This article was originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
Ryan McMaken – June 17, 2019
This week, two oil tankers exploded in the Persian Gulf, reportedly as a result of a limpet mine attack. Neither tanker flew a US flag. One was Panama-flagged, and the other was Marshall Islands-flagged. No one was killed.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately accused the Iranian regime of being responsible for the attack. Pompeo told reporters that the accusation was “based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping.”
It’s unclear yet what course of action the administration will opt for in coming days. But, it’s likely to include calls for new sanctions at the very least. But it may also include calls for invasions, bombings, and yet another US-involved war.
Needless to say, we’ve all seen this movie before, and we know how it works: the US government claims that something a foreign country has done poses a grave threat both to the international order and to the United States directly. Or we may be told the foreign regime in question is perpetrating horrific human rights violations against its own people. The US then insists it must launch new airstrikes, enact new economic sanctions, or even orchestrate a new invasion and occupation of a foreign country.
The administration will claim that it has special “intelligence” that the foreign culprit has “weapons of mass destruction.” The US government may offer some grainy video or some still photos purporting to show the enemy in flagrante delicto, or at least a gruesome aftermath.
The US media will enthusiastically assist the administration in spreading whatever images and bullet points the administration wants it to.
If the US government succeeds in getting what it wants, it will send naval vessels and troops to the selected battlefield, and spend trillions of dollars on a long, protracted “war of attrition” which we’ll be repeatedly assured is absolutely necessary to maintain the security of the United States.
What exactly this has to do with the defense of the US is unclear. For example, even if the Iranians are responsible for the explosions, how is an attack on two non-US oil tankers a threat to the United States? In the wake of the US’s (failed) drive for an invasion of Syria, Tucker Carlson asked the obvious question: how will the proposed war “make the US safer”?
The question naturally applies to any proposed war against Iran as well.
As far as the case for Iran as any sort of threat to the US “homeland,” the administration and its pro-war backers do not appear to even be bothering themselves with such trivialities.
The Iranian regime’s tiny air force and navy pose no threat to a country with a navy many times larger than any other navy, and which spends more on military projects than the next eight most militarized regimes combined. As President Dwight Eisenhower understood — as he cut military spending in the face of a resurgent Soviet Union — the US’s huge nuclear arsenal is a deterrent countries like Iran have no hope of sidestepping.
But even if the Iranians potentially posed a true threat to the US — which, again, they do not — the burden of proof is still on the US government to affirmatively demonstrate that in this instance, the Iranian regime somehow endangers the United States, its borders, and its population.
This will not happen, however, because that’s not how foreign policy is made in the US. There will be no meaningful debate in Congress, and little more than accusations and innuendo will be issued from the administration and other organs of the executive branch. “Trust us, we wouldn’t lie” will be the central claim of the American war promoters. Americans will, yet again, be told to sacrifice both treasure and freedoms to satisfy the latest schemes of the American military establishment.
Given that only a portion of the population will buy any claims that Americans are in danger, we’ll hear vague platitudes about humanitarian missions, and how the Iranian regime must be stopped for the sake of decency and human rights. We heard the same thing in both Iraq and Libya before regime change was effected there in the name of humanitarianism. In both cases, however, the region was only made less stable, and more prone to radical Islamism. The result has been anything but humanitarian or decent.
[RELATED: “The Unseen Costs of Humanitarian Intervention” by Ryan McMaken]
Nor can advocates for war supply any answer to the question of what would replace the Iranian regime were the US to carry out regime change there. The most likely candidates are radical Islamists of the type we saw rise up in the wake of the Iraq and Libya invasions.
Moreover, so long as the US continues to ignore the humanitarian disaster in Yemen being perpetrated by American ally Saudi Arabia, any claims of “humanitarian” intent are not credible.
Indeed, any alliance with Saudi Arabia makes a mockery of American claims to be supporting human rights. The Saudi regime, a brutal, terrorism-sponsoring dictatorship, tolerates no religious group outside the state-sponsored brand of fanatical Wahhabism. Christianity is essentially outlawed in the country. Judaism has been completely banished. The regime tolerates no political dissent, as was illustrated in 2017 when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rounded up and tortured his rivals. While Iran is hardly a beacon of religious freedom, it looks downright tolerant compared to Saudi Arabia. Both synagogues and Christian churches function openly in Iran.
