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May 17, 2007

The Hypothetical Government

Conservatives have crowed for years that they have "won the war of ideas." More often than not, such boasts include a citation of Richard Weaver's famous dictum, "Ideas have consequences." A war of ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, "[I]f you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas." The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.

America was a nation formed from a desire to see the divine right of kings replaced by a representative government in which the people shaped their own destiny. But contrary to the pandering prevarications of various political candidates, the Founders abhorred the idea of direct democracy. In the Federalist #10, James Madison laid out the rationale for creating a Republic rather than a democracy:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Thus it was that our form of government features a Constitution and three separate but co-equal branches of government to represent the people and carry out the daily business of running the nation. For over two hundred years this system has worked admirably.

But recent advances in technology have radically shifted the balance of power away from the Executive branch. Last week the editorial staff commented on how the rise of cable TV and the internet have eroded the ability of the chief executive to build popular support for ambitious policy objectives. The once powerful bully pulpit has become a bullied pulpit, a phenomenon noted during the Clinton administration:

During the past decade of post-Cold War drift, American foreign policy has been assailed by two camps of critics. The first makes ad hominem attacks: America's diplomatic failings reflect a lack of leadership from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or congressional Republicans. The second camp is cultural and holds that America is either too isolationist to pursue international goals in a sustained way or too riven by multiculturalism to manage a foreign policy consensus. Both camps miss the point. The central problem of American foreign policy is neither personal nor cultural; it is institutional. Executive power, checked and balanced since the early days of the republic, has been eroded dangerously, to the point where even a skilled president would be hard-pressed to push treaties through the Senate. Indeed, the decline of executive power has proceeded so far that the modern president is more nonexecutive chairperson than CEO -- even though the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world make an agenda-setting chief executive as necessary as ever.

Combine the inability of the President to secure prime time coverage with the refusal of the press to make full text versions of his speeches available to voters. Add to this the selective filter of mainstream news coverage, in which only a few sentences of the message are carefully selected and more on air time is devoted to commentary and rebuttal from the opposing party than to the original speech, and you have a scenario in which the White House is literally drowned out by a chorus of pundits, politicians, opinion polls, and news anchors. Many of these parties have a vested interest in undermining the message and eroding the credibility and image of the President himself; and all of this, especially during time of war, is not without effect:

War and Peace: Contrasting Presidential approval ratings

The interesting question in all of this is, if opinion polls are such an important indicator of performance, why isn't more media coverage given to Congressional approval ratings, now lower than the President's?

The truth is that we love polls when they confirm our pre-existing biases, but discount them when they undermine what we believe to be true. And try as some might to find the shadow of an emanation of a penumbra within the Constitution commanding the President to govern by polls, even the Black Nine have not yet deconstructed into that document what so clearly is not there: a command to subvert our existing Republican form of government with a direct democracy in which decisions are made by Gallup. Which is not to say that the 110th Congress has not tried their best to bring about such a result anyway:

Democrats in the Senate yesterday demonstrated, once again, that they neither have the votes for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq nor a real policy on the war.

Wednesday's vote to cut off funding by March 31, 2008, was voted down 67-29, with 19 Democrats joining every Republican in opposing the measure, which was submitted as an amendment to an unrelated bill. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who put forth the measure with Majority Leader Harry Reid, noted optimistically that a majority of his caucus voted for the measure, which is one way of defining majority down.

There seemed to be some ambivalence, moreover, even among the 29 who supported the measure. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted for Mr. Feingold's amendment, but they also indicated that it was more about sending a message than setting policy. We recall Bob Dole's legendary advice to a freshman Republican that he couldn't go wrong voting for a bill that failed. The two Democrats thus don't give competitor John Edwards any running room on the antiwar left, but they also don't have to take responsibility. Ah, war-time leadership.

