Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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Moral Approximates

 “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” – Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Speech

During the Cold War, folks like Ronald Reagan accused their domestic opponents of believing in the “moral equivalence” of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Having lived through the era, I am confident that believers in moral equivalence existed.  Knowing the relevant history, I agree that this was an absurd belief.  However bad the United States was, the Soviet Union was vastly worse.

If you want to nitpick, admittedly, we never find literal moral equivalents in real world.  Why?  Because in a continuous world, one side in any conflict is bound to be at least a little worse.  Still, careful examination of real-world conflict does occasionally uncover not moral equivalents, but moral approximates.  Though the two sides’ moral status is not precisely equal, they are morally more-or-less the same.

It’s easiest to identify examples that are far away in time and place.  During the Wars of Religion, who was worse – the Catholics or the Protestants?  During World War I, who was worse – the Germans or the Russians?  During the War of the Roses, who was worse – the Yorks or the Lancasters?  You could plead ignorance.  Yet even if you studied the history for a year, you would plausibly conclude that the two sides were moral approximates – both sinned so egregiously that it really is hard to know who was worse.

For recent and ongoing conflicts, assertions of moral approximation naturally inspire far more pushback.  If we were rational, however, the opposite would be true.  The very fact that people have strong emotions about recent and ongoing conflicts is a strong reason to discount their judgment.  Furthermore, when a conflict is recent or ongoing, we usually lack a great deal of not-yet-released relevant information.  No one is likely to scare up shocking new revelations about the Lancasters, but in fifty years we’ll have a much better understanding of what the Trump administration actually did.

Those limitations in mind, here are the top three moral approximations I am willing to defend.

1. Communism and Nazism are moral approximates. Why?  Both movements were fanatical attempts to build dystopian societies – and both self-righteously murdered tens of millions of innocent people.  Contrary to much propaganda, Communists did not have noticeably better motives.  Both groups imagined that a totalitarian society would be a big improvement over the status quo – and recklessly embraced the necessity of mass murder to get there.

2. Socialism and fascism are moral approximates.  Why?  Socialism is a toned-down version of Communism; fascism is a toned-down version of Nazism.  As toned-down versions, they aim for much less, and murder far fewer people in the process.  Yet the vision of both movements – society as a big family with a common purpose – remains dystopian.  And while their methods are far less brutal than Communism or Nazism, socialism and fascism both casually advocate pervasive coercion for flimsy reasons.

(My main doubt here is that while I’ve repeatedly publicly debated socialists, I would not so engage a fascist.  Doesn’t that show that I think fascism is markedly worse?  Not exactly.  The main reason I don’t debate fascists is that avowed fascism is now so low-status that its adherents are low-quality and scary.  In a world where fascists were as mainstream as socialists, I would debate them).

3. The Democratic and Republican parties are moral approximates.  Why?  Both are dogmatic, emotional, and demagogic.  Neither party internalizes the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility – or dwells on the possibility that they might be mistreating people who don’t agree with them.  Both parties say they want various radical changes, many of which seem very bad.  The policies Democrats and Republicans actually impose when they have power are similarly mediocre, though that doesn’t stop them from rhetorically making mountains out of molehills.  On immigration, for example, the Democratic-Republican debate basically comes down to whether the border should be 98% closed or 99% closed.  Though I prefer 98% to 99%, it’s approximately the same.

I am well-aware that both Democrats and Republicans will protest angrily being lumped together; in their eyes, the differences between their parties are “huge.”  My question for them: In 200 years, how big will these “huge differences” look to historians?   Yes, during the Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants mutually called each other servants of the Antichrist.  Today, however, we can plainly see that both sides were unhinged.

Similarly, if you carefully studied the politics of, say, France in 1970, would you really conclude that the arguments that enraged contemporary French partisans were, in fact, a big deal?

Back in 2016, many Democrats told me that Trump’s election exposed the sheer evil of the Republican Party.  In a way, this understates.  I say that the mere fact that a man like Trump did well in the primaries shows that the Republican Party is rotten.  However, I’d say the same about Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016.  The mere fact that a man like Sanders did well in the primaries shows that the Democratic Party is rotten, too.

You could respond, “Suppose Democrats and Republicans really are moral approximates.  Shouldn’t an economist, of all people, still be eager to discover the slightly lesser evil?”  My answer: If I were America’s kingmaker, then yes.  But when I’m just one voice among tens of millions, no.  While I’m always happy to share my views with curious Democrats or Republicans, I’m too much of a puritan to ever join either party.

P.S. Lest anyone misinterpret me, I think the Democratic and Republican parties are markedly better than socialism and fascism, which are in turn markedly better than Communism and Nazism.  Mathematically: D≈R>>S≈F>>C≈N.

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Being Forced to Help Not Helping

I want you to hunger for liberty; to crave the freedom to do everything you have a right to do, even if you choose to not do it all. I want you to want liberty as much as I want it.

I also want you to respect the liberty of others. To govern yourself and no one else — this is your primary obligation to others.

I realize some people are scared by the thought of liberty or freedom. I’ve even seen people complain that libertarians want to “force people to be free.” This has become something of an in-joke among libertarians; we want to take over and leave you alone.

No one can be forced to be free, and I wouldn’t if I could. This would defeat the purpose without accomplishing anything.

