The Iraq War and open borders

As the ten-year anniversary has made the Iraq War topical again, I thought it might be interesting to draw a few parallels between the Iraq War and open borders. For me, one of the most striking features of the Iraq War is the generosity of the war aims, at least as publicly declared. I find many of the critical suggestions made about the Bush administration’s motives, e.g. war for oil, as implausible as they are uncharitable, but if we put to one side the question of the “real” motives, the generosity of the motives that the Bush administration claimed to have make the Iraq War, as far as I know, a unique episode, and Bush a unique figure, in modern history. On the eve of the invasion, Bush said to the Iraqi people:

Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.

As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need.

We will tear down the apparatus of terror, and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.

The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.

It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power. It is not too late for the Iraq military to act with honor and protect your country, by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Our forces will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed.

I urge every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services: If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life.

Here the stress is on liberation. The war aim is to deliver freedom to the Iraqi people, freedom from poison factories, execution of dissidents, torture chambers. Of course, just because this was a motive of the war doesn’t mean it was the motive. Maybe you could deny that Bush was even claiming that liberation was even a motive. That is, you could say that (Bush thought) the war was in the US national interest, but we happened to intend to conduct it in a way that would benefit the Iraqi people too, and by publicizing this intention beforehand we would reduce resistance and make the military’s job easier. But then consider Bush’s Second Inaugural.

We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.

Note the universalism of Bush’s speech. Bush wants to “end tyranny in our world.” While he does represent this as being in the national interest, it is difficult to read this speech and think that Bush regards “ending tyranny in our world” as merely a means to an end (US national security). What other major public figure alive today has even paid lip service to such a lofty objective?

To critics of the Bush administration and the Iraq War, I would pose the question: Were Bush’s ideals too high? Was he wrong to (at least claim to) aspire to end tyranny in our world?

If so, why? Is it because he overestimated the value of freedom? Maybe freedom isn’t suitable for everyone? Maybe some peoples are “not ready for democracy,” or have different cultural values that make them prefer what a Westerner like Bush calls tyranny? Or is it that Bush was unrealistic, over-reaching, over-estimating America’s power to effect change? Is tyranny too entrenched, too grounded in human nature, to be overcome?

If not, what’s your alternative? How should we pursue the goal of ending tyranny in the world, if not by the means that Bush championed? It seems to me that the great disillusioned masses at both the popular and the elite levels have largely shirked this question. The general response seems to be to sneer, to dismiss Bush as dumb or whatever, to spin conspiracy theories or impute– possibly with justice, but that’s not the point– ulterior motives, and to try to forget the whole episode. The disillusioned have not tried to answer Bush’s high ideals with better high ideals. Rather, high ideals in general seem to have gone out of fashion. This is unfortunate.

Certainly, it seems unlikely that tyranny in our world will be ended in the fashion that America ended it in Iraq since 2003. The war was costly– perhaps $2.4 trillion— and neither the US nor other developed countries can afford to do that routinely. The regime in North Korea is still standing, possibly a worse tyranny than Saddam’s Iraq, and while there may be no other really totalitarian regimes left, Belarus, Vietnam, China, most of Central Asia, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries are unfree to an extent that a charge of “tyranny” might be appropriate. And while the war in Iraq has created a messy quasi-democracy in place of totalitarianism, in Afghanistan, where conditions were less favorable for democracy, a full Taliban restoration seems likely enough. Exporting institutions directly, via liberation, is too expensive and unreliable to be applied globally.

If we really want to end tyranny in our world, open borders will surely have to be a big part of the strategy. By realizing the right to emigrate on a global scale, we would free people to free themselves from tyranny. Emigres might then be a potent force for liberating their homelands, as I argued in “American Hajj: Towards an Open Society.” Unfortunately, the reaction against Bush has dispelled any consensus one might have hoped for in 2004 that we should be trying to end tyranny in our world. So this argument might have limited force just now. Incidentally, compare Bryan Caplan’s recent post “The Rights of the World’s Poor.” I like Caplan partly (let me mischievously suggest) for the same reason I liked Bush. High ideals.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

9 thoughts on “The Iraq War and open borders”

  1. Open borders in any sizable country, even a poor one, would suffice as a fallback defense against genocide. This reminds me of the Australian government paying poorer countries to take refugees and asylum seekers in its place.