The Democrats, in other words, remain trapped in the land of symbolism over the war. Taking up the responsibility that the "power of the purse" gives them does not seem to be on the agenda. They'd rather posture, appeasing their party's left wing without taking ownership of war policy. This evasiveness won't let them off the hook, however. The political consequences of defeat won't only belong to President Bush. To the extent that Democrats are making the conduct of the war more difficult and less certain, they already bear responsibility for the war's outcome whether they like it or not.

What is driving this irrational behavior?

Clearly the votes are not present in Congress, either to cut off funding entirely, or to end the war. If so, why do the Democrats persist in such a quixotic and self-defeating policy? McQ offers an intriguing hint:

The netroots have already changed U.S. politics in sundry ways. They have pressured the Democratic Party to adopt more innovative tactics rather than rely on the cookie-cutter advice of high-priced consultants. And they have pressed the party to adopt a more adversarial tone. Earlier this year, for instance, liberal bloggers successfully lobbied Democratic candidates to boycott a debate forum sponsored by Fox News, on the grounds that their participation would legitimize Fox's dubious claim to be a balanced news organization.

They have raised significant sums of cash for politicians, organized volunteers, and brought together like-minded activists. This has, in turn, created an alternative power center for recruiting candidates for office. Before the net- roots, potential candidates who wanted the national party to take them seriously needed to raise large sums from familiar donors. Now they can raise money on the Internet and approach the national party from a position of strength. "They have totally changed the equation for what makes it possible for somebody to be a viable candidate," notes Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation.

But the most important role played by the netroots is to purvey liberal and pro-Democratic propaganda to offset that coming from the right. As Moulitsas has noted, "We're better as a message machine."

McQ comments:

The right likes to denigrate and dismiss the Netroots as extremists (and I'm as guilty as anyone) and pretend they have no real political effect. But reading Chait's piece should cause you to rethink that position if you hold it.

Chait concludes:

The Democratic Party, as Moulitsas has written, is indeed undergoing a comprehensive reformation, as is liberalism in general. At the end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look a lot more like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida. It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with intellectual or procedural niceties. It will be more of a disciplined movement and less of a collection of idiosyncratic personalities.

The power of the Internet, both as a message machine and a fundraising organ for the Democratic party, is enormous. And it is, quite literally, amplifying the voice of the common man by making it easier for like minded people to pool their resources and organize into pressure groups: the partisan factions James Madison feared so greatly in his Federalist #10. Technology has erased many of the barriers that kept one group from dominating the political scene; therefore, even fringe groups which may not technically be in the majority, when given the ability to organize via the Internet, to pool their voices and their dollars, become a virtual majority with the ability to drive policy on Capitol Hill. And though, as the Wall Street Journal notes, Congress is rightly wary of giving in to extremist positions on the war, they fear the netroots enough to avoid defying them.

The result is an endless parade of "symbolic" votes and feel-good resolutions meant to pacify the netroots while not alienating more moderate voters. But (again due to the power of technology) the message machine reaches a far wider audience than its operators may intend:

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: "What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?"

A few examples may suffice. During the troubles in Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s, there were many attacks on American installations and individuals -- notably the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, followed by a prompt withdrawal, and a whole series of kidnapping of Americans, both official and private, as well as of Europeans. There was only one attack on Soviet citizens, when one diplomat was killed and several others kidnapped. The Soviet response through their local agents was swift, and directed against the family of the leader of the kidnappers. The kidnapped Russians were promptly released, and after that there were no attacks on Soviet citizens or installations throughout the period of the Lebanese troubles.

These different responses evoked different treatment. While American policies, institutions and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune. Their retention of the vast, largely Muslim, colonial empire accumulated by the tsars in Asia passed unnoticed, as did their propaganda and sometimes action against Muslim beliefs and institutions.

