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Libertarian Conference on War and Liberty

Shaming the Official Antiwar Movement

by JOHN V. WALSH

"Restoring the Republic: Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties," was the title of a three-day conference hosted last weekend by the Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org), a Libertarian outfit in northern Virginia. It was remarkable in many respects. There seemed to be more attendants from "red" states than blue, and the critique of the war was unsparing.

It was also quite open and tolerant. Yes, it was Libertarian through and through, weighted heavily with scholars like Robert Higgs and Joseph Stromberg, writers like Lew Rockwell and the irrepressible Justin Raimondo . And of course there was Ron Paul who had lots of old friends there and was greeted like a rock star. But there was also Daniel Ellsberg who gave the most moving and inspiring talk of the conference and The Nation’s Robert Scheer who received a standing ovation. And then there was Joseph Margulies the attorney whose clients include Guantanamo detainees and Mamdouh Habib, the victim of CIA rendering from Pakistan to Egypt. And when I explained that I was a Green there were a few double takes but everyone was welcoming.

This contrasts mightily with the UFPJ demonstrations and assemblages in D.C. Ask for Ron Paul or Justin Raimondo as a speaker; and UFPJ Co-chairs Leslie Cagan and Judith LeBlanc, of the "C"PUSA, turn thumbs down. Dem political hacks are always welcome at the UFPJ confabs, but no Libertarians, no Left radicals like ANSWER, no Ralph Nader; Greens are encouraged by UFPJ to work on these things but not to speak up with the Green message.

Then there was the vigor of the antiwar critique. Although there was mention of the disgusting use of "the troops’ as cannon fodder, more emphasis was placed on the hundreds of the thousands of deaths of innocent Iraqis under the weight of Clinton’s "sanctions" and Bush’s bombs and tanks. The tone of the religious critique, which came from an evangelical minister, Lawrence Vance, was stronger than I have heard from "left" wing preachers. Vance is not the sweetness-and-light type of prophet. His recounting of the atrocities of U.S. imperialism over the twentieth century were so complete and frank as to leave one numbed. And there was little of the tone of forgiveness for the U.S. rulers. And this was the tone of speaker after speaker who spared us no truth about the depradations of the U.S. empire. Nor was there any talk about a more efficient war or "cleaning up" Afhghanistan or heading for Iran or Darfur. The Libertarians are deadly serious about terminating the empire. Ron Paul and others spoke of the non-interventionist foreign policy at the heart of the Libertarian view, demeaned by the mainstream as "isolationism."

And there was no hesitation to condemn the Israel Lobby for its ever-present hand on the tiller of the war machine in Iraq and elsewhere. If you want a flavor of it and its lack of anti-semitism look at Raimondo’s speech. (http://antiwar.com/justin/) But Higgs and others made it quite clear that "our" wars grow out of empire not simply the maneuverings of one very privileged and well placed client state. The Libertarian view of the state is strikingly similar to Marx’s–a coercive apparatus in the hands of an economic, exploitive elite. I made that point to Higss and was surprised that he agreed. His contention is that Marxists have a pretty sound view of the state but a lousy outlook on economics. Libertarian and Marxist thought appear to have some common ground running all the way back to the 16th century writings of La Boetie.

A lot of soul searching went on about exactly where the Republic has gone wrong, and Karen Kwiatkowski, whose talk at the confernce was on C-Span, traced it back to abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. But others looked to Woodrow Wilson and, most especially Truman, the first president to wage a war not formally declared by Congress. This most barbaric of presidents is now held up by the mainstream Democrats as a great and "tough" leader. And the half century of the Cold War was high on everyone’s list of events that have turned us into such a warlike society, a giant Sparta. In fact William Buckley was often cited as one of the principal traitors to the old conservative movement, willing in his words to tolerate a form of "totalitarianism" within our land supposedly to fight it elsewhere.

In the words of the Libertarian guru, Murray Rothbard, "war is the health of the state." And the principal concern for Libertarians is the inevitable erosion of civil liberties that war brings in its wake, and here they are eager to compare Bush to Lincoln in suspending habeas corpus.

There is also a generational shift in the Libertarian movement. The Cold War Right is disappearing, and Libertarians like Raimondo who came of age in the 1960s or later are coming to the fore. That too was evident at the conference where some of the older participants would on occasion lapse into loyalty to the Repbulican Party. But for the new generation, this kind of partisanship is not on the agenda. The battle for their own ideas is paramount, and they are not in a mood to compromise on them.

At the front of the hall throughout the proceedings, FFF had placed a portrait of Jefferson. And we were reminded more than once of the quote from Benjamin Franklin that "we must all hang together or surely we will all hang separately." It is time for the official antiwar movement to seek out allies like the Libertarians, who can reach many who cannot be reached with the antiwar message of a socialist or Green. If we do not, we may find ourselves, gradually, oh so gradually, put in the same fix that Franklin feared.

JOHN V. WALSH can be reached at john.endwar@gmail.com.