Tune into the next Republican presidential debate, and you will hear the usual rhetoric about limited government, lower taxes and less spending. The same candidates will then propose to expand the military, escalate the Iraq War, and possibly bomb Iran. Finally, they will resolutely defend the decision to invade Iraq.
This raises the question: What do candidates who promote an expansive, expensive, and aggressive foreign policy mean by limited government? Are conservatives (or libertarians) who push for a militantly interventionist foreign policy really conservatives (or libertarians)?
The Bush Administration might not be a particularly good representative of this policy conundrum, since it has greatly increased domestic spending, expanded the welfare state and extended the federal government's reach. For this administration, philosophy poses no barrier to an activist foreign policy.
Nevertheless, conservative activists continue to support President George W. Bush on Iraq. Even some libertarians-though notably not leading libertarian foreign policy experts, such as those residing at the Cato and Independent Institutes-continue to advance a markedly hawkish foreign policy.
For instance, Randy Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown University, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal to correct "the misleading impression that all libertarians oppose the Iraq war-as Ron Paul does-and even that libertarianism itself dictates opposition to this war."
Of course, war, like terrorism, is a tactic, so any philosophy that recognizes the right of self-defense in principle allows the resort to war. But some wars are more defensible than others. For instance, burning down your neighbor's house and shooting him as he fled could conceivably be adjudged legitimate self-defense. Perhaps his purchase of a .38 and verbal threats presaged an attempt on your life. On the other hand, if you possessed the largest firearms arsenal and best fortified house in the neighborhood, and ran the local vigilante association, the case for a preventive killing would appear to be thin indeed.
So it is with the Iraq War. Perhaps conservatives more than libertarians can be forgiven for believing President Bush, an avowed Christian conservative, as he propagandized for war. Even so, the decision for war looked decidedly liberal, at odds with the usual conceptions of individual liberty and limited government.
First, one had to credulously accept claims as to Iraqi WMD programs and terrorist connections that were disputed at almost every turn. Second, one had to ignore the fact that the administration was clearly bent on war, primarily concerned with finding the most convincing justification with which to rally the public. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that humanitarian concerns could not justify aggressive war and that administration officials disagreed over alleged Iraqi terrorist connections. In contrast, all agreed on Iraqi WMD-which, of course, turned out to be non-existent.
Those supporting the war also had to accept the fantastic promises spun by administration spokesmen who imagined that the occupation would consist of one long group hug, punctuated with an occasional campfire rendition of Kumbaya by all of the Iraqi factions. Yet one reason most supporters of limited government reject government activism is that they recognize the barriers to social engineering in a single nation, a far simpler task than attempting to remake societies globally.
Moreover, the case for war reversed the well-established relationship, also recognized by Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, between terrorism and intervention. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) was correct, despite Rudy Giuliani's misleading rhetorical riposte, in pointing out that foreign meddling begets terrorism. That doesn't justify attacks on innocent civilians, but denizens of the political right traditionally have demanded accountability for personal decisions. Foreign policy actions also have consequences, many of them negative. In the case of Iraq, the war and especially the occupation have acted as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and related groups.
Finally, backing the Iraq invasion ignored the experience of relying on prudence and restraint in dealing with what Ronald Reagan correctly characterized as the Evil Empire. Even the most committed Cold War anti-communists-from Harry S. Truman to Reagan-rejected a policy of aggressive roll-back for one of containment and deterrence. The real argument for war against Iraq was not that Saddam Hussein could not be deterred even if he possessed WMD. The argument was that Iraq should be transformed, irrespective of security considerations. This is a traditional liberal tenet.
Of course, some conservatives and libertarians argue that spreading freedom is an appropriate goal for a state dedicated to individual liberty. Michael Young, a Lebanese journalist writing in Reason online, contends that U.S. foreign policy should be "refocused on the individual, on human and political rights, on the advancement of democratic values." Yet there is an important difference between defending the liberty of members of one's own political community from domestic and foreign encroachment and using one's own government to force fellow citizens to liberate foreign societies. Laudable as the latter goal might be, it runs counter to a commitment to individual liberty and limited government in America.