The Long View 2004-05-28: Credible Force

The first paragraph of this post wasn't really intended to be predictive of anything, but I will riff on it anyway. In 2004, Bush and Kerry were really proposing much the same solutions in foreign relations. Bush was in charge when the Iraq War went down, so he gets the blame in retrospect. This is as it should be. If you are in charge, everything is your fault.

However, I don't know that President John Kerry really would have acquitted himself better, given the way the foreign policy of President Obama turned out. Everyone who is anyone is committed to the Invade the World/Invite the World plan, all that changes is the details.

Is is interesting that the unilateral/multilateral debate about the proper response to 9/11 has completely evaporated. At the time, this was an all-consuming political question for partisans. Now, I doubt anyone thinks about it much. Events have moved far past this paper. The US and Russia joust over Syria. The UN set up Ghaddafi for his downfall, but the actual work was done by the US and France. Each state adopts a unilateral or multilateral stance as it sees fit.


Credible Force

The great irony in the presidential election of 2004 is that George Bush's and John Kerry's foreign policies are substantially identical; the question is whether you think people like Donald Rumsfeld are best suited to carry out the policy, or people like Madelaine Albright are. So, I have just two comments about the foreign-policy statement that Kerry made yesterday in Seattle.

The first is an editorial nit I must pick with this statement:

More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt defined American leadership in foreign policy. He said America should walk softly and carry a big stick.

Theodore Roosevelt, of course, actually said "speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far." (He said it was a West African proverb.) Kerry seems oddly prone to small slips like this. Readers will recall his allusion to the role of Pope Pius XXIII in the Second Vatican Council. None of these slips is as much fun as the more ingenious Bushisms, like "misunderestimate," but they do suggest a problem with semantics rather than mere rhetoric.

More seriously, we have this critique of the Bush Administration's alleged aversion to multilateralism:

America must always be the world’s paramount military power. But we can magnify our power through alliances. We simply can’t go it alone – or rely on a coalition of the few. The threat of terrorism demands alliances on a global scale -- to find the extremist groups, to guard ports and stadiums, to share intelligence, and to get the terrorists before they get us. In short, we need a coalition of the able -- and in truth, no force on earth is more able than the United States and its allies.

Actually, that is just what the Bush Administration did. When they pulled the levers on the old alliance system, they found that many of them were no longer hooked up to anything. So, they had to do an unsightly job of ripping out the interface panels and rewiring by hand whatever they could. Even countries that opposed the Iraq War have been eager to cooperate in the sort of police measures Kerry mentioned. The exceptions are countries that already do business with the terror networks. In Iraq itself, just about all the "able" are already there.

* * *

Among the commentators trying to re-argue the rationales for the war, there is former Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, who once was commander of the CENTCOM region, which includes Iraq. The odd thing is that he still insists the region was acceptably "stable" before the war, despite what has since come to light about the Libyan and Iranian WMD programs, and the nuclear wholesale market that operated out of Pakistan.

He also repeats General Shinseki's estimate that Iraq should have been invaded with no fewer that 300k to 500k troops. That sort of commitment would have stripped the US military of just about its whole deployable force; he made the assessment to stop the war. That's why Zinni raised the point again. The problem, of course, is that this philosophy makes almost any war impossible. Zinni is trying to reassert the post-Vietnam consensus that the US military will not fight in any context that does not come up to its exacting specifications. If the national interest requires action in some situation that does not meet those criteria, then addressing that problem is none of the military's affair. In other words, the enemies of the United States can delete the conventional American military from its calculations, except for the sort of cruise missile campaigns that Zinni used to oversee in Iraq.

Zinni is quite right that the US lacked military police, translators, border guards, and civil-administration units for the reconstruction of Iraq. It lacked those things because the Pentagon had never asked to develop those capabilities, and it had not asked for them because it did not want to be asked to do nation-building. Well, now we know better.