If liberty isn’t freely chosen, it’s worthless. It won’t be valued and it would be easy to give it up the first time some creepy politician says you need to give up some liberty so you can be safer.

You’ve got to want liberty bad enough to fight for it against those who want to violate it. You’ve got to want it bad enough to do whatever it takes once you discover that protesting and voting don’t work.

If you don’t value liberty this much, you won’t care enough to make an effort to protect it. You’ll never make liberty a priority.

I can’t change your priorities.

What I can do is remind you of everything you’re cheating yourself out of, hint at all you are missing, and tease you with the possibilities you may not have considered. I can also share with you my confidence that you don’t need to be governed or controlled. You can handle life.

To say I’m willing to leave you alone means I wouldn’t try to run your life. It doesn’t mean to leave you without social support. There’s no reason you can’t ask for help; nothing to prevent you from reaching out to help others without being forced to “help” them by legislative threat.

Being forced to help isn’t helping. Complying with a threat doesn’t make you a compassionate or moral person. It shows you can be manipulated and easily scared into doing what someone else thinks you should instead of acting on your own values.

I’m not willing to do this to you. I want liberty and I respect you too much to violate your liberty by forcing it on you.

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The Benefits of My Evangelical Upbringing

I grew up in a pretty conservative Midwestern protestant situation. I was homeschooled and church was a big part of our social life. There are plenty of things to mock and joke about in this milieu (and I do!) but there are some under-appreciated benefits.

There are benefits to not getting into sex, drugs, and partying as a young person, but that’s not what I’ve appreciated most. As time has passed, I’ve seen other benefits I didn’t think about at the time. I took them for granted and assumed they were omnipresent.

Those benefits are philosophical. Epistemological, not aesthetic.

While not ubiquitous in Christian upbringings, the particular niche of Evangelical Protestantism I came up in was very focused on intensive Bible study, theology, and examining questions of meaning, free will, good and evil. There was an expectation that you should be able to logically prove every belief, examine arguments against it, and wrestle until you had coherent, non-contradictory ideas. Discussing claims made in sermons and questioning their accuracy, alignment with scripture, or logical consistency was normal.

There was utmost respect for reason and analytic philosophy. Difficult scriptures were studied in depth, arguments on all sides examined, original Greek and Hebrew checked, historical context learned, and commentaries consulted.

I always enjoyed this. I liked studying the Bible and various theologians. I loved their debates and disagreements. I was fascinated by questions of fate vs. free will.

There was a sense in which we Christians always felt the need to, “Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that you have”. You didn’t just believe stuff, it was incumbent on you to really examine it and understand it, and be able to explain it even to antagonists. I remember diving into apologetics and preparing to be attacked from all sides by classmates and professors when I took college philosophy classes.

I was disappointed.

Everyone in the class was an atheist (this was the very early 2000’s, before the resurgence of spiritual interest common today), but reflexively so. It was a default setting. No one had any arguments. None of them seemed to have examined anything. And it didn’t seem to trouble them. I was looking for some fights! I wanted to challenge and be challenged. It was as if everyone – even those wanting to major in philosophy – didn’t much care to examine the most fundamental questions of being and existence and morality and meaning. They would laugh at or dismiss ideas sometimes, but freeze up if asked to explain.

This was a real shock to me.

I had one TA who asked any theists to raise their hand. I was the only one. Some people snickered. He said, “Don’t laugh. All the best analytic philosopher were theists. Aquinas would run circles around most of you. Do you know why? Have you engaged this stuff?” He was an atheist moving towards agnosticism, but he had mad respect for anyone who did good philosophy (I later discovered he became a Bhuddist and quit academia. He was my favorite philosophy professor, so I’m not surprised). There was one other philosophy prof who was a Christian, and everyone was afraid to debate him. I think he dreamed in airtight symbolic logic.

I didn’t realize at the time that the intellectual tradition I’d inherited in all those Bible studies and debates and books was straight from Aristotle. The more I studied the history of philosophy, the more I realized I wasn’t the one who was wacky or out of step. Questions of God and religion had been taken the most seriously by the most serious thinkers. The whole Protestant project was, in a way, a big philosophical “eff you” to those who said don’t think for yourself, just act out the rituals. It was a celebration of reason. (This is not to say Orthodoxy and Catholicism do not retain a lot of sound philosophy, or that Protestantism always does. All religion tends to have interesting ideas at its core, and devolve into a less rigorous social movement subject to capture as it grows).

I often wonder how people go about their lives acting on important core ideas and assumptions without seeming to have any interest in or feel any necessity to examine, define, and make logical sense of those ideas and assumptions. Being wrong is one thing. Being uninterested in examining tacit truth claims is another.

I’m not looking down on people who are uninterested in or not conversant in inquiry into these things. I just don’t understand it. And because I value getting to the why of things, I am very grateful that I grew up in an arena that prized the most foundational questions, and expected one to be intellectually and morally accountable for their own beliefs – and comfortable being a bit of an outsider.

I must’ve seemed so weird. An early teen spending hours underlining, cross-referencing, diagramming, checking translations in my Hebrew-Greek keyword Bible, writing arguments and counter-arguments. Fortunately in my social circles, it wasn’t weird at all.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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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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