The Libertarian Party had their first-ever nationally televised presidential debate on Friday. It was a unique opportunity the third-party to raise it’s profile and show how libertarian policies can solve America’s problems. But when it came to foreign policy, debate only showed why no one takes libertarian ideas seriously — a regrettable circumstance for us liberty folk.
One candidate in particular, Austin Petersen, wasted his airtime with a ridiculous proposal to combat ISIS.
Petersen proposed granting letters of marque and reprisal to private military forces, so they can seek and kill ISIS’s leadership. Letters of marque, which permit private persons to legally engage in hostilities against a foreign power, were commonly used for privateering (legalized piracy) until the 19th Century.
“Letters of Marque and Reprisal are how Thomas Jefferson would have dealt with ISIS. I’m confident that his foreign policy, based on free market approach, would handily win the struggle against radical jihad,” Petersen previously stated, while boasting of his plan’s constitutionality.
Petersen’s plan may be constitutional — Article I expressly grants Congress the power to issue letters of marque. But that doesn’t make it legal under international law.
The United States has not granted a letter of marque since the war of 1812, and it hasn’t been seriously considered since the days of Andrew Jackson. Indeed, the nations of Europe outlawed the practice of legalized piracy in 1856, and the United States has abided by that rule for over 160 years, despite not signing onto the treaty.
Even if Congress did grant letters of marque, the combined nations of the world would have every right, under well-respected international law, to stop and criminally prosecute these private militaries. Once they are outside of U.S. jurisdiction, they would be fair game.
And it’s not even a free market proposal. Petersen’s plan doesn’t create a market for those who would provide different security services; it simply contracts out the service the state military already provides. The state monopoly on selecting which forces may be used still remains, and the government is the only legal purchaser of services in the market. That doesn’t sound very free; it sounds like passing the buck.
By contracting out military services, Congress would simply be engaging in hostilities with less accountability. Without direct control, Congress could turn a blind eye to violations of the rules of war.
Even if Petersen’s plan is successful at knocking out ISIS, what then? What do we do about the giant power vacuum that we leave in Syria and northern Iraq?
A private military is not an occupying force; it is not a nation-building force. It is not even an army corps of engineers capable of rebuilding the infrastructure a war-torn country. An army fueled by letters of marque would leave the exact same power vacuum that created ISIS in the first place.
America would, once again, have toppled a foreign power with no plan for its future or willingness to stay for the long-haul. The only difference is that we will have contracted out any accountability or public guilt for having done so.
Petersen’s plan would simply maintain an interventionist foreign policy, without using responsible methods of intervention. That is not libertarian. And his claim that it’s what Jefferson would have done is patently false.
We know exactly how Jefferson reacted to radical Islamic terrorists in the 1800s: he used the largest state navy in American history (up to that point) to crush the terrorists.
At the time of the First Barbary Pirate War, the north African coast was officially controlled by the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. But from the seas of Morocco to the shores of Tripoli, it was run by Islamic pirates who believed that the Koran gave them the right to seize Christian ships and enslave their crews.
Because the Barbary pirates had enslaved hundreds of Americans and seized numerous vessels, the federal government — during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson — built up the navy to add six frigates and conducted a campaign to crush the Barbary pirates.
While privateers were used in the war, they made a negligible difference. It was the heroic actions of U.S. marines like Stephen Decatur, and the U.S. Navy, that ended slavery and piracy in the region.
Thomas Jefferson understood the necessity of using a state navy to conduct coordinated warfare for a specific state aim — limiting intervention to the protection of U.S. commercial interests, and the natural rights of Americans. He didn’t merely contract out the mission to private forces, with little oversight.
Petersen, a leading candidate for the Libertarian Party for President, actually thinks that pirates are the solution to our current foreign policy challenges. This “creative solution” is ludicrous. It displays a dizzying combination of ignorance, lack of foresight, and wishful thinking. And it perfectly encapsulates why no one takes libertarian ideas seriously.
Randal Meyer is a D.C. based lawyer and an Advocate with Young Voices.