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ARI, Iraq, and Healthy Dissent

I received a note from my pal Chip Gibbons, who runs The Binary Circumstance. His post, "Ayn Rand: The Roots of War," which I applauded back in May 2004, has inspired a recent exchange. A voicer there states that Chip was being unfair in his criticism of the Ayn Rand Institute as an organization in favor of the war in Iraq. The writer states that "ARI scholars repeatedly and consistently attack the war in Iraq—from Leonard Peikoff, whose essay 'Iraq: The Wrong War' is available on-line, to Yaron Brook who has lectured both on the morality of war in general and the immorality of US involvement in Iraq and of the neo-con position in general..." The voicer believes that only The Intellectual Activist has been "mildly pro-Iraq War" and has been "subjected ... to some heavy criticism of late."

Chip responds to the voicer, stating that he published this piece 18 months ago, and that even the commentators back then observed the pro-Iraq war stance of the ARI-affiliated writers of whom he spoke. (He notes too that ARI had even displayed the Israeli flag on its site back then.) But Chip is clearly encouraged by any change in opinion at this point.

In actuality, many ARI-affiliated writers have claimed that Iran was the country to attack, but, early on, they fully supported the war to topple Saddam Hussein as a way-station to get to Syria and Iran. (Yaron Brook's recent lectures on neoconservatism and Iraq, notwithstanding, he too favors military action against Iran.) The chorus of boos against the neocons is something, however, that is a bit more recent in ARI ranks. To my knowledge, those boos were not articulated anywhere on the ARI site in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

To his credit, Leonard Peikoff has been the most critical of that war (but please note that the cited criticism of Iraq as the "wrong war" is an article he published in 1997 against the Clinton administration ... not anything he said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11). Peikoff has also been intensely critical of Bush, and, in my view, his repudiation of Bush's religious agenda is right-on-target.

Still, pre-Iraq war articles on the ARI site certainly advocated invading Iraq (a useful compendium of quotes can be found here, whether one agrees or disagrees with the overall thrust of the site on which it is published). For example, see an essay by Peter Schwartz, entitled "War and Morality."

To his credit, Schwartz has been critical of "nation-building," but he did support the invasion of Iraq. My critique of him is indexed here, and my discussion of Schwartz's position on the Iraq war can be found here.

Also see Robert Tracinski's essay: "The Iraq Charade." The voicer at Chip's place is correct that Tracinski's Intellectual Activist has been the most vocal ARIan proponent of the war in Iraq. Tracinski's magazine, in fact, published "The Case Against Iraq" in October 2002, written by Christian Beenfeldt. Beenfeldt wrote that "it is either war against Iraq or continued passivity. A successful campaign against Iraq could serve as a model of American unilateralism and preemptive response, thus becoming a stepping-stone for future actions against Iran and other states. We must make war against Iraq as a next step in a full campaign to eradicate the long line of regimes that want to destroy the West."

In May 2003, Tracinski himself applauded the war: "The war in Iraq is over. The only resistance that remains, as this issue goes to press, is a series of sniper and grenade attacks from isolated bands of fighters ..." And he too saw it as a stepping stone to Syria, Iran, etc.

And in the June 2003 issue of TIA, Tracinski also applauds the President for seeing this as merely one "battle" in a larger war, and he argues that "'nation-building' can be a legitimate task of our military—if it is in America's interest. In the case of Iraq, it is clearly in our interests to ensure that, having overthrown one dangerous totalitarian regime, we do not allow another to replace it. And more: a pro-liberty, pro-American government in Iraq can serve as a strategic base from which to threaten neighboring regimes in Iran and Syria—and as an oil-rich ally to use as diplomatic and economic leverage against the corrupt Saudis. To achieve these benefits, America must remain in Iraq, using our military to help create and support a better Iraqi government, rather than hastily withdrawing and allowing others to fill the power vacuum."

I'd say that view is pretty much in-line with on-the-record and off-the-record Bush administration strategic statements on the war.

Now, it is entirely true and must be acknowledged that many articles written by ARI-affiliated writers after the war became increasingly critical of the Iraq policy—thank goodness. Readers can trace that development here. I, myself, have cited some of those articles approvingly, including Elan Journo's essay.

I'd like to think that people such as Chip, Arthur Silber, me, and others played a part in persuading some of Rand's latter-day followers of the problems inherent in the pro-Iraq war position, but I see no explicit indication or citation of anything any of us wrote at that time or since.

In light of all this, I do believe that it is incorrect to use a broad stroke in painting all ARI-affiliated writers as pro-Iraq war. I think it is a sign of healthy dissent that many writers affiliated with ARI are disagreeing with one another on these important issues of war and peace. There is no ARI ideological monolith on this question, and this is good.