    If the rich countries spent a few trillion dollars, could they pay a poor country to open its borders generally, as a global safety valve? The per capita bribe for natives could be relatively high.

    One drawback, although probably small relative to the value of a safety valve destination for refugees, is that the existence of a country with open borders would make it easier for governments to practice mass expulsion of populations.

    “what’s your alternative…The war was costly– perhaps $2.4 trillion–….”

    From a humanitarian perspective, malaria bednets, vaccinations, and other public health oriented foreign aid far outperforms wars of liberation in lives saved per dollar, or equivalent suffering from oppression. Scientific research into malaria and HIV cures could consume the Iraq War budget many times over. If one prioritized interventions by how much they help the world’s worst-off, it would be a long time before one got to wars like Iraq.

    1. BK, you wrote: “One drawback, although probably small relative to the value of a safety valve destination for refugees, is that the existence of a country with open borders would make it easier for governments to practice mass expulsion of populations.”

      It’s possible that the existence of open borders would make it easier for govts to practice mass expulsions – but I also think that the sort of govt that would be enticed to practice mass expulsions is that kind of govt that would’ve done it anyway with or without open borders. I think the defining characteristic of such a govt is its intrinsic “badness” – seeking power for powers’ sake with little to no interest in accumulating wealth, for instance – otherwise why would you want to send away a considerable portion of your human resource? So if one realizes that such a kind of govt is motivated to a great extent by nothing else but pure evil – then open borders immediately turn out to be a less costly intervention. Otherwise such a govt, in the presence of “immigration frictions”, might opt for the ethnic cleansing route, for instance, and still achieve its objectives.

      I kind of touch on this point in this post ( using work done by Glaeser and Schleifer. In their paper, Glaeser and Schleifer make the case for the existence of the kinds of govts that might be motivated by nothing else but power and are willing to do anything to get it.

      1. As I said, we are probably talking about a second-order effect here. But I think the picture of binary evil and non-evil leaders is too Manichaeian.

        There is a lot of work showing that even tyrannical governments are responsive to incentives, including the threat of revolution, assassination, international support/attack/prosecution, and the willingness of the army to execute their orders. So even very power-hungry rulers face a continuum of oppressions and atrocities with varying levels of drawback.

        Potential genocides would be substituted for expulsions at the margin, but for some leaders expulsion would cross a threshold too. Genocides are much worse than expulsions, so the second effect is very probably smaller, but it looks like a real drawback of an overall improvement.

        In the linked post you talk mainly about random American mayors trying to drive out non-black or non-Irish residents, in the presence of extremely strong inhibitions on genocide but with easy options for emigration. So your own writing undermines the idea that expulsion only appeals to those willing and able to commit genocide.

        1. BK,

          In addition to the “random American mayors” I also talk about Robert Mugabe, who in the early 1980s committed mass almost genocidal atrocities on the Ndebele people (see only to follow it up 20 years later with a combination of mass expulsions and atrocities ( All this happened under a regime of closed borders. Or we can look at Idi Amin who in the 1970s simultaneously committed atrocities and expelled en masse a good portion of his people ( All this took place under a regime of closed borders.

          The point I tried to make is that it is not clear, at least to me, that mass expulsion in the presence of open borders should count as a drawback of open borders (even if it is second order). Because the kind of tyrant who would expel his own people under open borders is the kind of tyrant likely to do so under closed borders – and might probably do worse under closed borders as the examples of Mugabe and Amin suggest. Therefore, any emigration that takes place in response to such a tyrant under open borders should be seen in a positive light.

          Of course there are tyrants facing constraints on their power preventing them from doing the sort of things that Mugabe and Amin did. And I’d like to believe that this type of tyrant is unlikely to forcefully expel his people under either closed or open borders – although some portion of his people are likely to voluntarily and easily migrate under the latter regime.

    2. I think it is possible that open borders (or open borders in some countries; global right to emigrate) would sometimes encourage expulsions in situations that wouldn’t have turned into genocide. Probably not too often, and by create foreign constituencies in many jurisdictions they might also strengthen public pressure for UN-led interventions to prevent expulsions. Since you’d also probably prevent some genocides, and a lot of run-of-the-mill oppression. As you say, “a real drawback [or at least a possible one] of an overall improvement.”