* * *

A far more serious assessment of the war comes from Fouad Ajami, in a New York Times Op Ed entitled Iraq May Survive, but the Dream Is Dead:

Back in the time of our triumph -- that of swift movement and of pulling down the dictator's statues -- we had let the victory speak for itself. There was no need to even threaten the Syrians, the Iranians and the Libyans with a fate similar to the one that befell the Iraqi despotism. Some of that deterrent power no doubt still holds. But our enemies have taken our measure; they have taken stock of our national discord over the war. We shall not chase the Syrian dictator to a spider hole, nor will we sack the Iranian theocracy.

That's perfectly true. Still, though Ajami is always worth listening to, I think he is being unduly pessimistic. The Iraq War has changed the sense of the possible in the region, even if it has not left the rulers of Syria and Iran considering their places of exile. We will see this more clearly after the US presidential election.

* * *

I am always happy to see that aspirin has been shown to cure or prevent some dread disease. This time it's breast cancer. What is aspirin believed to help with now? Strokes, heart attacks, several kinds of cancer?

There is an old saying that you don't need good epidemiological studies to spot a miracle drug. That's why they stop double-blind tests of drugs if it seems that all the subjects who are receiving the drug are getting better. I want to know why, if aspirin is such a panacea, we are not living in world like Death Takes a Holiday?

* * *

Of course, they also stop drug tests if all the patients taking the drug seem to be dying, which brings us to the decision earlier this week from a panel of the Ninth Circuit, sustaining Oregon's assisted-suicide law. The case was not about whether anyone has a right to kill himself; it was about whether the US Attorney General could forbid doctors in the state from prescribing drugs for patients to kill themselves with. The New York Times tells us:

Mr. Ashcroft relied on the Controlled Substances Act, which allows the federal government to sanction doctors if they prescribe drugs for anything but legitimate medical purposes.

But the majority ruled that the text, purpose and history of that law did not authorize the Justice Department to use it to override the Oregon law. Congress meant to fight drug abuse, the majority said, not to regulate what is and is not medicine.

Assisted suicide is a bad idea, and the Oregon law in particular shows signs of becoming a way to get rid of the depressed and senile. Still, in this case the Ninth Circuit was correct. In fact, the Attorney General's argument was so obviously going to fail that it undermined whatever claims he may make in the future to be acting on legal principle. The chief argument against Roe v. Wade is that it was decided without regard to principle, but simply with an eye to the result. I have every confidence that Roe will be nullified someday, but its spirit has already permanently infected even its opponents.

* * *

If you need a short explanation for why constitutional jurisprudence has collapsed, read the article that Steven D. Smith of the University of San Diego has in the June/July issue of First Things. It's entitled "Conciliating Hatred."

Smith points out what everyone knows: what the Supreme Court does in its church-and-state cases, and personal autonomy cases, is not legal reasoning in any serious sense. Rather, what the Court imagines it is doing is conciliating the parties, which in these cases represent cultural and religious factions of the American people. This is the sort of thing that trial judges do routinely; that's why most civil cases are settled. It's also not unknown for appellate courts to shape legal principles so as to give least offense to all concerned. The problem is that so many of the issues that the Court decides involve moral principles about which there is no consensus, or at least not among the sort of people who read Supreme Court decisions. So, the Court has fallen into the habit, never articulated as a principle, of striking down laws on the basis of "bad motive."

This leads to odd results. The Court has allowed quite extensive subsidies for charitable religious institutions, which obviously redound to the public credit of the institutions involved, but it strikes down even the most minor law that seems intended to give public endorsement of a theological proposition. There are in fact plausible moral and medical reasons for government disfavor of homosexual activity, but the Court's retreat from principle allows it to see nothing in such disfavor but "hatred" of a minority.

The real irony is that this method actually precludes real reconciliation. The Court's decisions tend to blacken the motives of the losing parties; their actual arguments are increasingly not even considered. The Court is becoming like a shout-show on cable news, where the host hurls character assassination at the guests. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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