This is not to say that problems don't exist in the views of some writers affiliated with ARI, TOC, or any number of Objectivist organizations. I conclude this post with a lengthy passage from my article, "Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand's Radical Legacy." That article was written in March 2003, and published in May-June 2003 in The Free Radical. I stand by every last word:

The response of Objectivists to the prospect of this kind of U.S. occupation [of Iraq[ has been mostly positive (with a few notable exceptions, e.g., Arthur Silber at The Light of Reason). Robert Tracinski, for example, rightfully criticizes the pragmatism and religiosity of the Bush administration, which pays no attention to "context or history" ("The Era of Muddling Through: How We Got Here and Why We're Still Moving," TIA, March 2003). But this does not stop Tracinski from applauding Bush for "a breathtakingly new grand strategy to remake the Middle East," a policy that Tracinski admits "is a kind of indirect colonialism. The colonial administrators will be the nominally independent leaders of Middle Eastern countries—but the essence of their form of government and their foreign policy will be inspired or imposed by the United States of America." Deriding the muddling ways of "Old Europe," Tracinski suggests approval of the U.S. ambition "to remake the world, sweeping aside hostile regimes and securing America's safety" ("New Hollywood and Old Europe," TIA, March 2003).
William Thomas writes ("What Warrants War? The Challenge of Iraq and North Korea") that "[t]he Objectivist view of foreign policy derives from its view of morality. Just as each person should pursue his rational self-interest in his personal matters, so should a proper government uphold the interests of its citizens in its conduct toward other nations." Thomas goes on to say that it is a "basic tenet" of "Objectivist political philosophy . . . that the only just governments are the free countries—and all the free countries are natural allies. Free countries are those that essentially embrace the principles of liberty, including freedoms of speech and assembly, competitive elections, the rule of law, and property rights." In Thomas's well-reasoned discussion of principles, the New Fascism is never mentioned. And though he admits that certain foreign policy goals require us "to hold our noses" when entering into "alliance[s] of convenience" with less free countries, he does not seem to appreciate the extent to which such pragmatic considerations have brought the globe to the current crisis.
In the end, however, Thomas supported the war in Iraq—and a possible war with North Korea as well. He sees the post-war reconstruction as a requirement, "the only means of eliminating the longer-term threat." Keeping the peace, funding our allies, and building a free Iraq, will require "billions upon billions of dollars . . . for reconstruction and re-education." Reconstruction? Re-education? Funding our allies? I am tempted to ask the perennial Randian question: At whose expense?
To his credit, Thomas recognizes that "if it is culturally or financially infeasible to transform . . . enemies into allies—or at least into stable, non-threatening regimes, then war will not resolve the longer-term threat . . ." To his credit, Thomas accepts the possibility that U.S. occupation might "fuel anti-Americanism throughout the region." To his credit, Thomas understands "that political policy is a symptom, but culture is the root cause." Still, he supports the risk of war and a long-term occupation that empowers "better educated" and "more secular" Iraqis, so as to "cement the transformation" of other Middle Eastern nations.
To "cement the transformation" is [ARI-affiliated writer] Ron Pisaturo's goal as well. Except that he offers a much more robust strategy. Writing in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, Pisaturo is an unabashed Objectivist advocate of a new U.S. colonialism ("Why and How to Conquer the Savages," Capitalism Magazine).
Pisaturo begins on the correct premise—that Americans have the right to defend themselves from murderous attacks. But he goes further: He urges the creation of a new Middle East as if from a state of nature; his regional tabula rasa, however, requires the "nuclear" incineration of millions of "savages" in order to start from scratch. Pisaturo stands, like Archimedes, outside the context he wishes to reconstruct. His canvas-cleaning strategy is the logically horrific conclusion and destructive essence of his utopianism. It applies literally to 'no-where' on earth—though, in all fairness, the Brave No-World of Ron Pisaturo is far more dystopian than it is utopian.
According to Pisaturo, the U.S. must crush all the "evil governments" of the Middle East (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other "murderous regimes"). This is a sentiment shared by his Ayn Rand Institute colleagues, including Yaron Brook (ARI Media, 10 April 2003) and Leonard Peikoff ("America versus Americans," Ford Hall Forum, 7 April 2003)—both of whom see Iran as the next target in the war against Islamic fundamentalism. Pisaturo argues that the U.S. government must take back the oil fields for Western oil companies, appropriate Arab assets worldwide (including "real estate, bank accounts, and all other financial holdings"), and "isolate, colonize, and settle the lands the savages now roam." Sensing perhaps that such a proposal for massive colonization of the region might entail an exponential increase in U.S. tax rates and in the size of the U.S. military—perhaps even necessitating conscription—Pisaturo declares that if the Western oil companies "agree to pay the cost of waging this war," then the U.S. government could continue "occupying and defending these oil-rich territories." Once the U.S. has seized the Middle East—I suppose after several years of waiting for the nuclear fallout to settle—it will allow American pioneers to enter the region as international homesteaders. "Over time, pioneers, with the paid support of our military, can go into these isolated territories, subdue the remaining savages, install a civilized, colonial government protecting the rights of both the pioneers and the savages, and settle the land—as American pioneers subdued the savage, murderous American Indian tribes and settled America." Of course, the "savages" will eventually realize that they will be the "most fortunate beneficiaries" of such colonialism.
In truth, Pisaturo's view of the Arab world finds inspiration in Rand's own condemnation of Arab terrorists as "savages" (on "The Phil Donahue Show"). She saw the "Arab whose teeth are green with decay in his mouth" ("The Left: Old and New") as living "a nomadic, anti-industrial form of existence" ("Requiem for Man"). But this is a far cry from Pisaturo's genocidal call for an American Lebensraum.
I submit that this "cure" is far worse than the disease.
Let's analyze Pisaturo's proposal more closely. The Western oil companies whose interests Pisaturo wishes to defend are the same Western oil companies that collaborated with the U.S. government and Middle Eastern governments to develop the oil fields. The U.S. government socialized much of their risk, and replaced the colonizing British as the chief power in the region. From the 1920s through World War II and beyond, the government and the oil industry worked hand-in-hand to win concessions from, and bolster the power of, various "pro-Western" Arab regimes, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, trying to create stability with money, munitions, and political machinations (see Sheldon Richman's "'Ancient History': U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention"; ed: also see my discussion here). The "pull-peddling" between the oil industry and the various governments was a quintessential expression of the New Fascism. (Rand did not examine these oil industry-government ties; but she did believe, ironically, that U.S. foreign policy had "brought the entire Western world to the position of a colony ruled by Arab sheiks" ["The Energy Crisis, Part II"]).
When a neoconservative defends the ideal of a new U.S. colonialism, I am disgusted—but not surprised. Neoconservatism was founded—as a movement—by a group of disaffected socialists and "social democrats." Its modern representatives are now the intellectual architects of U.S. foreign policy. Having given up the fiasco of defending economic central planning, they now embrace global social engineering to bring the ideal of "democracy" to the rest of the world. And if some of them get their wish—of establishing a new "American Empire"—they'll find out that the pretense of knowledge, which destroyed socialism, will similarly destroy their Wilsonian designs. We simply never know enough to construct or reconstruct, wholesale, social systems and nations from the ground up. (On this point, see especially Hayek's Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 3, pp. 107–109.) Such schemes for a Pax Americana are fraught with endless possibilities for negative unintended consequences, however "noble" the intentions.
So "nation-building" as a neoconservative goal is understandable—given the socialist lineage of its champions. But when an Objectivist advocates mass murder and U.S. colonialism and supports the oil industry's employment of the government like a mercenary private protection agency to secure its foreign financial and material holdings, it is beyond baffling. These are the same kinds of Objectivists who would accuse the U.S. Libertarian Party of "context-dropping" (in contradistinction to "atomic-bomb-dropping") for wanting to build political solutions on a fragile philosophic and cultural foundation. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Comments welcome.