I don’t note these facts to claim that Iran is a liberal and freedom-loving place. The fact that Iran compares favorably to Saudi Arabia is quite relevant, however, because the Saudi regime stands to benefit the most from regime change in Iran. The collapse of Iran would produce a power vacuum in the Gulf region allowing the Saudi regime to further spread its brand of radical Islamism. Thus, US claims that it is fighting terrorism or radicalism by opposing Iran are dubious at best.
More astute observers, of course, know the US drive for yet another war in the Persian Gulf region has nothing to do with human rights or defense of the United States.
The real motivation behind the latest drive for war might be found by employing a strategy recently suggested by Lew Rockwell in regards to the proposed Syria war. Rockwell writes:
When you hear the words “national security” or “national interest” used by people in Washington, I think it’s important to substitute “imperial” for “national.” So is it in the national interest of the United States to bomb Syria? No. Is it in the imperial interest of the American Empire to do so? Yes.
In other words, the US state and many of its allies stand to benefit significantly from war with Iran.
As Randolf Bourne pointed out a century ago, “war is the health of the state,” and yet another war will help the American regime justify larger budgets, larger deficits, more taxes, and more state power in general.
For this reason, there has always been a close connection between the ideology of laissez-faire liberalism, and the ideology of peace. In the 19th century, it was free-market liberals like Richard Cobden and his friend Frédéric Bastiat who regarded economic intervention, slavery, and war as all part of one authoritarian package. This mantle was later picked up by the great liberal economist Ludwig von Mises, and then by his student Murray Rothbard.
Even in the cases where defensive war might have been justified, the costs of war, the liberals understood, have been far more grave than our rulers would have us believe. War is always a disaster for life, for liberty, and for the quality of life for those who survive. The only exception, it seems, are those organs of the state that benefit so handsomely from armed conflict.
But, on the matter of war, the position of the liberals — those we now know as “libertarians” — have long been firmly on the side of peace whenever possible:
But wars are not made by common folk, scratching for livings in the heat of the day; they are made by demagogues infesting palaces. It is not necessary for these demagogues to complete the sale of a war before they send the goods home, as a storekeeper must complete the sale of, say, a suit of clothes. They send the goods home first, then convince the customer that he wants them. … But the main reason why it is easy to sell war to peaceful people is that the demagogues who act as salesmen quickly acquire a monopoly of both public information and public instruction. … The dead are still dead, the fellows who lost legs still lack them, war widows go on suffering the orneriness of their second husbands, and taxpayers continue to pay, pay, pay. In the schools children are taught that the war was fought for freedom, the home and God. — H.L. Mencken
Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries. Nobody can foretell what will happen in the next chapter of this endless struggle. This has little to do with the atomic bomb. The root of the evil is not the construction of new, more dreadful weapons. It is the spirit of conquest. It is probable that scientists will discover some methods of defense against the atomic bomb. But this will not alter things, it will merely prolong for a short time the process of the complete destruction of civilization. — Ludwig von Mises
Public opinion must undergo a change; our ministers must no longer be held responsible for the everyday political quarrels all over Europe; nor, when an opposition journalist wishes to assail a foreign secretary, must he be suffered to taunt him with the neglect of the honor of Great Britain, if he should prudently abstain from involving her in the dissensions that afflict distant communities. — Richard Cobden
England, by calmly directing her undivided energies to the purifying of her own internal institutions, to the emancipation of her commerce … would, by thus serving as it were for the beacon of other nations, aid more effectually the cause of political progression all over the continent than she could possibly do by plunging herself into the strife of European wars. — Richard Cobden
The libertarian’s basic attitude toward war must then be: it is legitimate to use violence against criminals in defense of one’s rights of person and property; it is completely impermissible to violate the rights of other innocent people. War, then, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion. … If classical international law limited and checked warfare, and kept it from spreading, modern international law, in an attempt to stamp out “aggression” and to abolish war, only insures, as the great historian Charles Beard put it, a futile policy of “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” — Murray Rothbard
The second Wilsonian excuse for perpetual war … is even more utopian: the idea that it is the moral obligation of America and of all other nations to impose “democracy” and “human rights” throughout the globe. In short, in a world where “democracy” is generally meaningless, and “human rights” of any genuine sort virtually nonexistent, that we are obligated to take up the sword and wage a perpetual war to force utopia on the entire world by guns, tanks, and bombs. — Murray Rothbard
Image source: Getty