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Rotenberg ’17: 51 shades of gray

Opinions Columnist
Monday, November 17, 2014

The fallout from the ill-conceived, poorly construed and seemingly never-ending “war on terror” has been decisive. Americans now hold an aversion to large-scale ground troop intervention, especially in the Middle East. According to a recent CNN poll, less than 40 percent of Americans favor sending ground troops back into Iraq to battle the Islamic State. However, 75 percent think it is “likely” or “somewhat likely” that combat troops are going to be sent into Iraq or Syria.

I have conflicting views on what policy action the U.S. government should seek. The libertarian ideologue within me does not believe in this form of formal, governmental intervention. However, I will endeavor to explain three beliefs. First, not all interventions are created equal. Second, the Islamic State’s systemic human rights violations and commitment to ideological repression are a travesty that is impossible to ignore. Third, I think intervention might be justified, based on limited-government principles.

As demonstrated by the Vietnam and Iraq wars, intervention can do more harm than good. The fervent anti-Communism that shrouded President Lyndon Johnson’s geopolitical decision-making created conditions where Johnson felt that intervention was not only inevitable, but required.

Furthermore, President George W. Bush’s assertion regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved to be largely false. In fact, Saddam Hussein did not have modern large stockpiles, as the Bush administration contended. U.S. troops did find these weapons, but they were “remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West,” the New York Times reported. It appears that in these two interventions, data was misconstrued and the decision to intervene was ill-conceived.

According to the Huffington Post, a video has emerged that has a “suspected Islamic State fighter” describing how he sold Yazidi girls, belonging to an Iraqi minority group, into the slave trade. According to representatives of the Yazidi community, 7,000 Yazidi girls have been kidnapped. On Mount Sinjar, where the Islamic State has surrounded more than 10,000 Yazidis, “ISIS forces are taking over Yazidi villages near the mountain one after another, killing the men and selling the women and children into the slave trade,” the Daily Beast reported. The Yazidis have also been forced to “convert” or be “killed,” Mona Siddiqui wrote in an opinions column for the Guardian this summer.

The Islamic State’s intentions are expansionary and oppressive and go further than other regimes to violate basic human liberties. In Jason Brennan’s book “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know,” he describes libertarianism as an ideology that promotes radical tolerance. The Islamic State promotes radical intolerance. According to an Australian government report that cited Islamic State public statements, the Islamic State “promotes sectarian violence” and “targets those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels and apostates.”

Therefore, I believe one can justify a more forceful intervention on some form of libertarian grounds. Libertarians, or classical liberals, share a strong belief in the right to enter into consensual contracts and the right to live free from coercion. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman describes the role of government in his book “Capitalism and Freedom” as “a forum for determining the ‘rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.”

Iraq’s constitution affirms individual rights. For instance, Article 23 of the Iraqi constitution affirms that “personal property is protected” and “no property may be taken away except for the purposes of public benefit.” Furthermore, Article 7 states that “no entity or program, under any name, may adopt racism, terrorism (and) the calling of others infidels” in Iraq.

Under the Islamic State’s rule, Iraq will be unable to act as an “arbiter” of these fundamental freedoms and aggressions that are clearly being committed. Though former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took sectarian positions, the aspirations of the Iraqi government in the 2000s were based on liberal values of liberty and freedom. Therefore, if the Iraqi government needs assistance to facilitate its primary function as an arbiter and protector of rights, why can’t external governments help it restore its duty? Is there not a moral duty to enter into a contract with the Iraqi government to help it try to restore some commitment to liberal values?

The answers to both of these questions are incredibly unclear. One could argue that an unequivocal ground troop invasion could lead to a restoration of a government founded on liberal principles and restore the nature of government as an umpire through the vehicle of a contract between the Iraqi and American governments. But if the recent history of American intervention is any indication (think Somalia and Iraq), a lack of consequential understanding of the region married with lack of substantial support within Iraq could lead to a futile enterprise that actually does more harm than good. Thus, based on this libertarian framework there is a justification for intervening to fight the Islamic State.


Graham Rotenberg ’17 can be reached at

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  1. I’ve got a novel idea. Let’s do nothing. Let the Muslims deal with their own
    problems for a change. Let’s let countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait
    with their endless ocean of money and Western-bought armaments figure it out
    instead. Surely they – being practitioners of the religion of compassion and
    peace – will step right up to the plate in our stead.

    OK, you caught me there. You knew I was kidding! You knew what I know which
    is that there is no answer to these Islamic cesspools. Whatever we do will be
    discredited and if we do nothing then Syria will become just another country in
    the endless line of Hell on Earth Islamic countries.

    We cannot save Muslims from themselves. It is like trying to save an
    alcoholic. Until they are ready to abandon their religion – a religion that
    emphasizes aggression and violence and sadism – anything we do will simply be a
    band-aid on a gaping wound.

    Let them go through their DTs on their own. Only then will they be ready for
    our friendship and help, and only then will we find a way forward together as

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