There have been a distressing number of occasions in which someone has said to me that they embrace libertarian principles and positions—“except for foreign policy.” That stance has usually translated into loyal support for the U.S. government’s militarized approach to world affairs during the Cold War and throughout the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Libertarians who make an exception for foreign policy typically not only endorsed NATO’s Cold War incarnation, they also have defended the expansion of the alliance into Eastern Europe since the late 1990s.
Libertarian hawks also were vocal supporters of the “War on Terror,” including the Bush administration propaganda campaign for military action against Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Brink Lindsey, at the time a vice president at the Cato Institute and now serving in a similar position at the nominally libertarian Niskanen Center, epitomized the logic the hawkish faction adopted. Lindsey warned that “the barbarians of totalitarian Islamism are the clear and present danger. To carry the fight against them, we must proceed on many fronts. First, and most obviously, we must go after the terrorist organizations themselves.” In addition, “we must make every effort to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands. Here attention has focused, understandably, on confronting rogue states like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And, indeed, such states must be disarmed — no ifs, ands, or buts.” Writing more than three months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he asserted: “When conflict is unavoidable, as with Afghanistan and Iraq, that policy will rely on the force of American arms.”
In another article, Lindsey was even more candid about his desire for an armed crusade against Iraq. “I would support military action against Iraq even if 9/11 had never happened and there were no such thing as Al Qaeda. After all, I supported the Gulf War back in 1991 in the hope of toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime before it fulfilled its nuclear ambitions.”
More recently, several self-described libertarians are among the most avid supporters of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Jonathan Casey of the Students for Liberty echoed the Biden administration’s position that Moscow’s actions were entirely unprovoked. He stated bluntly that “any notion that this invasion was caused by NATO must be rejected outright.” Indeed, “NATO was a true threat to Russia in imagination only; blaming NATO is nothing more than a convenient way to excuse the Russian invasion.”
Casey at least drew back from advocating outright U.S. military intervention in Ukraine. Other “libertarians,” though, have been far less reticent about wanting Washington to pursue an aggressive policy regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. Cato Institute cultural studies fellow Cathy Young eagerly favors that option and has conducted a shrill campaign to demonize Russia as a dangerous, implacable enemy of the United States. She even defended the “Russiagate” conspiracy theory that has now been thoroughly debunked in John Durham’s long-awaited report. Young also shows no hesitation about backing the current U.S./NATO proxy war using Ukraine as a pawn against Russia. In terms of military aid, she insists that Washington needs “to give enough—and fast enough—to allow Ukraine a meaningful victory, not just an endless slog.” Amazingly, she seems oblivious to the multiple dangers America incurs by waging a proxy war against a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons and regards Ukraine as a vital security interest.
I’ve been both puzzled and dismayed at supposed libertarians who make the “except for foreign policy” caveat. It is akin to saying that one is a vegetarian—except for relishing steaks and hamburgers. At best, it is naïve to assume that the United States can launch an endless array of covert missions and overt military interventions around the world and still move toward becoming a freer, more libertarian country. A global interventionist foreign policy undermines all other worthwhile political, economic, and social values.
Such a policy requires a huge military and massive taxes, since Washington cannot run a global empire on the cheap. It is no coincidence that the size and cost of the federal government has exploded since the United States took on global security “obligations” after 1945. Today, the United States spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined.
The corrosive effects of an interventionist foreign policy go well beyond financial considerations. Being able to intervene quickly in locations around the world on behalf of allies and clients requires the centralization of decision-making. The result has been a dangerously powerful imperial presidency that has disrupted the Constitutional system of checks and balances. There especially has been a withering of the congressional war power and the any restraint it might exercise on presidential military adventurism. Another manifestation is the growth of a menacing surveillance apparatus headed by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on and harass Americans who might challenge the dominant foreign policy paradigm.
Hawkish libertarians need to wake up. They cannot promote a pro-liberty agenda and yet endorse an approach to international affairs that fatally undermines that objective. Policy regarding Ukraine is the latest test of how genuine one’s commitment is to the goal of a downsized, much more restrained, U.S. government. Once again, too many libertarians are spectacularly failing that test.