in neighboring Mali, according to U.S. officials.…”
In other words, northwest Africa is the latest region to play “host” to the American empire. For the record, let us note that American officials see Africa as the future source of oil, gas, uranium, and other important resources. Let us also note that China has been busy making business deals for those resources — and that disturbs the American policy elite. In the eyes of the elite, American exceptionalism means first claim on the world’s resources. It also means that no rival — and China is regarded as a major rival — may jockey for a superior position vis-à-vis those resources. The “indispensable nation” must have what it wants. Everyone else can wait for the leftovers.
Not so simple
Mali is an interesting case because it helps clarify the libertarian position on intervention. We must be careful about doing a priori policy analysis. The a priori has its place, specifically in the formulation of economic theory, as Ludwig von Mises taught, but we cannot do history or policy analysis that way. We must be wary of templates that are reflexively and uncritically applied to any empirical situation. It would be easy to do that in the case of Mali. The U.S. government assisted France in its military campaign to drive jihadists out of Mali, wresting control of northern towns such as Timbuktu. France is the former colonial power that ruled Mali until its independence in 1960, and France has maintained its influence (and even control) there ever since. Therefore — it might be assumed — this is a classic case of imperialism. Hence, the U.S. government has assisted French imperialism — which in fact is a veiled form of American imperialism, given the policy elite’s design to put forces in northwest Africa and its designs on African resources.
If we apply this oversimplified template, we will look ill-informed. Nothing I’m about to say is intended to justify U.S. or French intervention, but we must make sure we have our facts straight if we wish to be taken seriously. First, while the initial resistance against the Malian central government came from the ethnic and nomadic Tuaregs, whose aspirations of autonomy in what they call Azawad have long been denied, that movement was soon co-opted by violent jihadists, who imposed brutal Sharia law on the towns it controlled against the will of the inhabitants. The brutality included everything from looting shops to cutting hands off accused thieves to beating women for baring their heads and faces. The jihadists also destroyed old sacred shrines. They were moving toward the south, where 90 percent of the population — most, black African moderate Muslims — live, when French and Malian forces drove them into hiding. (The media have reported that as a military victory, but the jihadists have merely scattered and could return anytime.)
By all reporting, most people in both parts of Malia do not want to be ruled by the jihadists, who were imposing a more extreme and violent version of Islam than the Malians would accept. Thus they are reported to have welcomed the French and Malian troops. French flags sold out in southern Mali shops. That is not to say that French intervention wasn’t self-serving in both the imperialist sense and the personal political sense with respect to President François Hollande. But it does say that the Malian people preferred the troops to the Islamists who had designs on them and their towns. (The central Malian government is controlled by a U.S.-trained military man who staged a coup a few years ago, overthrowing a long-standing democratic government.)
So this was not merely a case of a western country’s intervening against the will of a Third World government or a population for the purpose of imposing foreign rule. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Nevertheless, the action by the U.S. government was unjustified. (I’ll concentrate on the U.S. government, but what I say applies to the French government also.)
Reasons for not intervening
The most basic argument against interventionist foreign policy is that it necessitates compelling the American people to pay for it. The government taxes the population to obtain the money with which it diverts scarce resources from serving consumers to serving objectives chosen by politicians. The people have no way to opt out. There should be nothing to stop private individuals from raising voluntary contributions in order to help the Malians defend themselves from violent jihadists. But there are no moral grounds for forcing Americans to undertake that mission.
Another argument against intervention is that, given the nature of the state and what the Public Choice school of political economy teaches, there is no way to confine government to only a given sort of military intervention. Politicians are human beings who are attracted to power. Thus they are not only self-interested in a benign sense, like other people, they have the largely unaccountable power to coerce others to achieve their objectives. Once they have the power to intervene in foreign lands, they will find ways to use it, including instances that don’t strictly meet criteria the public would approve.
Legal rules can’t interpret or implement themselves. Human beings do those things. And rules intended to restrict government activity will tend to be interpreted by those most interested in expanding power rather than by those who want power severely limited. There’s no way around it.
Thus, even if, for the sake of argument, you could come up with a form of intervention that is permissible by libertarian standards, there would be no way to confine government to only those situations. As classical-liberal political economists have long suggested, policies should be chosen as though the worst among us will be carrying them out.
Finally there is the law of unintended consequences, or the principle of blowback. This is a variation of what F. A. Hayek called “the knowledge problem,” a reference to the fact that central planners are necessarily lacking in the particular knowledge of time and place. For that reason, intervention is always undertaken in a state of ignorance, creating new problems that then furnish the pretext for further government action.
Thus intervention begets intervention. Case in point: U.S.-led NATO intervention against Libyan dictator (and former U.S. ally) Muammar Qaddafi assisted al-Qaeda-type jihadists and provided the arms that powered the events in northern Mali. That happened in two ways: First, NATO poured weapons into Libya. Second, when Qaddafi was overthrown, his arms trove was unlocked. Malian Tuaregs who fought for Qaddafi and jihadis who fought against him then brought their new weapons to northern Mali. That’s how things work. Hubristic U.S. officials may claim they know how to channel arms only to democratic rebels, but that is not to be believed. The U.S. government fought on the same side as al-Qaeda in Libya, and it does so today in Syria.
So the U.S government and NATO made possible the violent jihadist effort in northern Mali. After helping France and the Malian central government defeat the jihadists, will the Obama administration next help them suppress the Tuaregs’ hopes for autonomy — which could be next on the central government’s agenda?
It is a treacherous web that empire weaves. The U.S. military is too blunt an instrument for such complex situations. Even if there were no other argument against intervention, this one would do the trick.
“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe,” Barack Obama said in his second inaugural address. “And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad.”
Attempting to manage crisis abroad may serve the interests of the ruling policy elite and the military-industrial complex, which pervades the U.S. economy, but it is not in the interest of the American people.
On the contrary, it endangers Americans, as the 9/11 attacks well show. American security lies in nonintervention. It is time for America to dump the conceit of exceptionalism and indispensability and become a normal country.
This article was originally published in the May 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.