In part one, part two, part three, and part four of this series, I examined issues raised by Objectivist Peter Schwartz’s new book, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America. I’ve addressed problems with Schwartz’s analysis of the U.N., foreign aid, Saudi Arabia, and the history of U.S. foreign policy. I now turn to his examination of the current war and his projection of a foreign policy ideal.
The Current War
To some extent, it can be said that Schwartz retains some vestiges of Rand’s “isolationist” predilections. He is careful to emphasize that the freedom philosophy of the U.S. “does not mean we ought to declare war on every tyrant in the world. Before we decide to wage war,” Schwartz explains, “there must exist a serious threat to our freedom. Our government is not the world’s policeman. It is, however, America’s policeman” (15). This is why, Schwartz maintains, foreign policy cannot be “divorced from the moral principle of freedom. If freedom is the basic value being safeguarded, then our foreign policy can give us unambiguous guidelines: we use our power to preserve that value—and only to preserve that value” (65). For Schwartz, then, thankfully, “it is not our business to resolve some distant conflict centering on which sub-tribe should enslave the other.” Indeed, when the proper moral goal is left undefended or undefined, “everything [becomes] our business,” and what results is an unprincipled, “ad hoc foreign policy” (67).
In terms of guiding moral principles, Schwartz’s argument is basically sound.
Moreover, by limiting the role of U.S. military action overseas, Schwartz justifiably leaves open the possibility for military response in the face of legitimate threats to security. Schwartz believes, however, that “Iraq ... was a threat to us—not nearly the threat presented by some other nations, but a threat nonetheless” (44), and on this basis, he supported the invasion of that country.
Alas, he and I disagree on this. In my view, Iraq was most assuredly not a “serious threat to our freedom” and should not have been invaded or occupied by the U.S. military. As I have argued in many essays over the past two years, Hussein could have been contained and deterred from future aggressive actions.
Though Schwartz supports the Iraq war, he maintains that it is Iran that is the “vanguard” for all those Islamic groups that are merely “parts of one whole.” Schwartz’s emphasis here on the “ideology of Islamic totalitarianism” (24)—and kudos to him for not using that tired phrase “Islamofascism,” which distorts the meaning of the word fascism—is important to note:
The promoters of Islamic totalitarianism wish to establish a world in which religion is an omnipresent force, in which everyone is compelled to obey the mullahs, in which the political system inculcates the duty to serve, in which there is no distinction between mosque and state. (25) ... America is a nation rooted in certain principles. It is a culture of reason, of science, of individualism, of freedom. The culture of the Muslim universe is the opposite in every crucial respect. It is a culture steeped in mysticism rather than reason, in superstition rather than science, in tribalism rather than individualism, in authoritarianism rather than freedom. (26)
Though Schwartz gets some crucial things right in this passage, I do think there are certain complexities he does not grasp; for example, it is not at all clear that the problems he cites are strictly the result of Islamic theology or some combination of that doctrine with specifically Arab cultures. (See this discussion with Jonathan Dresner and Gus diZerega on L&P, for example.) Schwartz readily admits too that, “[i]ronically, it was life in the Islamic countries during Europe’s Dark Ages that was further advanced and less oppressive—because the Muslims at the time were under the influence of a more pro-reason philosophy, a philosophy they subsequently abandoned” (27). In this larger ideological war, however, Schwartz argues that the U.S. “should always give moral support to any people who are fighting for freedom against an oppressive government.”
But it is Iran that remains “the pre-eminent source of Islamic totalitarianism today” (30), and it is therefore “the government of Iran that needs to be eliminated,” in Schwartz’s estimation (32). By targeting Iran, “the primary enemy,” “the chief sponsor of terrorism,” all the other “lesser” Muslim states—“Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan—will likely be deterred” (32-33).
