Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Justice, Tyrannicide, and Wars of ‘Liberation,’” By Bruce Frohnen

Protest in Dublin in 2011. Photo by William Murphy. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Does justice require opposing tyrants—perhaps removing or even killing them? Today the consensus response seems to be a resounding “yes.” But is such a response wise or even just? Historically, Catholics and Calvinists in particular have lived under authorities’ suspicions because they adhere to doctrines subjecting the state to a higher law by which to judge the justness of their actions and, from this, their legitimacy. Nevertheless, even brief consideration shows that natural justice and the common good are rarely served by rebellion or, in particular, wars of liberation. It is, rather, ideological intransigence of a distinctly secular, progressive variety that promotes frequent recurrence to “antidespotic” violence, with all its attendant damage to public order and the concrete lives of real people.

Saint Thomas Aquinas tells the story of a tyrant who discovered that a pious old woman had been praying for his safety. On being questioned as to why she would pray for someone who oppressed her, the old woman replied that she had prayed for the removal of the tyrant’s predecessors only to find that they were replaced by even worse rulers. Aquinas, a giant of natural law philosophy, used this story to point out that one should not be hasty in determining that one is justified, let alone wise, in moving against even a bad ruler. As most people with any real experience of the world are aware, the conditions of life, including political conditions, can always get worse.

These thoughts come to mind in contemplating the continuing death spiral of civilization in Libya. The Obama/Clinton administration’s war of choice there is one of the most astounding blunders of recent diplomatic memory. Thanks in no small part to American intervention (no “boots on the ground” but plenty of tactical, military support) the regime of Muammar Gaddafi was replaced by chaos. From rule by a dictator rendered relatively harmless to the outside world by the drubbing delivered him by Ronald Reagan, Libya has descended into violent disorder. One dictator has been replaced by many warlords, leaving people without even that most elemental of human social goods, order. And, from a relatively harmless pariah state, Libya has become a training ground for international terrorists of the vilest kind.

There is no telling, of course, whether, without American intervention, Gaddafi might eventually have fallen from power, or whether he would have been replaced by the weak, splintered regime currently competing with warlords for control of Libyan people and territory. But we do know several things. We know that Americans died needlessly, that the United States has again been shown to be a feckless meddler, and that the Obama administration (with the strident encouragement of then Secretary of State Clinton) chose to jump onboard the ever-illusory “Arab Spring” bandwagon as a form of empty virtue signaling for which other people have paid the price.

Sadly, previous administrations paved the way for the Libyan debacle. Some today insist that the second war in Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein did actually possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion. And it is true that some chemical weapons were found after the second Iraqi invasion. What is much less clear is why a massive invasion, removal of Saddam from power, and well over a decade of “nation building” were required to contain the danger posed by this dictator. Indeed, it seems clear that the essential justification for removing Saddam from power was and remains the fact that he was a very bad man. In the aftermath of the horrors of 9/11, in the shadow of the Afghan operation against Al Qaeda, and spurred by a veritable war of words, the actions of the George W. Bush administration in Iraq were sold to America as ridding the world of a horrible tyrant. And so they did, to be followed by ceaseless violence and disorder spreading throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world.

My purpose here is not merely to argue that, in hindsight, the second Iraq war left the Iraqi people and the world worse off than they had been before. The more important question, I would argue, concerns whether the United States was justified at the time in engaging in military action against either the regime in Iraq or that in Libya.

And the answer seems to be a clear “no.” In both instances American administrations (without a declaration of war though, sadly, with significant cooperation from Congress) chose to remove “bad guys” on the grounds that they were bad guys. What made the intervention both easier for these administrations and even more foolish was that our leaders expected to “fix” the countries they were meddling with, either indirectly, as in Libya, or through direct “nation building,” as in Iraq.

To say that things have not panned out as the Bush and especially the Obama administrations planned would be a significant understatement. The power of progressive ideology, military organization, squadrons of social services workers, and other bureaucratic “experts” to transform societies has been disproven many times, but never more thoroughly than in Iraq. Sadly, the lesson will never stick so long as ideologues in power may “help” other nations while suffering few if any consequences.

This brings us back to Thomas’s pious woman. For the difference between her and the Obama administration is that the tyrant in question was her tyrant. She at least knew the conditions maintained by her ruler, as by the rulers before him and by any likely successors. The pious woman had some reason to know and be concerned intimately with what was going on around her. Those who play superpower have no such knowledge, only the self-serving advice of experts with their own wants, needs, prejudices, and worst of all ideological impulse to “do good” to people they know barely if at all. That a bad guy is ruling a country, as in both Libya and Iraq, and even that he is thumbing his nose at us and potentially endangering, at some point, his neighbors, is no sufficient reason for conducting war. These wars of choice were just that—violent actions resulting from calculations regarding the interests of the United States and, sadly more importantly, of our rulers. Anger at Saddam’s role in costing his father the presidency clearly factored into George W. Bush’s decision to invade. The desire to be on “the right side of history” in supporting mass movement seems to have been the only reason, weak and self-satisfied though it may be, for Obama administration actions in Libya. In neither case was military action required to defend the people of the United States.

It has become habitual among internationalists (lawyers and “human rights” activists) to demand that such defensive consideration give way before humanitarian impulses. We are told that horrors like the genocide in Rwanda must never be allowed to happen again. The question is not whether what happened in Rwanda was a massive horror—it was a horror of astounding proportions. The question is whether and how outsiders are to know whether and when to intervene to prevent such horrors in the future. Did we prevent such an occurrence in Libya? We almost certainly helped create destructive and deadly conditions for thousands of innocent people there. As for Iraq, we may never know how badly American actions damaged lives on the ground and wider relations in the Middle East among various nations and factions, spurring murderous reprisals.

There is no magical formula to determine when some kind of action is required in dealing with evil in power. But natural law and common sense both urge any reasonable nation to follow the “first do no harm” rule. Moreover, people in power have a duty to recognize that their own information and wisdom are limited. Combined, these factors should severely restrict any person or government’s willingness to interfere with events in another country, even more so than they should cause citizens to pause long and hard before taking up arms against a tyrannical regime with whose character they are intimately familiar.

Interventionists will, of course, consistently point to tragedies they believe could have been avoided. Moreover, a false reading of our own War for Independence adds to the drive for wars of choice. Even some who refer to themselves as conservatives take the historically insupportable view that the War for Independence was fought to advance abstract, ideological theories rather than to defend a set of inherited rights, institutions, and practices against a parliament that claimed absolute power. This false vision leads too many Americans, of whatever political persuasion, to believe that revolution is everywhere and always a good thing—provided only that it is portrayed as a fight for “progress” as they define it. Sadly, we are seeing increasing evidence of the tragedies that are caused by ideological meddling, particularly in areas where revolutionaries, unlike our own forebears, really mean to fundamentally transform their existing way of life. One only hopes that more of our leaders will heed the mounting evidence of meddling’s dire consequences and so restrain the impulse to provide “help” through the barrel of a gun or bombs from the sky.


Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.

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