      Concerning the question of whether the Iraq War was a good deal, dollar for dollar, from a humanitarian perspective, you may be right, but i would add a couple of caveats. First, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein may have created a particular kind of CREDIBLE THREAT against potential totalitarian dictators everywhere, which will prevent many acts of extreme oppression and state violence the possibility of which we’ll never know about. It could be a bit like asking whether the prosecution of a murderer is a good use of public resources. In a sense, no, if the murderer wasn’t going to kill again. You spend a lot of money and don’t bring the victim back. But you deter other potential murderers. It seems very plausible that demagogues and military chiefs, contemplating a seizure of and brutal exercise of power, will remember the fate of Saddam Hussein, and think twice.

      Second, it’s not very realistic to regard the US as facing a budget constraint and deciding where they can get the biggest humanitarian payoff. The US spends WAY less than it could on humanitarian objectives of one kind or another. If I thought the Iraq War were financed entirely be defunding famine relief and schools for African orphans and AIDS research or whatever, I wouldn’t have supported it. But if, relative to the counter-factual, it will turn out to have been financed by defunding Social Security benefits to the affluent, it was worth it.

      1. “if I thought the Iraq War were financed”

        The dollar cost goes higher if you include the long-term costs of treating veterans. ‘Foreign aid’ to Iraq and Afghanistan tied to war aims has exploded as a fraction of all nominally foreign aid expenditures while being highly ineffective (much of it intended to be stolen as a bribe to local politicians). Higher foreign expenditures makes it harder to argue for foreign aid, even though war-related aid is significantly different.

        With costs of trillions of dollars, if you divided up the cost evenly across all areas of government spending weighted by size, the hit to R&D, foreign aid, and other high-value functions would still be severe. R&D alone was 3% of the federal budget. If you exclude interest expense and fixed costs the share would be higher:

        If you assume that spending reflects a balance of the political support for different programs modulated by a budget constraint, then it looks bad.

        And wars consume huge amounts of political and media attention that could have gone to other issues. Presidential debates, newspapers, think tanks, TV, all discussed the Iraq war at the expense of other issues that could have been on the agenda more, like patent reform, or immigration reform, or foreign aid, or healthcare programs, R&D, global warming, taxes and regulation…

        1. The claim that foreign aid to Iraq (never mind Afghanistan: that’s quite a different case) has been “highly ineffective” is one I’d regard with great skepticism. The problem of foreign aid going to bribe local officials, or more generally getting channeled to vested interests of one sort or another, is a common problem for foreign aid. In Iraq, there’s definitely been a change of regime: one couldn’t claim that ‘foreign aid’ has simply had not effect there. That ‘foreign aid’ to Iraq and Afghanistan has explored “as a fraction of all nominal foreign aid expenditures” is obviously the wrong measure. If foreign aid to Iraq and Afghanistan went up a lot and all other foreign aid went up a little, then foreign aid to Iraq and Afghanistan would have risen “as a fraction of all nominal foreign aid expenditures,” but the suggestion that the Iraq War was crowding out foreign aid would be completely false. The nation-building experience that the military gained could come in useful in the future, either for the US military itself or perhaps for the UN or other agencies that might get into the businesses of overthrowing totalitarian regimes at some point. As for “political and media attention that could have gone to other issues,” I think the high degree of attention the war attracted to crucial issues of sovereignty, the nature of international responsibilities, the desirability of freedom and democracy worldwide, and so on was one of the benefits of the war. Far from crowding out aid to Africa, Bush increased funding for combating AIDS in Africa and was fairly generous with foreign aid in general, and of course, Bush was also an advocate of immigration reform, though a Republican, and despite 9/11 which could have provided a powerful impetus to restrictionism. I suspect that all these things are connecting, that the Iraq War created a battle for the moral high ground which, while it lasted, tended to put more energy into all sorts of good causes. We certainly can’t know the counter-factual, and I think a cost-benefit analysis of the war would be quite impossible, the effects radiate outwards in so many directions, and anyway, how do you measure the dollar value of an Iraqi being able to tell the truth? What might be the biggest benefit of all, the credible threat against other potential dictators, is the most impossible to quantify. But I suppose we’re a bit off-topic.

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