I don’t believe it’s that simple. Schwartz tells us that a “principled foreign policy anticipates future consequences” (62). But, given the difficulties of invading and occupying Iraq, and the current drain on U.S. money, military, and munitions, I don’t believe that Schwartz has given much thought to the long-term consequences of invading and occupying Iran, which is nearly 4 times the size of Iraq, and has more than 3 times the population. (And if Schwartz does not envision invasion and occupation, then it is legitimate to ask if he, like some other Objectivists, envisions the decimating of the entire country—see here, for example.) Aside from the fact that a large-scale military option would almost certainly require the reinstatement of the draft and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, it would most likely short-circuit the existing and growing liberal tendencies among the vast majority of younger Iranians who yearn to topple the mullahs. It could very seriously destabilize Iraq as well. (See my various archived posts on Iran, here and here.)
It should also be pointed out that “Islamic totalitarianism” is no more of a monolith than Communism was. Just as there were deep divisions in the Communist “bloc” during the Cold War, so too are there deep divisions in the Islamic world. These divisions might be profitably exploited by U.S. policymakers, who must also be careful not to be consumed by them—as in Iraq, where Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite forces might opt for civil war rather than the ballot box.
There are, of course, consequences for a policy of inaction in the face of a real or imminent threat. But those of us who have opposed the Iraq war and any current extension of that war into Iran have not embraced “inaction”; what we have embraced is a strictly delimited strategic vision focused on precise military targets, which seeks to marginalize extremist theocratic forces—and a much broader intellectual vision focused on the realm of ideas. Ultimately, this is an ideological and cultural conflict. And as Rand observed, while a military battle of any scope is like a “political battle”—“merely a skirmish fought with muskets[,] a philosophical battle is a nuclear war”—and only rational ideas will ultimately win it (“‘What Can One Do?’”).
The Folly of Nation-Building
To his great credit, however, Schwartz does recognize the futility of trying to impose liberal-democratic institutions on the Middle East, by empowering “various tribal and political factions” in occupied countries (49). Though he supported the Iraq war, Schwartz argues nonetheless that “[t]he U.S. government does not have a moral obligation to the Iraqis to make them free.” He observes insightfully:
[C]ontrary to the claims of the Bush administration, freedom is not universally desired. It does not automatically come into being once a dictator is overthrown. The history of the world is largely that of one tyranny replacing another. It took millennia before a nation—the United States of America—was founded for the express purpose of safeguarding the freedom of each citizen. Across the globe today, individual liberty is still the exception rather than the rule. Freedom is an idea. It cannot be forced upon a culture that refuses to value it. It cannot be forced upon a society wedded to tribalist, collectivist values. In Afghanistan, for example, the newly drafted constitution contains such laudable provisions as: “Freedom of expression is inviolable.” However, that same constitution mandates that “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam”—that the government be responsible for “organizing and improving the conditions of mosques, madrasas and religious centers”—that no political parties may function if their views are “contrary to the provision[s] of the sacred religion of Islam”—that the national flag feature the phrase “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” Is it conceivable that, under such strictures, the individual will be allowed to think freely? Freedom is such an alien principle in that culture of entrenched mysticism that it will take many years of rational education before it is understood, let alone accepted. (50-51)
But Schwartz subverts his own good insights with a dash of myopia:
To lead the Iraqis to freedom, whether in the next year or the next generation, requires that we “impose” our values on them—i.e., that we expose them to the philosophy of a free society. They need to be given the Declaration of Independence to study. Their schools must teach the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke and Adam Smith. The Governing Council must be instructed to eject the communists and the jihadists. (51)
With all due respect, not even U.S. schools teach Jefferson, Locke, and Smith with any regularity, and if our universities ever ejected communists and other left-wing fellow travelers from the classrooms, the country’s academic population would be decimated. How on earth is the United States going to promote an individualist ideological strategy in Iraq when it doesn’t embrace one within its own national borders?
Yes, of course, I know: It’s all relative. The U.S. may not be a genuinely free society, but it is much freer and more individualist than almost any society on earth. Yes, of course, the Iraqis need to understand the principles of a free society, the social system that is “capitalism, the unknown ideal,” and the institution of private property that it subsumes. But how are Iraqis ever going to appreciate any of these principles when privatization is not on the menu for social change and crony corporatism for favored U.S. companies reconstructing Iraq is the meal of the day?