There is a distortion going on here, Chris. From the outset, all the ARI types I that know were advocating war with Islamic distatorships generally. They thought Iran should be primary, but hardly exclusive. Iraq was the "wrong war" not because we didn't have the "right" to overthrow a dictator (see Rand's Playboy comments, and, here, without nuclear Cold War concerns involving buclear weapons--a little difference also being ignored), but that our priorities were wrong. When it came to "tactics" ARI was also clear: concern for civilian losses, etc., was he wrong means of carrying out the war, if we were to do it. The ARI folks I know would have embraced an invasion of Iran, Iraq AND Syria from the outset--along with a "spirit-breaking" occupation a la WWII. The way one put his opposition to the Iraq war to me: "When you really want a filet mignon and all they are willing to serve is salad--you take the salad." This has been their position all along.

James, I certainly have not taken issue with the principle of overthrowing dictatorship. No dictatorship has a right to exist. It is a separate question, however, whether any dictatorship should be overthrown and for what reason.

I don't think what I've stated here is a distortion, however. I state quite clearly here that many ARI-affiliated writers wanted to see a multi-pronged attack against many regimes in the Middle East, and that though Iraq was not a primary, the US had a "right" to overthrow Hussein (curiously, Saudi Arabia---the fountainhead of Wahhabi fantacism has never been much discussed in Randian circles, except by people like Jason Pappas).

In truth, however, Peikoff has made the point that Iraq was not an Islamic dictatorship, but a secular one, and it was not the right war.

As a tactical issue, I should point out that there can sometimes be a problem with accepting "salad" when you want "filet mignon." You can, unwittingly, become a useful idiot for the kind of meal being served to us on a silver platter by the very neoconservatives whom so many Randians abhor.

