Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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I Dream of Anarchy

Literally.

Last night I dreamt (whoa, spellcheck doesn’t like “dreamt”. This prompted Googling. Apparently some do not accept this spelling. Weird.) that I was at some event somewhere, and some guy showed up. He was there either as a maintenance man to fix some kind of large trailer, or he was there to interview the attendees. It was a dream, so maybe he shifted between both roles.

Anyway, he made some comment about libertarians being recalcitrant. I asked what he meant. The rest of the dream was a discussion between us. I told him the classical liberal tradition is long and broad. You might begin at Hesiod, then Aristotle. You might include interesting figures most have never heard of, like Auberon Herbert, as well as luminaries like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.

As any good conversation about liberty ought to, it turned to the question of anarchy. Not in the positive, bomb-throwing sense. Anarchy simply meaning society without a political ruler, or without the initiation of violence. I shared with him a deep and rich body of thought, from Linda and Morris Tannehill, to Lysander Spooner, to Frank Chodorov, to Roy Childs, to David Friedman (Milton’s son), to Spencer Heath MacCollum, to Murray Rothbard, to Leo Tolstoy, to Leonard Read, to Randy Barnett, to John Hasnas, to Bruce Benson, to Robert Higgs, to Edward Stringham, to Peter Leeson, to Jeffrey Tucker and more.

Then we discussed the lived experience of a great many societies at a great many periods in history – some long, some short. We talked about the Hanseatic League. We talked about free market money in Scotland. We talked about the not so wild, wild West in the U.S. before government and military arrived to “civilize” it with violence. We talked about the nearly three-hundred years of peaceful anarchy in Iceland.

We talked about every major function of the current government – from police, to courts, to rule-making, to defense, to infrastructure, to money, to education, to health care – and discovered how every one of them emerged as a market function that was only co-opted by violent monopolists late in the game, and that the monopolized version is in every way morally and practically inferior to its voluntary foundation.

I haven’t had an ideological debate or attempt to persuade anyone in years. I’ve moved into the world of action through entrepreneurship, trying to build a freer, better, more peaceful world through voluntary exchange instead of arguments. But this dream was a ton of fun. I woke up with my mind reeling through all the other stuff we didn’t even touch on. My intellectual and experiential journey to anarchism took nearly a decade and thousands such arguments, books, lectures, observations, points, and counterpoints. It felt like I crammed a few years worth into a single conversation in a dream. It was kind of a rush!

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The Soleimani Assassination: Worse Than a Crime, a Mistake

In March of 1804, French dragoons secretly crossed the Rhine into the German Margraviate of Baden. Acting on orders from Napoleon himself, they kidnapped Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien. After a hastily convened court-martial on charges of bearing arms against France, the duke was shot.

“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute,” a French official (supposedly, but probably not, Talleyrand) said of the duke’s execution: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”

That terse evaluation came immediately to mind when news broke of a January 3 US drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.  Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “Quds Force,” and nine others, died in the attack. US president Donald Trump claimed responsibility for ordering the strike and has subsequently defended that decision.

The duke’s execution outraged Europe’s aristocrats, and in particular brought Russia’s Alexander I to the conclusion that Napoleon’s power must be checked. The international reverberations created by Soleimani’s assassination are already shaping up in similar fashion.

Yes, Iran’s government is outraged and vows revenge, but that’s not surprising. It would be hard for US-Iran relations to get much worse short of all-out war.

Five of those killed in the strike were Iraqi military personnel from the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces, including their deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iraq’s outgoing prime minister denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and  of the US/Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. The speaker of the country’s parliament vowed to “put an end to US presence” in Iraq. Powerful Shiite religious and political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia forces bedeviled the US occupation after the 2003 invasion, is re-mobilizing those forces to “defend Iraq.”

NATO, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and several leaders of regimes putatively allied with the United States have likewise responded negatively to Soleimani’s assassination.

Trump’s order wasn’t even remotely legal, according to Hoyle, under US law or the 400-year international order since the Peace of Westphalia.

