A Time for War: How Foreign Policy Can Make or Break the Liberty Movement

The Middle East is in flames again, and for once, Liberty people seem unsure what to think about it.  For years our only rallying cry was “no more nation-building – bring the troops home!” And for a while, that was enough.  Our foreign policy ideals were so diametrically opposed to those in play for the last few administrations, we didn’t need to nail down all the details of our ideology.  Mere assertion sufficed.

But the situation in Iraq has brought the Liberty Movement to a crossroads.

On one side, Ron Paul’s steady non-interventionism is what first drew many people to the Movement, and the case could even be made that these foreign-policy-first libertarians form the core of the Liberty Movement.  These folks steadfastly believe that the United States should bring all military forces home and leave the world to its own devices, relying on free trade and free association to govern international affairs.  But this group has fallen strangely silent in the wake of all the images coming out of Iraq: black flags, burned buildings, and mutilated bodies.  Few voices other than Dr. Paul himself continue to speak against intervention by opposing further deployments to Iraq.

The second group, led by Liberty leaders and proud wacko birds Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, believe that ISIS poses a credible threat to the national security of the United States, and supports direct military action to defeat them. Those who take this position are willing to choke down their general distaste for foreign intervention to stave off what they see as an absolute evil that the United States has a moral obligation to confront.

Complicating things further are the presidential ambitions of the younger Paul and his Senate compatriot, Mr. Cruz.  Many libertarian-leaning Republicans sense that the country is turning their direction, and they are sizing up the challenge of winning the presidency in the context of the foreign policy question – i.e., is a non-interventionist foreign policy politically viable when American citizens are being beheaded on video and their deaths broadcast to the world?

Caught in the middle, is the rest of the ideological amalgam known as the Liberty Movement. It seems obvious to many of us that there is a real difference between the threat of Saddam Hussein and the threat of ISIS, and judging by the polls, it’s not just Liberty people.  The same American public that overwhelmingly opposed Syrian intervention last year now sees ISIS as a threat to the security of the United States. But even in the midst of our sympathy for suffering Iraqis and Americans trapped in this swelling tide of evil, we find it hard to justify expending more of our blood and treasure on yet another Mideast sand trap.

The Liberty Movement has been chased to the middle of a foreign policy teeter-totter, trying not to fall too far to either side.

On one hand, although throwing our weight behind Rand and Iraqi intervention would defuse the “isolationist” accusation, it would also deal a major blow to one of the foundational premises of the Movement – that the United States needs to bring our military home and end our overseas adventurism.

On the other hand, standing with Ron Paul and insisting that American forces stay out of Iraq forces us to look into the eyes of innocent American civilians beheaded by Islamic extremists and explain to the nation why these atrocities are an understandable and anticipated reaction to our aggressive foreign policy.  It forces us tell the victims’ families why those responsible for these gruesome killings will not be held accountable. It forces us to tell the tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis hiding in the mountains choosing between starvation and the sword that their lives aren’t worth saving, and that, though we’re sorry about engineering the crisis that their nation is currently engulfed in, we are tired of being there and now it’s their mess to clean up.

And finally, holding to non-interventionism in the face of these horrific crimes will force the Movement to confront the specter of WWII and the Holocaust, and make the case to the nation that we, as the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world, have no responsibility to stop the wholesale slaughter of innocents when we have the ability to do so.

Holocaust references are so overused in our society that they are summarily dismissed in political conversation anymore – usually with a sneer.  But there is a reason that people resort to such references: they awaken the deepest kind of horror and revulsion in the hearer.  Even in an age when morals are adrift and right and wrong are up for sale, we can pretty much all agree that Adolph Hitler’s systematic elimination of Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents, and others, was one of the darkest moments in human history, and because of our role on bringing it to an end, it also became a pivotal moment in the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world.

In 1941, we went to war because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, not because Hitler was crowding Jews into death camps.  But ever since our troops walked through Auschwitz and Buchenwald, our rationale for going to war as a nation has quietly shifted.  Standing in the face of the horror that the Nazis unleashed on Europe, the people of the United States have largely embraced the role of liberator and protector, sending our sons and daughters to fight beside strangers in far-off battlefields, often with little to gain for ourselves.

If there was ever a chance of reversing that trend and returning to an age when the United States remained largely out of world affairs, that chance passed with the advent of the nuclear age and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  When one man can destroy a nation and one nation can destroy the world, everyone’s security becomes intertwined.  Add to that a cultural acceptance of the premise that everything is permissible but violence, and it becomes immediately evident why we have so readily embraced the role of world police.

It’s possible that libertarians have underestimated the task of selling the nation on non-interventionism.  Sure, nobody likes war, but the past three generations have been raised believing that part of our identity as Americans is being the world’s superhero – holding great responsibility to go with our great power.  And even as our debt skyrockets, our allies thin, and our returning soldiers struggle against despair and suicide, the general public still seems ready and willing to dive headlong into another Mideast humanitarian crisis.

Two years ago, as I finished my time with the Ron Paul campaign, I was befriended by a young Rwandan man who happened to cross paths with me on Facebook.  We started talking about current events, and I quickly assured him that I was one of many people working to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and stop our overseas adventurism. The Arab Spring was in full blossom at the time, and I wanted him to know that there was a movement here to stop our drone bombings and constant interference in the affairs of other nations. His response wasn’t what I expected, and to be honest, it shook me right down to my Ron Paul r3VOLution sandals:

“But if America goes home, who else will help?  You would leave all these people to die?  Why?”

I was blown away.  I had expected him to agree with me wholeheartedly.  After all, weren’t we the foreign invaders whose incessant interventionism had been responsible for setting up brutal dictatorships all over the Middle East?  Why would he want us to continue our involvement in that part of the world?  The reason became evident with his next statement.

