My reactions to Mike Rappaport’s “Why I changed my mind about the Iraq war”

August 9

My friend Mike Rappaport has a series of four very thoughtful posts describing the evolution of his thinking about foreign policy before and after 9/11, why that led him to support the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and why he now thinks the Iraq invasion was a mistake. Because the development of his thinking so closely resembles mine, I wanted to link to all four posts here:

Part I: The Invasion of Iraq: A Change in My Position

Part II: The Invasion of Iraq: The Bush Administration’s Incompetence Reduces the Benefits

Part III: The Invasion of Iraq: The Obama Administration’s Failure to Check al-Maliki

Part IV: The Invasion of Iraq: The Unreliability of US Reconstruction Policy

Mike is to be commended for publicly admitting an error — if error it be. Although I am in substantial agreement with everything he writes, I am less sure of the conclusion that the ex post results means that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake ex ante. (And whether or not it was a mistaken policy, this is separate from whether the antiwar position of many libertarians is either correct or an implication of libertarianism per se. I commented on this issue here.)

Apart from this blog post in 2007 (defending a Wall Street Journal op-ed of that same year) I do not blog about foreign policy. I try to limit my blogging to matters about which I am expert, and foreign policy is not one of them. Still, as an American citizen, I do have opinions about this, as others do. So, while the purpose of this post is mainly to link to Mike’s, here are a few preliminary and very tentative reactions of my own that I offer with considerable trepidation.

  1. The fact that serious mistakes in execution led to bad results does not by itself justify the conclusion that the initial decision to invade Iraq (or Afghanistan) were mistaken. Very serious mistakes were made in every major American war that was ultimately successful in its outcome — mistakes that ultimately could have doomed each effort to defeat. So the commission of serious mistakes alone is not enough to condemn the original decision, except in the tautological sense that any unsuccessful war was a “mistake.” The question also includes whether there was a realistic strategy that might have been employed to reach a successful conclusion by avoiding these mistakes of the past, from which we may learn in the future.
  2. Counterfactual analyses are always problematic. If the second Iraq war was actually a continuation of the first Iraq war to repel the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam, does the results of the second war render the first a mistake too? Perhaps, but this sort of analysis is never ending, leading us back to the likely wrong-headed European partition of the Middle East into nation states combining antagonistic tribes, etc. It is difficult to go from there, however, to judging the wisdom of any course of action today.
  3. Although I do not agree with how President Obama handled the wind-down and withdrawal from Iraq, the lion’s share of blame lies with the Bush administration for the reasons that Mike describes. Indeed, there might well never have been an Obama administration had it not been for how badly the Bush administration handled the aftermath of the invasion — as well as the rest of his big government, “national greatness,” “compassionate conservative” approach to governance and its results domestically. That is a lesson that Republicans need to learn if, or when, they ever return to power — a lesson that the Tea Party is trying to teach the Republican Party with mixed success.
  4. To my mind, the biggest mistake of the Bush administration was in rejecting a very strong state federalist form of government for Iraq in which the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds would each get a great deal of geographical autonomy. Instead, it opted for a strong nationalist government solution, in which there would inevitably be winners and losers, creating an intractable fight among factions to prevail or be subordinated. Ironically, conservatives criticized then-Senator Biden for voicing his support of this sensible federalist option.
  5. This is not hindsight. A federalist solution was strongly urged by many at the time and was just as strongly rejected by the Bush administration.
  6. In this respect, the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq was of a piece with its philosophy of domestic governance that paved the way for the Obama administration.
  7. How libertarians should view foreign policy in a world of nation states and non-governmental terrorist organizations is far more complicated and far less a matter of “first principles” than libertarians are often willing to admit. Libertarian first principles call for the equal protection of the fundamental liberty rights of each person. The exact contours of this protection by governments who hold a monopoly on this function against either domestic or foreign threats is often a matter of judgment. For example, speaking as a former criminal prosecutor, libertarian first principles tell us very little about how a government prosecutor’s office should be organized or administered.
  8. While I strongly favor a “noninterventionist” foreign policy, we are at present unavoidably reliant on a national government for national defense. What exactly constitutes “defense” in particular circumstances and how well any government can ever execute such a thing is a matter of grave uncertainty. As I explain in the post I link to above, however, it is a mistake simply assume that the legal principles of self-defense we apply to individuals apply to state actors who control the lives of their citizens, or to asymmetrical warfare with nongovernmental organizations.
  9. However mistaken was the decision to invade and/or how post-invasion Iraq was administered, withdrawing from Iraq in the manner that the Obama administration did may well prove to be an even bigger mistake with respect to the results.  By this I mean that, however unnecessarily costly and imperfect were the gains achieved by the Bush administration, these gains may have been unnecessarily thrown away. At least that is how matters are looking today.
  10. While the fact we are wholly dependent on a defense policy made and executed by government justifies skepticism about any proposed military action, it does not warrant a conclusion that inaction is always preferable to action.  We are now witnessing the fruits of inaction and passivity around the world that should give those “antiwar libertarians” who criticize every use of force by the U.S. pause for their own second thoughts. Assuming, that is, they are as reflective and self-critical as libertarians like Mike Rappaport.
Randy Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory, Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. His books include: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, 2d. ed 2014); and The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law (Oxford, 2d. ed. 2014).
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Eugene Volokh | August 8