Finding Believers in Liberty in the Strangest Places

Kabul—Most Americans believe in liberty.  Even Washington can’t stamp out the commitment to individualism and independence that burns within most people.

On my latest trip to Afghanistan I spent a lot of time with military personnel, NCO and officer alike.  Some on the Left believe that the military is filled with authoritarian automatons.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Members of the military are just like the rest of us—indeed, every day they see and suffer through the failings of the U.S. government’s biggest and most expensive bureaucracy.

And they think for themselves.

One young enlisted driver declared himself in favor of drug legalization.  Having seen the problems created by attempting to stamp out opium production and distribution in Afghanistan, he realized the best response was to take the profit out of the drug trade, and the only way to do that was to stop treating drug use as a crime.

As far as I could tell, he wasn’t a member of the Libertarian Party, devotee of Ayn Rand, or even member of the Campaign for Liberty.  He simply made the logical connection between drug prohibition and drug crime.  In Afghanistan, opium production funds the Taliban insurgency and government officials alike.  Here, as in several Latin American nations, Washington’s “war on drugs” has had catastrophic geopolitical consequences.

At another base I met a retired military man now serving as a civilian consultant helping to train Afghans.  The problem, he declared, was their lack of understanding of the importance of liberty.  Afghans are fiercely independent, but the allies were supporting creation of a centralized state in Kabul.  He hoped American think tanks and organizations friendly to the ideals of liberty could help promote the principles of freedom here.  He quoted Charles Murray’s In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government.  I don’t remember ever meeting anyone in Washington who quoted Murray’s elegant defense of a free society!

A Marine Corps captain sidled up to me at another stop and said when he heard that I worked at the Cato Institute he wanted to meet me.  He was no enthusiast for big, expansive government and saw the consequences of such policies on the ground.  Serving in a combat command hundreds of miles from Kabul and thousands of miles from the U.S., he declared that he was a fan of Rep. Ron Paul.  

So much for the Neocons’ claim that critics of the warfare state are anti-military and anti-military personnel.

None of this surprised me.  My father was career Air Force, so I grew up on military bases around the world.  Many other family members and friends serve in or were in the military.  Through my policy work I meet a lot of the upper ranks, while excursions like my trip to Afghanistan bring me into contact with members of the enlisted force, the backbone of the U.S. military.  I’ve found service personnel to be a uniformly impressive lot, independent thinkers with no illusions about the efficiency of their own institution or the judgment of the politicians who send them off to war.

The fact that members of the military need little prodding to support political freedom should remind us to promote the principles of liberty to everyone everywhere.  No one is beyond liberty’s reach.  Often those in the most flawed government institutions have the best understanding of the benefits of freedom and failures of bureaucracy.  And despite its best efforts, the government has never been able to destroy people’s innate desire for liberty.

Equally important, we should remember that the principles of limited government, including a restrained, defensive foreign policy, are for everyone, including those serving in government bureaucracies.  Most people join the military to defend their nation, not to fight unnecessary wars like Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, that doesn’t stop politicians from sending personnel into harm’s way for no good reason.  Limiting government intervention would benefit all of us, from Americans at home who pay the bills to military personnel abroad who do the fighting (and dying).

Indeed, the latter is one of the main arguments for international restraint.  There are a lot of ivory tower hawks in Washington, warrior wannabes prepared to fight to the last volunteer in an attempt to transform the rest of the world.  A policy of empire inevitably treats military personnel as dispensable, a replaceable means to one or another glorious end.

Afghanistan is a good example of the sheer madness of American foreign policy.  There was a strong argument for targeting al-Qaeda and ousting the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11.  There is a plausible argument today for trying to tailor a speedy withdrawal to maximize the chance, however small, that a liberal, democratic system might evolve in Afghanistan.

But what conceivable argument was there for ever moving from immediate retaliation to long-term nation-building?

In a decade of fighting nearly 2000 Americans and 1000 coalition personnel have died.  Thousands more have been wounded, many severely.  The U.S. has spent more than $464 billion on the Afghan war.  Vast bases have risen out of nothing in nowhere to be filled with runways, offices, fences, barracks, supplies, chow halls, vehicles, guns, and people.  Operations consume oceans of fuel and break down equipment.  Money flows to train and equip the Afghan security forces.  And Americans will continue to pay for the war for decades to come, caring for service personnel who have suffered debilitating injuries.

Not just the fighting is costly.  Since counter-insurgency operations are based on winning support from the population, the U.S. government is dedicated to utterly transforming an impoverished rural and tribal society.  The Pentagon, not to mention civilian “aid” agencies, is supporting better governance, freer elections, and expanded education of girls; underwriting construction of additional schools, hospitals, roads, electricity projects, paying to train police and “build capacity” in the Afghan government, and even helping to expand cell phone coverage and internet access.  Worthy endeavors all, but matters for America’s Department of Defense?

 Indeed, “Transition” is all the rage.  Allied troops are supposed to come out by 2014, but the respective governments insist that the “international community” must remain involved for as long as necessary.  That means more equipment, training, advice, mentoring, and money, lots of money.  At least until Afghanistan is able to pay the costs, which essentially means the U.S. and Europeans will be writing checks forever.

This from heavily indebted states running deficits today and facing huge financial challenges tomorrow.

Even if a competent, honest, effective government ultimately arises in Kabul, which today looks to be the stuff of fantasy, Afghanistan should be America’s last nation-building venture.  Afghans have faced far more than their share of tragedy after more than three decades at war, but there is little reason to believe that the coalition can deliver permanent peace, prosperity, and modernity no matter how much it spends.  America does not have the resources to engage in social engineering in the many other poor, war-torn nations around the globe.  It isn’t in the interest of Americans generally.  It certainly isn’t in the interest of members of the military.

Liberty is the most important political end.   There are other, higher human ends.  But liberty allows us to pursue our ultimate purpose.  No matter who or where we are.

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