A Response to Professor Cooper on the War in Afghanistan

David R. Henderson
July 23, 2009
Before getting to his criticism of my case against the war in Afghanistan1, Professor Barry Cooper spends the first half of his article on his various objections to libertarianism. In his first paragraph, he asks, “What is libertarianism?” and adds, “Henderson does not provide us with an account of what he means.” There’s a reason I didn’t define libertarianism: I never used the words “libertarian” or “libertarianism.” That was a word that the editors of this publication put in the title of my article.

A Response to Professor Cooper on the War in Afghanistan

David R. Henderson
July 23, 2009
Before getting to his criticism of my case against the war in Afghanistan1, Professor Barry Cooper spends the first half of his article on his various objections to libertarianism. In his first paragraph, he asks, “What is libertarianism?” and adds, “Henderson does not provide us with an account of what he means.” There’s a reason I didn’t define libertarianism: I never used the words “libertarian” or “libertarianism.” That was a word that the editors of this publication put in the title of my article.
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The War in Afghanistan

Before getting to his criticism of my case against the war in Afghanistan1, Professor Barry Cooper spends the first half of his article on his various objections to libertarianism. In his first paragraph, he asks, “What is libertarianism?” and adds, “Henderson does not provide us with an account of what he means.” There’s a reason I didn’t define libertarianism: I never used the words “libertarian” or “libertarianism.” That was a word that the editors of this publication put in the title of my article.

It is true that I am a libertarian and proudly so. Also, the case I made against the war in Afghanistan is one that many libertarians would agree with. But one does not need to be a libertarian to agree with my case. My case rises or falls independent of the validity of libertarianism. Indeed, my case is simply the application of principles to relationships between governments. And what is striking is that, when Professor Cooper finally gets around to criticizing my case, he does little damage to it.

Throughout his piece, Professor Cooper insists on the importance of facts. I agree. It is striking, therefore, that in recounting my case, he gets a key fact wrong. Specifically, Professor Cooper refers to what he calls my “imaginary scenario,” in which someone from country B who lives in country C makes a terrorist attack on people from country A.

In fact, as I stated in my article, this scenario was not imaginary at all—it actually happened. I purposely kept the identities of the countries hidden so that the reader would focus on the dilemma rather than on the specific countries involved. The dilemma is this: if country C’s government refuses to extradite the terrorist so that he can be tried in country B, is the government of country B justified in attacking people in country C?

These facts, as I pointed out, fit two cases: (1) the case of Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists, but also (2) the case of Venezuelan national Luis Posada Carriles, a terrorist who is alleged to have masterminded an attack on a Cuban airliner in which 73 people were murdered, and who now hides out in the United States. What I wanted readers to do was to ask themselves whether the U.S. government’s refusal to extradite the alleged suspect was sufficient justification for Venezuela’s government to attack the United States. And if, as I would bet, virtually all readers would agree with me that the answer is clearly no, then how can one justify a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, a case in which the facts are similar?

Although Professor Cooper never makes his case crystal clear, he does see some differences in facts between the two situations and seems to argue that these differences are enough to make an invasion of Afghanistan not justified and an invasion of the United States justified. He accuses me of the “blending of fact and fiction.” However, Professor Cooper neglects to cite even one example of my use of fiction. He can’t, and the reason is that I wrote about actual cases.

So let’s put the issue of fiction aside and see what facts Professor Cooper adduces to justify invasion in one case and not in the other.

First, he challenges my statement that the U.S. government should first have presented evidence to the Taliban of Osama bin Laden’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks. He quotes me correctly as saying that the U.S. government should have made a serious attempt to bring these criminals to justice. But, he argues,
“lawyers unleashed in South Waziristan or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas would quickly become lawyers dead.” He may be right, but I never suggested unleashing the lawyers to the wilder parts of Afghanistan. Professor Cooper doesn’t challenge what I wrote, which is that the government should have presented evidence to the Taliban. As I’m sure Professor Cooper knows, the U.S. government had dealings with the Taliban just months prior to 9/11, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a subsidy, courtesy of us long-suffering U.S. taxpayers, to Afghanistan. Powell surely had his bodyguards present and
he returned safely.