Schwartz is right to criticize the kinds of “ad hoc” policies that make for “irresolution and ineffectualness” in U.S. military campaigns (61-62). And he is right, and in sync with Rand, that the war we face is, ultimately, “a battle of ideas” (53). But how can the U.S. begin to wage this war when it has surrendered its intellectual ammunition, and routinely sabotages its own individualist political principles?
The Inextricable Connection Between Domestic and Foreign Policy
Rand argued that, to regain those principles, it is necessary to understand the inextricable connection between—and reciprocally reinforcing insidious effects of—government intervention at home and abroad. She insisted that “[f]oreign policy is merely a consequence of domestic policy” (“The Shanghai Gesture, Part III”). This led her to demand a complete “revision of [U.S.] foreign policy, from its basic premises on up,” which would entail a simultaneous repudiation of the welfare state at home and the warfare state abroad, an end to “foreign aid and [to] all forms of international self-immolation.” For Rand,“a radically different foreign policy” required a radically different domestic one (“The Wreckage of the Consensus”).
Schwartz comes close to recognizing, in an abstract way, the connections between domestic and foreign policy; he argues that America’s “philosophic default ... pervades all areas of American politics, domestic as well as foreign.” He recognizes, in one or two sentences here and there, that there is a relationship between foreign policy and “our expanding welfare state” (68). But he leaves unanalyzed all of the actual social and political relations that would make this connection fully transparent. In other words, he leaves unexamined what Rand thought crucial to the analysis.
In the end, Schwartz presents an unrealistic solution:
The challenge we face lies not in physically disarming al Qaeda, but in intellectually arming our politicians. If they truly grasp the meaning of freedom, they will readily undertake the steps to safeguard it. That is, if we can just get them to understand what it means to defend the individual’s right to his life, his liberty and the pursuit of his happiness, we will have little difficulty in getting them to defend us against the ugly threats from abroad. (69)
This won’t happen ... because it can’t happen, as long as America is ruled by a predatory political system. It is not in the narrowly defined “interests” of politicians or the groups they serve to “grasp the meaning of freedom.” As Rand argued so forcefully, the globalization of the predatory state and its neofascist political economy can only engender “parasitism, favoritism, corruption and greed for the unearned”; its power to dispense privilege, Rand emphasizes, “cannot be used honestly” (“The Pull Peddlers”). It will require far more than simply changing the views of a few politicians; it will require a comprehensive, systemic change.
What most strikes me about Schwartz’s book—and I’ve only been able to examine a few aspects of it— is that it tends to deal too abstractly, too rationalistically, with the principles of a “moral” foreign policy. That is, it provides us with good core moral premises and deduces an ostensibly moral foreign policy “ideal” for America, without paying much attention to the concrete context and historical circumstances that have led America so far astray from the celebrated ideal. Rand could also celebrate an “unknown ideal”—but rarely at the expense of a rigorous analysis of the past, and the present, the actual, as a means to evaluate the potential for real change.
I’ll offer one other observation in closing: I’m somewhat uncomfortable with Schwartz’s use of the phrase “self-interest” to describe any government’s foreign policy, especially one that exercises territorial sovereignty not over an ideal capitalist social system, but over a mixed economy, the very kind of “neofascist” or liberal-corporatist social system that Rand regarded as an institutionalized civil war. In such a system, the pursuit of individual self-interest is not even possible without sacrificing somebody else’s interests in the process. How, then, can a mysterious, ineffable government suddenly rise above this “orgy of self-sacrifice” in the realm of foreign policy and pursue the common “self-interests” of its citizenry? Governments are not separable from the groups and the individuals who compose them. “In a non-free society,” Rand stated—even in a society such as we have today, where freedom has been compromised by state intervention—“no pursuit of any interests is possible to anyone; nothing is possible but gradual and general destruction” (“The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests”).
This is not a prescription for inaction; one cannot expect everything to change before anything can be done to thwart serious attacks on America. But Rand’s insights provide us with a “warning label” for those who think that today’s government, as currently constituted, can act as a panacea for our global woes. If we are to aim for “a moral ideal for America,” then it will take more than a “foreign policy of self-interest.” It will take a veritable philosophic and cultural revolution, one that radically overturns the welfare-warfare state and its sacrificial, collectivist ideological underpinnings: root, tree, and branch.
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