The attack occurred without congressional approval or even notification, let alone the declaration of war that the ever-deteriorating US Constitution requires. Unfortunately, while Congress perpetually rumbles discontent over such things, it’s likely to continue enabling, rather than punish and rein in, such abuses of presidential power.

The attack occurred on the supposedly sovereign soil of a putative ally, killing that ally’s officials and invited guests. While it’s merely an escalation, not a new phenomenon — the previous president, Barack Obama, also claimed and exercised a “right” to murder on foreign soil at will — it’s a significant escalation by a president with fewer and less loyal friends on the global stage.

Whether Trump is “wagging the dog” in an attempt to distract from impeachment, or playing “6D chess” in an attempt to get the US out of Iraq at the demand of the Iraqis themselves (I’ve heard both claims), he’s turning friends against him and currying renewed European sympathy for Iran.

The prospects for peace on Earth have receded significantly since Christmas Day.

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Iraq: America’s Other “Longest War”

As the calendar prepares to flip from 2019 to 2020, protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad.  As I write this, the action — a response to US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which killed at least 25 and wounded more than 50 — hasn’t yet become a reprise of the Iran hostage crisis of 40 years ago, but it’s eerily reminiscent.

Although few Americans seem to notice, Iraq is arguably the second-longest war in US history.

Mainstream media often refer to the 18-year US occupation of Afghanistan as “America’s longest war.” That claim is wrong on its face.

Setting aside a century of “Indian wars” and two decades of involvement in Vietnam prior to the 1965 escalation, the Korean War handily takes the “longest war” prize:  It began in 1950 and has merely been in ceasefire status, with occasional flare-ups and no final settlement, since 1953. If wars were people, the Korean War would be collecting Social Security.

The US war in Iraq is approaching its 28th birthday, also with no end in sight.

It began in January of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm (“the liberation of Kuwait” from Iraqi occupation). The 12 years between that “mother of all battles” and the 2003 US invasion were punctuated by US bombings to facilitate a Kurdish secession movement in the north,  protect persecuted Shiites in the south, and provide convenient distractions from assorted Clinton administration peccadilloes.

Following the short, sharp conventional fighting phase of the invasion, the war remained a very hot conflict — a combination of civil war and anti-occupation insurgency — for years following US president George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement in May of 2003.

A brief cooling period accompanied Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, but by 2014 American troops (and “civilian contractors,” i.e mercenaries) were once again arriving to intervene in the new regime’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The airstrikes which sparked the current protests were carried out in response to a rocket attack on a regime military base in which one of the aforementioned American mercenaries was killed.

The bigger picture:

The US government is using Iraq as a staging area for its ongoing actions in Syria and against Iran (which it blames for this specific rocket attack and for its backing of militias in Iraq in general).

US president Donald Trump talks a good “let’s get out of all these stupid wars” game. But in actuality he has increased, and continues to increase, the size of US military deployments to, and the tempo of US military operations in, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Several thousand US troops remain in Iraq and the war looks likely to stretch into a fourth decade.

There is, of course, an alternative: Trump could put his money where his mouth is and begin withdrawing US troops from the region instead of continuing to pour American blood and treasure into a series of conflicts which should never have happened in the first place.

Peace on Earth? Maybe not. But the US going home and minding its own business would be a good start.

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The Social Conservatism of Hollywood

[warning: spoilers]

The new Uncut Gems is further evidence for a thesis I’ve long maintained: Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood makes a lot of socially conservative movies.  When you strip away the glamorous actors and cool music, the message is clear: Live a responsible bourgeois life or you will soon be severely punished.

This is most obvious for hard-boiled crime films.  The lead characters in such stories engage in an array of impulsive, brutal, and parasitical behaviors.  Before the movie ends, almost all of the characters have been shot, stabbed, beaten, imprisoned, or ostracized.   Many are dead, often in grotesquely inventive ways.  Howard Ratner, the lead character in Uncut Gems, repeatedly commits fraud and adultery.  He spins a web of lies and makes high-stakes gambles.  In each scene, he acts on his worst impulses.  For every success his duplicity brings, two failures spring.  When he thinks he’s won, another criminal murders him.  Even if Ratner had survived, though, his dishonesty and lechery would have cost him his family.