Second, an apparently crucial fact for Professor Cooper is the U.S. judge’s reasoning that the alleged Cuban terrorist should not be deported because he faced possible torture in Venezuela. Professor Cooper writes, “It is preposterous to pretend that bin Laden would face torture in America and that such a possibility would ever be adduced by a Taliban lawyer as a reason why bin Laden would not be deported to America.”

Really? Have the facts about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay gone unnoticed by someone who professes allegiance to facts2? Even if we couldn’t be certain that the U.S. government tortures some of its prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, can we be sure that they wouldn’t face “possible” torture? And why would it be so unimaginable to Professor Cooper that a Taliban lawyer would hesitate to send bin Laden to America on those grounds? As Professor Cooper surely must recognize, bin Laden had a large influence on the Taliban.

Third, Professor Cooper highlights an important difference between the Venezuela case and the U.S. case, a difference that I also highlighted: In the Venezuela case, one known terrorist suspect is given sanctuary in the United States, whereas in the U.S. case, a large band of terrorist suspects is given sanctuary in
Afghanistan. But for this difference to be relevant, Professor Cooper must maintain that if the United States government gave sanctuary to such a group, then a Venezuelan attack on the United States would be justified. Is that what he believes? He does not say.

Professor Cooper also challenges my prudential argument against invading and occupying Afghanistan. My argument was twofold. First, I applied some of the public choice literature in economics. I pointed out that just as it is difficult to rein in government in the domestic sector of the economy, as we are clearly seeing in the United States with President Obama’s grasp for expanded government power, so it is difficult to rein in government when it goes abroad. Indeed, I pointed out, it is even more difficult to rein in government abroad because the evidence of our government’s actions abroad and the effect of those actions are less visible to us than the evidence of its domestic actions. Professor Cooper, rather than challenging this argument, instead discusses some of his objections to public choice. He doesn’t really challenge my argument above, and his objections to public choice do not undercut my point.

Professor Cooper’s chief objection to public choice seems to be that it addresses people’s interests and leaves out other motives. He writes:

For instance, the satisfaction of one’s interest especially when it is undertaken by another on your behalf, is entirely compatible with the loss of one’s liberty, especially when the exercise of one’s liberty is risky or costly. Why bother to work when the pogey is available? Why bother to defend your liberty at all, especially if you can hire somebody to fight for you?

I don’t quite see the relevance of these questions to the case at hand. I work because I want to support my family and myself and don’t want to depend on “the pogey.” And the standard argument for hiring someone to defend our liberty is that different people have different skills and interests. Is Professor Cooper challenging the idea of paying people to be in the military? What alternatives does he propose? It seems that the only alternatives to paying people are to disband a professional military or to conscript every soldier from private up to general and pay them zero. I know that he can’t favour either of these options. So what
is he advocating?

Professor Cooper goes on, though, to talk about people’s motives for entering politics. The “chief reason why people go into politics in the first place,” Professor Cooper writes, is their “pride.” He continues:

You enter politics to get into a fight, perhaps even to start a fight, not to avoid one. People go into politics because they are ambitious, because they think they are superior, even great. Of course, this is pretentious, but so what? Only to those who focus exclusively on fungible interests, and bargaining, is disturbing the peace pretentious and so offensive. This is precisely why Henderson’s account of Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan is so unsatisfactory. War is more a matter of pride than of interest. Always. That is why Canadians, even if they are not particularly friendly towards the United States, are proud that their country has kept its treaty commitments. They are very proud of their fighting men and women. And for good reason too.

In the first three sentences of this paragraph, with the exception of his “so what?”, Professor Cooper has actually gone beyond public choice in a way that I agree with: I’ve long thought that the vast majority of public choice economists leave out some of the major motives that animate many politicians. A friend who shared my frustration with the narrowness of public choice once debated a public choice economist who insisted that Senator Edward Kennedy’s motive for favouring more government control was his desire to get wealthier. Professor Cooper would, I believe, think this absurd. Professor Cooper has put his finger on a major part of what moves politicians: their pride. He even admits that making war is more a matter of pride than interest. Are we to take heart from the fact that governments consider their pride first? Will that lead to good decisions about war and peace?