Yes, but Peikoff has also used the very food analogy I used aboiut Iraq. To be fair, he stipulated that we are "famished" and that we take each war, "as necessary," when and if the will of all regional dictatorships was broken -- starting with the Islamic ones.


Of course, if you ask me ... the backs of some of these dictatorships could have been broken eons ago if the US had stopped getting into bed with so many of them and giving their most fundamentalist sects a pretext for nihilistic attacks on Americans. Even Bush recognizes the shameful history of US policy in that region.

But I'm not looking to replay this debate.

I don't want my essential point to be lost in all this; I thought it was a positive point: That the Ayn Rand Institute, which frequently is criticized for presenting to the world a "monolith" of opinion, with no toleration for dissent, has, in fact, in this instance, been a place where one can find a diversity of views. That is commendable.

Chris, you already klnow where I stand on all this, and it is pretty much in line with Trascinski and Schwartz.

So as usual, we disagree.

But I am not writing you now to beat that long dead horse. I am writing you because I just noticed a "change" in the Sciabarra persona!

Are my eyes deceiving me, or did you just respond to someone with the following, "You can, unwittingly, become a useful idiot for the kind of meal being served to us on a silver platter by the very neoconservatives whom so many Randians abhor." ?

Wow!!! Looks like the gloves are off and you have adopted some of the pro-war rhetoric. Didn't I fire that "unwitting useful idiot" charge at you a year ago? lol

Look out world, Sciabarra has become more dangerous than ever!

Regards, Doubting Thomas

PS: Now don't lie, be honest, when you posted the blog entry that mentioned Damon joining the Yanks, you would have bet a hundred bucks that I would post a comment to that one. I purposely did not, just to prove you wrong, - yet again.

LOL ... not only do you surprise, but you always entertain. :)

In truth, I did use the phrase "useful idiot" as a retort to the claim that ~~I~~ was a "useful idiot" for the Hussein regime, in my opposition to the Iraq war. Here's where I first used it, in my article "A Question of Loyalty":

Now, Perigo and other Objectivists may oppose such democratic "nation-building." Even Presidential candidate George W. Bush once opposed the goal of democratic nation-building in Kosovo and Bosnia. But his neo-Wilsonian advisors seem to have convinced him that the US government can engage in such folly in Iraq. And it has become increasingly clear that these neoconservatives have a disproportionate influence on the foreign policy agenda. Not Perigo. Not any other Objectivists. So much for being a "useful idiot" for established power elites.

But, of course, you always inspire me, George, toward more and more dangerous ways.

So... what do you think of this Damon business? ;)

(And if you choose to answer, put it on that thread... :) )

Great work as always, Chris.



Understood about the basic point.

And there's no doubt selling/giving weapons to various dubious (and worse than dubious) regimes over many decades has been nothing less than sheer folly. To that extent we have made our own beds up real neatly.

Forgive my many typos and have the Merriest ever!

One tiny follow-up: The past US involvement in that region is bad enough on the weapons count; when you also add other forms of subsidy, government sanctioned monopoly concessions in the oil industry, the propping up of various authoritarian regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc., the history of that region gets pretty ugly.

Okay... on that note: The merriest to you and my other readers too. But Blondie will be putting up her Christmas greeting in another couple of days, so stay tuned.

To follow up on Chris' last remarks: ". . .when you also add other forms of subsidy, government sanctioned monopoly concessions in the oil industry, the propping up of various authoritarian regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, . . .," I would assert that we reds have a label for all that. We call it imperialism but I think that Chris knew that already.

Oh yes, and happy winter solstice festivals to everyone here (i.e. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanza etc.) And don't forget that on December 25, we celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest human beings to have ever lived, Sir Isaac Newton.

Indeed, Jim. Three cheers for Newton!!!

And, yes, I know the left has traditionally viewed the global system as "imperialism." In my own writing, I've shied away from calling it "imperialism," because the word does have a different kind of nineteenth-century connotation about it. (Of course, Lenin's usage differs somewhat.)

But whether we call it "imperialism," or "neo-imperialism," or "state capitalism," or the "New Fascism," as Rand would have it, I think there are certainly global implications for U.S. political economy.


As you may recall, we have discussed imperialism in the past, such as in a 1999 thread on Marxmail concerning Lenin, John Hobson, and Murray Rothbards' respective analyses of imperialism (along with Rand and Hayek).

Wow... what a trip down memory lane, Jim. It's amazing what water-under-the-bridge that there is out there, still online.

BTW, for those who don't know, go to the Internet Way Back Machine to uncover a lost world of Internet archives!

Oh, one other reference for Notablog readers, on the issue of Iraq and nation-building: Take a look at Sheldon Richman's piece, "Nation-building is now job one."