The same goes for The Godfather saga, Goodfellas (or any Scorsese crime movie), Pulp Fiction (or any Tarantino crime movie), Fargo (or any Coen brothers crime movie), Snatch (or any Cockney crime movie), as well as Scarface, New Jack City, and Boyz n the Hood.  In crime movies, people who engage in criminal behavior suffer, usually at the hands of their fellow criminals.  If they don’t get you, the cops will.

While crime movies focus on men, their female characters also catch hell.  Women who sleep with criminals – usually against their family’s advice – end up pregnant and abandoned, if not beaten or murdered.  Don Corleone treats his wife with old-world gentility, but she still lives to see her eldest son full of lead.  (Michael, her youngest son, has the filial piety to delay the murder of his elder brother until after her death).

The message of all this cinema: Follow the path of bourgeois virtue.  Work hard, keep the peace, abstain from alcohol, have very few sexual partners, and keep your whole family far away from anyone who lives otherwise.  Think about how many fictional characters would have lived longer if they never set foot in a bar.

Is this the message the writers intend to send?  Unlikely.  Instead, they try to create engrossing stories – and end up weaving morality tales.

True, Hollywood could make movies where criminals are “victims of their toxic social environment.”  It could make movies where the people who face retribution are the self-righteous bourgeoisie who “created toxic social environment in the first place.”  (This is arguably the plot of Natural Born Killers, though that’s giving it too much credit).  Such stories, however, would be sorely lacking in emotional truth.  You can’t credibly depict the life of a criminal without showing his choices; and when you see his choices, you see all the ways he could have done otherwise, “toxic social environment” notwithstanding.

Similarly, you could make crime movies that end before the criminals get their comeuppance.  Yet such stories would be dramatically inert.  If a bank robber gets killed on his eighth heist, audiences want to see heists number 1, 2, and 8.  If the bad guy gets it in the end, who cares about his intermediate successes?  Let’s fast forward to the Day of Reckoning.

Does this mean that Hollywood movies actually crime?  I doubt it.  The viewers most in need of lessons in bourgeois virtue are probably too impulsive to reflect on the moral of the story.  They’re captivated instead by the gunplay and machismo.  Yet if you’re paying attention, the moral of these stories remains: Unless your parents are criminals, listen to your parents.

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The Miracle of the Market

At this time of year especially, the wide variety of individual human preferences and interests becomes abundantly clear. My children’s Christmas lists display this diversity: Molly (13) wants a doughnut pan to feed her baking passion, Jack (11) wants anything tech-related, Abby (9) wants drawing supplies, and Sam (6) wants Lego pieces and stuffed animals. How do the elves satisfy these assorted preferences? It’s the miracle of the market.

FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, wrote about this miracle in his classic 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Writing cleverly from the pencil’s perspective, Read explains that even something as seemingly simple as a pencil is an extraordinary human creation involving countless decentralized, spontaneous actions prompted and facilitated by a free, global marketplace. The 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith, described this unplanned process of social cooperation as the “Invisible Hand,” leading to collective human progress and abundance when each individual pursues his or her own interests. Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

There is no central planner, no mastermind, as Read says, capable of making a simple pencil. Instead, there are the loggers who harvest the cedar from the Pacific Northwest and the innumerable actions that go into the loggers’ work, including the manufacture of their saws and machinery, the growing of hemp for their ropes, and even the cups of coffee they drink. All of these spontaneous actions contribute to the production of a simple pencil—and that’s only for its wood. Read then describes the graphite from Sri Lanka, the wax from Mexico, the miners of zinc and copper to create the small metal piece that attaches the eraser, which is made with rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Read concludes:

There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how…Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

More profound than the dispersed and unplanned creation of the simple pencil is, as Read explains, the fact that it is accomplished without coercion through the uniquely human act of peaceful, voluntary exchange. Read writes:

For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

There are many miracles that get celebrated at this time of year, but one we shouldn’t forget is the miracle of the market and the power of free, voluntary exchange to unleash human creativity and inventiveness. Let’s take to heart Read’s words:

Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Happy Holidays!

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