And, of course, since we’re talking about human beings, does Professor Cooper think that Osama bin Laden is exempt from pride? He “disturbed the peace” in a big way on September 11, 2001. If we take Professor Cooper literally, that’s offensive “only to those who focus exclusively on interests.” Gee, and I thought our moral outrage against the terrorist attacks was based on principle. Silly me.

The fact is that if everyone goes around being prideful and not consulting interests (and maybe even ethics?), we’re going to have a lot more wars in which a lot more innocent people are killed. Note that few of those killed are the politicians who make the decisions that get people killed. Unlike Professor Cooper, I believe that good statesmanship consists, in part, of swallowing one’s pride and taking a clear-eyed view of how to keep the peace and when not to.

Moreover, notice that only a few paragraphs after challenging the idea that we should hire people to fight for our liberty, Professor Cooper argues that Canadians should be “very proud of their fighting men and women.” But these fighting men and women are all paid. Canada—here, I feel proud as a Canadian—has set an example for the world by relying on volunteers rather than on conscription to fight wars, even through most of both World Wars. I leave Professor Cooper to contend with his own internal struggles about relying on paid volunteers.

Professor Cooper devotes just one short paragraph to challenging the second part of my prudential case against war with Afghanistan: the argument from unintended consequences. He makes the obvious point that every action has unintended consequences, but does not consider any of the specific facts I gave. My first example from foreign policy was the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s taking Saddam Hussein’s side in the 1960s. My second was the U.S. government’s help in overthrowing a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953. My third example was the CIA’s aid to the Afghan Mujahideen in their successful attempt to oust the Soviets in the 1980s. These facts, especially the third, are important to someone who wants to evaluate whether war, especially the war in Afghanistan, is a good idea.

Finally, as happens in so many discussions of wars, Professor Cooper claims that I am, or at least my case against this war is, “unmanly.” He never defines that term. I think, though, that his claim of unmanliness would surprise those who know me and who have seen me put myself in harm’s way to prevent a fight rather than start one. But he goes on to make an incorrect claim about my views: “There is no room in his [Henderson’s] world, he writes, “for the volunteer.”

Actually, there is. And interestingly, as I have documented elsewhere, free-market economists played a large role in ending conscription and implementing an all-volunteer force in the United States. Professor Cooper also claims that American troops “have taken charge in a situation they were handed rather than one they chose or were incentivized towards.” He’s right that many of them found themselves in a war that they did not choose. That does not undercut anything that I wrote. He’s wrong, though, that they are not “incentivized.”

If Professor Cooper cared to have a conversation with some of my students, most of whom are officers in the U.S. military, he would quickly learn of the various incentive pays that U.S. officers and enlistees alike receive for being put in harm’s way.

In my original article, I made both a principled and a prudential case against the war in Afghanistan. My principled case depends not at all on accepting any of the tenets of libertarianism. Instead it depends on a simple application of principle to relationships between and among nation’s governments. Professor Cooper did not challenge my principled case. On my prudential case, based in part on arguments from public choice, Professor Cooper chose also not to reply. Instead, he focused on his differences with public choice and identified one objection to public choice that I shared. Unfortunately for his case, that objection does not support his case. Professor Cooper also has contradictory views about paying volunteers to do our fighting for us. On the one hand he is critical of paying volunteers and on the other hand he takes justifiable pride in Canada’s volunteer armed forces. The argument against war in Afghanistan stands. And Afghanistan, the United States, and Canada would be better off if the U.S. and Canada pulled its troops out of that sad country.

1 David R. Henderson, “The Libertarian Case against the War in Afghanistan,” C2C, at https://c2cjournal.ca/public/article/67.
2 See “FBI Details Guantanamo Torture Tactics,” The Guardian, January 3, 2007, at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jan/03/guantanamo.usa.
3 See David R. Henderson, “Peacemaking at a Raiders’ Game,” Antiwar.com, February 27, 2009, at http://www.antiwar.com/henderson/?articleid=14315.

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