“I remember in the 90s, when there was genocide in my country.  We prayed for America to help, and you never came.”

All in a moment, answers failed me.  Was I really going to sit here and talk about blowback and the military-industrial complex with this young man who had been forced to flee for his life from a bloodbath that killed over a million of his countrymen? How could I discuss the expense of our foreign entanglements with one who had personally borne the cost of our inaction?

Right then, my foreign policy priorities went back to the drawing board. It was not that my conclusions had necessarily been wrong, but my justification and substantiation for those conclusions had been based more on the political echo chamber around me than the life-and-death realities of those impacted by our politics.

These are the kinds of issues that advocates of non-interventionism must be prepared to address: not with catchphrases, but with well-reasoned responses that are both morally and constitutionally sound.  If we fail to provide answers to these questions beyond “we can’t afford it”, we’re going to lose the foreign policy debate.  It’s that simple.  As Americans are beheaded on tape and Iraqi cities we fought and died to liberate fall under the brutal control of Islamic extremists, nobody is asking us about GW Bush’s missing WMDs or Iran’s nuclear bluster anymore. They’re asking if we can reconcile non-interventionism with our passionate defense of life and liberty when innocents are in the line of fire.

And here’s what those questions sound like:

If you had known that Hitler was going to murder 13 million people in 1939, would you have gone to war preemptively to prevent the Holocaust?

If you had known that the Hutu majority in Rwanda was going to slaughter a million men, women, and children in 1990, would you have done anything to stop it from happening?

If you knew that, within a year, ISIS was going to consolidate power in Iraq and murder hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis – many of whom risked their lives to stand with us – would you support sending troops back into Iraq?

And if our answer to any of these is no, then are we prepared to face those who have suffered the consequences of our inaction and tell them why America wasn’t there?  Because that’s exactly what the Liberty Movement must do to carry the banner of non-interventionism forward.

Those of us who hold to non-interventionism are frequently painted as cold-hearted isolationists, content to sit at home in comfort and watch the world burn.  It’s time for the Liberty Movement to let the country know that we understand there is a time for war, as well as a time for peace; and that if our liberty is to survive tyrants overseas and tyrants here at home, we must never confuse the two.

Joel Kurtinitis is a columnist for the Des Moines Register, contributing editor for The Liberty Conservative, and operations director for the US Federalist Party.

Joel was a Regional Director for Ron Paul 2012 and served on the State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Iowa. He co-founded Liberty Iowa in the wake of the Paul campaign, and organized the Free DC Project during the government shutdown of 2013.

When not busy setting the virtual world aflame with controversy, Joel is actually an okay guy who enjoys reading, cooking, chess, bluegrass music, and an occasional foray into fiction writing. Joel and his family live in Des Moines, IA.


  1. If you play into the establishment’s bullshit, you do a disservice to liberty. Absurd hypothetical questions don’t change the facts. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. government is the #1 sponsor of terrorism throughout the world. The idea that we’re going to these places helping people is absurd. If we aren’t honest about this, we’ll end up no different than the neocons.

  2. The problem is the old Monday morning quarterback situation. Would you go to war with X country if you knew that so many other people would have died? You cannot base any sort of rationale on that. The best thing is to do as our Constitution says to do. We do not go to war with other countries unless as a majority, Congress approves it to be so. Even Dr. Paul voted to fight to get Osama Bin Laden. The real issue is making the case for war the right way. You cannot simply leave it up to the president to jump into a full blown war anytime he chooses. I’ll admit with technology being as fast as it is now, I would concede that the president should act on something that is a clear and present danger, like say an incoming missile or a nuclear device. But a full scale war should only go through Congress and under debate. The problem is Congress as a whole has given up these responsibilities to the president because they don’t want the blame if things go wrong, but will be there for the praise when it goes right.

  3. The present situation in Iraq and Syria doesn’t give Liberty advocates any more pause to assert our position than the situation for the last twenty years. The Cold War is over. The threat of a destructive nuclear missile strike upon the United States is gone. There is no force in the Middle East, with or without nuclear arms, state controlled, or non-state actor, which poses a threat to the national security of the United States. At worst, we could suffer another strike such as we suffered on 9/11/2001, and, in case anyone has forgotten, even that didn’t threaten our national security. It didn’t presage an impending invasion by a foreign army which might seize our ports and industries and impose its rule upon us. You know, the kind of thing the U.S. has been doing to other countries for over 20 years now. President Bush’s RESPONSE to 9/11 did more to threaten the well-being of our country, in loss of life, waste of money, and damage to our economy, than did the actual attacks.

    And, of course, it is precisely by engaging in the Iraq, Afghan, Libyan and Syrian Wars that the United States makes itself a more likely target for such attacks now and in the future, not our refusal to get involved.

    The pictures of beheadings and other atrocities are no more disturbing now than they have been for the decades we have been exposed to them. In fact, we are exposed to them PRECISELY BECAUSE both the perpetrators and those who profit from war-making want to provoke us into responding with more acts of war, more violence, more expenditures from our Treasury and the nation’s economy dedicated to destruction – ultimately ours.

    Don’t get suckered again – particularly not libertarians who have already demonstrated that they know better. As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

  4. As for answering the pleas of those who are the victims of destructive war, that, too, is not a complicated dilemma. It requires only our willingness to offer refuge on our own shores. As we should have learned from our last twelve years of experience, going abroad to fight monsters on foreign shores does not save the lives of others. It only brings death and destruction to more people and stimulates others to want to bring death and destruction to us.

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