Colin Powell, Iraq and the “Good War”

Some commentators are pointing out that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who recently passed away, played an instrumental role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Attempting to bolster President George W. Bush’s and the Pentagon’s plan to invade Iraq and effect regime change there, Powell went before the United Nations and presented detailed evidence that Iraq was preparing to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. 

The goal was to frighten the American people with images of nuclear bombs setting off mushroom clouds over American cities, along with biological and chemical weapons being unleashed all across America. 

The plan worked. Given the overwhelming fear and anger arising from the 9/11 attacks, most Americans enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq in 2002, an invasion that ultimately killed countless Iraqis and ended up destroying the country. 

The problem, of course, is that it was all a lie — a ruse designed to gain the support of the American people for a military regime change in Iraq. After no WMDs were found in Iraq, Bush and the Pentagon didn’t apologize for their “mistake” and bring U.S. forces home. Instead, they kept them in Iraq for years, where they continued to kill people and destroy the country.

Some interventionists came to refer to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 as the “good war,” implying that the 2002 invasion of Iraq was the bad war. Even today, interventionists continue to justify their invasion of Afghanistan, which, like Iraq, killed countless people and ended up destroying the entire country, 

Interventionists, however, are wrong. The fact is that the invasions and occupations of both countries were illegitimate. They were both “bad wars.”

For one thing, there was never a congressional declaration of war against either Iraq or Afghanistan. The U.S. Constitution requires such a declaration before the president can wage war against another nation-state. Interventionists might not like that restriction, but the fact is that that’s the law under our system of government. 

That means that under our constitutional system, both wars were illegal. 

To justify their intervention against Afghanistan, interventionists sometimes use the authorization to use force that Congress enacted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the Constitution doesn’t refer to authorizations to use force. It refers to a congressional declaration of war against a nation-state against which the president wishes to go to war. 

In other words, to go to war against Afghanistan, Bush was required to present his case to Congress. That would necessarily have meant showing that the Taliban government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. While U.S. officials strongly suspected that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, that is a completely different matter from whether the Taliban regime was complicit in the attacks. 

Interventionists assert that because bin Laden and some members of al-Qaeda were residing in Afghanistan, that means the Taliban regime was complicit in the 9/11 attacks because, they say, that proves that the Taliban were “harboring” bin Laden. Even if it were true, however, the Constitution still required Bush to appear before Congress to make his case for going to war against Afghanistan and secure a congressional declaration of war against Afghanistan.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, simply because a suspected terrorist is residing in a particular country doesn’t necessarily mean that the government of that country is part of the terrorist plot. 

For example, suppose a Cuban exile living in Miami sneaks into Cuba and initiates a terrorist bombing that kills hundreds of people. He then makes it back to the United States.

Does the fact that the terrorist is living in the United States mean that the U.S. government was complicit in the bombing? Of course not. 

Equally important, does the Cuban government have the legitimate, legal authority to invade the United States in an attempt to capture or kill the suspected terrorist? I think most people, including interventionists, would say no. They would be right. If Cuba invaded the United States in an attempt to capture or kill the suspected terrorist and killed hundreds or thousands of Americans in the process, virtually every American, including federal officials, would say that that was wrong. In fact, they would consider it legitimate to go to war against Cuba on grounds of self-defense.

But the same principle applies to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. 

For one thing, the U.S. government never provided any evidence of Taliban foreknowledge or complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

Moreover, Bush’s own actions belie any such complicity. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush intended to ask the United Nations to authorize an invasion of Afghanistan. Would a U.S. president do such a thing if he knew that the foreign regime in question had attacked the United States? Of course not. In the event of an attack on the U.S., no president would think of asking the UN for permission to go to war.

There is another critically important factor to consider: Bush was asking the Taliban to extradite bin Laden by delivering him into the hands of the Pentagon and the CIA. If the Taliban regime had participated in the attacks, Bush would never have made such a request. He would have simply gone to war against the Taliban regime.

A critically important factor in all this — one that interventionists almost always ignore — is that there was no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Therefore, under the law, the Afghan government was within its rights to refuse to comply with Bush’s extradition demand. 

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the Taliban expressed a willingness to turn bin Laden over to an independent third nation for a fair trial, once the U.S. presented sufficient evidence to justify such an extradition. Bush and the Pentagon rejected that offer and demanded unconditional compliance with their extradition demand.

That’s why Bush went to war against Afghanistan — not because the Taliban had participated in the 9/11 attacks by knowingly “harboring” bin Laden, as interventionists love to claim. Bush went to war against Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to comply with his extradition demand. It was that refusal to comply with Bush’s extradition demand that interventionists are referring to when they say that the Taliban was “harboring” bin Laden.

Let’s return to our Cuba example. If Cuba demanded the extradition of the suspected terrorist in Miami, the U.S. could legitimately refuse to comply with the demand. That’s because there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Cuba. Cuba, therefore, could not legitimately invade the United States on the ground that the U.S. government was “harboring” the accused terrorist. It Cuba did invade the U.S. on that ground, the U.S. government would respond by going to war against Cuba on grounds of self-defense.

Why is all this important? Because with the end of the forever war in Afghanistan, we libertarians have a great opportunity — to raise people’s vision to a higher level — one that involves restoring our natIon’s founding foreign policy of non-interventionism. 

We must not that that opportunity pass. We must not let the debate going forward be merely over whether the U.S. should have a more prudent foreign policy of foreign interventionism. We must ensure that the debate is over the very concept of interventionism itself. 

By showing that both the Afghanistan and the Iraq interventions were wrongful, deadly, and destructive, we go a long way toward achieving our goal of a free, peaceful, prosperous, and harmonious society.