The Long View 2003-06-18: Suspicious Readings

This bit from 2003 reminds me of what Steve Sailer said earlier this year about Vietnam. To a casual observer, it actually looked like the Iraqs were happy with us because we mostly talked to people who spoke English. That was a minority of the population, and not close to a representative one.

Very much the same mistake was made during the Arab Spring as well. We heard a lot from Westernized activists who spoke good English, and not very much from the actual majorities who ended up supporting distinctly illiberal candidates like Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. It would appear that the American political establishment, like the American electorate, has perfect and invincible ignorance on the subject.

Suspicious Readings

The invaluable Mark Steyn of the National Post visited Iraq recently, where he found that 95% of the people he spoke to were pleased about the liberation. He then went to the US, where most people outside the political class were satisfied with the outcome of the war, and so were focusing on other things. Along the way, though, he visited Britain, prompting this observation about the declining fortunes of the Blair government:

"In America, Mr Blair is still Churchill. In Britain, Mr Blair has fast-forwarded to the Churchill of 1945: his own party never liked him, his wartime coalition with Clement Duncan Attlee has broken up, and the ingrate voters have had enough of wartime austerity - the wretched hospitals, the broken trains - and would like a domestic panderer rather than a global colossus."

This is, of course, the British electorate's privilege, as it is the privilege of Democrats in the US Congress to try to turn the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq into a scandal. As Steyn points out, the Tories in Britain are as keen as pacifist Labor to suggest that the rationale for the war was a hoax, thus illustrating the principle that political opportunism is non-partisan.

One could complain at length about the unfairness of using the issue in this way. Before the war, the people who are talking about a hoax now were then arguing against an invasion on the grounds that the Iraqis would surely use WMDs. One could also chortle about the stupidity. Eventually, the institutions and plant of the Iraqi WMD program will be picked out of the rubble of the Baathist state. However, it is too early for any of this. The problem is not that debates about the rationale for the Iraq War will undermine the reelection chances of GW Bush and Tony Blair. The problem is that a "politics of suspicion" in the US and Britain will make it impossible to pursue the Terror War, of which the invasion of Iraq was only a campaign.

It may or may not be true that Special Forces are already operating in Iran, and that they are preparing for action within the next 12 months. It is, however, very clear that the growth of a public opposition in Iran owes a great deal to the presence of Coalition forces on the Tigris. The US government has said that it is no intention of invading Iran, and these protestations are true. Those Special Forces, if they are there, would be preparing to take and secure Iranian nuclear facilities should the current regime start to unravel. For that to happen, the Coalition has to be able to plausibly threaten intervention, if only to dissuade the theocracy from taking extreme measures against the opposition.

None of this will work if Washington and London are tied up in a game of "What did the government know and when did they know it?" The effect would be to squander the new strategic situation in the Middle East. In Northeast Asia the implications would be even worse: North Korea could take advantage of a season of paralyzed skepticism in the West to export its most horrible things. To my knowledge, no one doubts that Iran and North Korea have WMD programs. Even the dimmest congressman must have realized that one of the reasons for occupying Iraq was to facilitate access to Iran. So, do we really have to get to the bottom of the pre-war intelligence issue now?

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Speaking of Mark Steyn, my name keeps turning up just above his on Google's list of "Conservative Celebrities." This is ridiculous on several counts. I'm not a "celebrity" by any definition; for that matter, I'm not all that conservative. What bothers me is that I can't imagine how such a list could be complied that would put my site seven names above a real cyber-spider like David Horowitz. There are mysteries here, but the best take on this sort of issue comes from The Onion.

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Robert Bork, writing in the Wall Street Journal, recently made a rather more lucid exposition of one of my pet peeves: however much the US may object to international bodies trying to extend jurisdiction over US citizens, the fact is that American courts were way ahead of them. There are few better places than a US District Court for one foreigner to sue another for actions committed abroad. He points out that the statute most responsible for this trend is actually very old: the Alien Torts Act, passed in the 1790s. Its chief purpose was to provide a civil remedy for piracy. However, it was phrased more generally, so that federal courts could hear cases about violations of the "law of nations" wherever those violations occurred. The novelty of the current situation is that there is now an industry of law professors dedicated to expanding the "law of nations" in every direction. Bork implies that the only way to return to sanity would be for courts to interpret the statute in light of the content of international law at the time of the statute's passage.

This is one situation where a construction of "original intent" will not work. The fact is that the Constitution itself has to be interpreted in the context of the law of nations, even though that context keeps changing. The meaning of terms like "ambassador," "tariff," "war," "commerce," all change with the passage of time, because they refer to the ways that nations interact with each other. The very idea of "independence" is a variable notion that has meaning only in post-Westphalian jurisprudence. It is true that the content of international law is being expanded irresponsibly and arbitrarily, but that is because no mechanism exists to control the process.

Does that mean that we have to put up with whatever interpretation some trendy judge picks up from a law journal? Not at all: in the case of the Alien Torts Act, for instance, it would not be hard for Congress to limit the statute to say "piracy," or to expand it to include "genocide." If we are going to trust judges less, however, we have to trust legislatures more.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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