‘Oil wars.’ Is this an accurate summary of US-led interventions in the Middle East of the 21st century?

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This essay was the recipient of the 2017 Mises UK Essay Prize. The author would like to thank the Ludwig von Mises Centre for their consideration.


“America is addicted to oil”

So said President George W Bush, echoing a contemporary cover of The Economist, in his State of the Union Address on January 31st 2006.

Although President Bush’s speech was a lament for the fact that the United States is the world’s biggest consumer of oil (reaching 19.4 million barrels per day by 2015), this candid admission by the architect of American interventionism lent support to the notion that his country’s forays into the Middle East have been either wholly or mostly motivated by the desire to have a greater, physical control over oil. In this essay we will, however, conclude that this theory is, at best, incomplete, and, at worst, false and misleading, and that America’s interventionist efforts can be best understood through the explanation of three distinct, yet connected objectives:

  • To maintain the petrodollar system and the global reserve status of the US dollar;
  • To appease and promote the interests of the US’s biggest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia;
  • To serve as proxy wars against Russia and China and to contain and minimise Sino-Russian influence in the region.

All of these objectives are subsumed by the greater, overarching aim of preventing the outbreak of a multi-polar world and maintaining a US hegemonic international order. As we shall see, any part that the physical control of oil has to play in this picture owes itself to aiding the achievement of this final objective and has little to do to with America’s appetite for gas guzzling.

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Anti-War and Anti-State

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The furore over the recent attempt of the UK government to commit military force in Syria in concert with the US government revealed a widespread popular opposition to war that appears to span the entire political spectrum. Indeed, libertarians must admit that the ideological left, with its anti-imperialist and anti-war profiteering motive, has often been a louder voice in castigating the warmongers and interventionists in conflicts past and present.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that if one is to be truly anti-war then that commitment alone is, regrettably, not sufficient. For war is always propagated by states, between states and for the benefit of states. Libertarians often point out that “war is the health of the state”, permitting the government to suspend the status quo and enact all manner of heinous oppression and control that would be unthinkable in a time of peace, measures that, curiously, do not disappear as soon as the alleged enemy is vanquished. But as much as it is true that war feeds the state so too does the state feed war, not only siphoning off resources from the productive sector towards the creation of bombs and missiles, but, crucially, the very desire to create a bigger state makes war more likely. Many anti-war activists of the left have no problem with government metastasising to whatever size in economic and social matters, creating alleged “fairness” and “equality” and whatever other emotive but elusive goals happen to sound most appealing. The aims may be innocently honourable enough but it is ridiculous to think that the means of the state can ever be used peacefully, let alone to believe that a large state can be the promoter and preserver of peace. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the state always means conflict. The precise means at the states disposal, the only means that it can use – violence – results in the constant diversion of scarce resources away from the ends of their owners and towards the ends of others. The state is effectively engaged in a constant war on its own citizens, forever plundering and pillaging them to fund their lavish lifestyles and to line the pockets of their friends under the guise of wasteful socioeconomic programmes. Foreign war, fundamentally, is no different and every motivation for it ultimately reduces to a battle over resources. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that anti-war activists are content to allow a government to war against its own citizens but, for some reason, as soon it comes to doing the same against foreign nations then all hell breaks loose. However correct this latter reaction may be, not only is it hypocritical but it is also dangerously naïve to expect the state to restrict itself to peace and harmony abroad when it will never even do so at home. Nazi Germany, for example, was met with such ambivalent dithering in the interwar period precisely because its ideology – big government control and intervention – was of no particular distinction from that which prevailed everywhere else at the time. The only difference was that it was prepared to take this ideology to its logical end, additionally piling on racial dogmas and nationalistic overtones that resulted in crimes which, however horrific and unforgettable, obscures the basic similarity between Hitler and, say, Roosevelt.

Secondly, big states attract the attention of control freaks and the greedy. The more money that is stashed in the government and can be leeched away by bloodsuckers and parasites then the more alluring it becomes to try and take a slice of that pie – and once that slice is taken, how wonderful it would be to take another slice, and then another after that! Finally when government intervention naturally starts to stifle productivity and there are no more pies left to be eaten, the siren song of war becomes ever sweeter to governments and their sponsors, not only as a distraction from their own economic mismanagement but as a way forward to secure a flow of resources from abroard and to tighten their grip on the domestic citizenry through lasting wartime or “emergency” measures. Neither must we forget that there is, among the political class, an alluring quality to being a wartime leader or “warrior”. Seeing off an alleged terrible enemy and apparently saving one’s people from invasion (although it doesn’t even need to get this far) is judged as being more heroic and worthy of the highest honours and decorations whereas creating “mere” peace and prosperity is apparently rather dull and uninspiring. Indeed, the most highly rated leaders all made their mark during wartime or were at least warmongering – Lincoln during the War between the States, Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II, and Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, for instance. Only when a conflict is so obviously pointless, futile and/or unjustified – such as those in Vietnam and Iraq – does this strategy backfire, as it did upon Johnson, Nixon and the younger Bush.

Finally, the degree of government intervention necessary to create alleged social or economic ends have only been met during a legacy of wartime control. The New Deal, for example, was modelled upon the wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson; World War II on the New Deal; and the post-war “Great Society”, the fight against poverty and the Civil Rights era all came after these wartime regimes were firmly in place. The citizenry have to be “united” (or worn down) by something such as war before they can ever begin to accept the degree of interference necessary to promote big government measures during peacetime. Ironically, therefore, a lot of the cravings of the anti-war left are reliant upon war if they ever have the hope of seeing the light of day.

In sum, therefore, to be anti-war but pro-state is the epitome of all dangerously ill-informed and contradictory positions, giving birth to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Rather, to be anti-war one must also be thoroughly and unreservedly anti-state, recognising this evil entity for precisely what it is – perpetual and endless conflict and violence. Only when we are well and truly rid of this scourge will there ever be a chance for peace.

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The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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