So much for the pervasive "inflaming the Arab street" meme. To all appearances, the Arab street has a careful regard for the conservation of effort; they reserve their outrage for those targets on whom it is likely to have some effect:

Most remarkable of all was the response of the Arab and other Muslim countries to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Washington's handling of the Tehran hostage crisis assured the Soviets that they had nothing to fear from the U.S. They already knew that they need not worry about the Arab and other Muslim governments. The Soviets already ruled -- or misruled -- half a dozen Muslim countries in Asia, without arousing any opposition or criticism. Initially, their decision and action to invade and conquer Afghanistan and install a puppet regime in Kabul went almost unresisted. After weeks of debate, the U.N. General Assembly finally was persuaded to pass a resolution "strongly deploring the recent armed intervention in Afghanistan." The words "condemn" and "aggression" were not used, and the source of the "intervention" was not named. Even this anodyne resolution was too much for some of the Arab states. South Yemen voted no; Algeria and Syria abstained; Libya was absent; the non-voting PLO observer to the Assembly even made a speech defending the Soviets.

One might have expected that the recently established Organization of the Islamic Conference would take a tougher line. It did not. After a month of negotiation and manipulation, the Organization finally held a meeting in Pakistan to discuss the Afghan question. Two of the Arab states, South Yemen and Syria, boycotted the meeting. The representative of the PLO, a full member of this organization, was present, but abstained from voting on a resolution critical of the Soviet action; the Libyan delegate went further, and used this occasion to denounce the U.S.

This, then, is the price of American submissiveness: contempt and retaliation. Tigerhawk has a few thoughts on the implications of inaction and our new national squeamishness:

In the years following World War II the West renounced dehumanization in war. We did this unilaterally and alone. Notwithstanding a theoretical commitment to the post-war amendments to the Geneva Conventions (which in the hands of hostile NGOs and media bedeviled Israel in last summer's war) non-western countries and stateless armies still dehumanize their enemies as a matter of policy, but Western countries do not. The press supports them in this, by holding Western governments to entirely different standards than non-Western governments. If that was not already painfully obvious in the coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq, it became so in the Israel -Hezbollah war.

Apart from some tussles in the 1950s while the old soldiers were still adjusting to the new rules, the West has not really won a war since we decided that our enemies were people too (especially if you believe, as I do, that the Gulf War of 1991 was a victory in a battle in a war that ended before the defeat of the enemy). Is this a historical accident, or has the West decided to adhere to rules in war -- and peace, for that matter -- that have fatally handicapped our ability to win wars? Is it possible to win a real war without dehumanizing the enemy?

Excluding wars that are purposefully genocidal (in which one combatant has the objective of exterminating the other), victory in war amounts to forcing your enemy to do what you want, or to stop doing something you oppose. What does it take to achieve that victory? Well, since your enemy has already given up everything that is good in life to take up arms, live in wretched conditions, see his own friends and family die, and sacrifice his life, if necessary, it is very difficult to persuade him to do what you want. At that point, reason has departed the premises, so he will only stop fighting if he has no choice.

But sadly, such clarity is in short supply these days. Due to the bullying power of the mass media, government possesses no "message machine" with which to counter either propaganda churned out by the Netroots or that generated by our enemies in wartime. It cannot silence opposition from within, any efforts to pay for favorable opinion coverage or placement of positive news stories highlighting our successes (surely acceptable in a capitalist economy where news organizations are for-profit ventures) are quickly cast by a hostile media as unacceptable corruption of the free press.

Culturally, America is no longer a warrior society and thus the average American is ill-equipped to distinquish the counterfeit from the genuine. They celebrate as a 'hero' John Kerry, who bailed out of a 12 month combat tour with "wounds" no more serious than a paper cut, while vilifying a Bud Day. But then Kerry always was a better 'message machine' and to the ADD Nation it's not what you actually did in the war, it's how you talk about what you did.

As I observed earlier today, like those who govern us most voters have no direct contact with those who protect us, the police and the military. We endlessly second guess even the legitimate use of force to uphold the laws which keep us safe. A dangerous moral confusion has crept into the discourse of war; an inherently silly bleating in which even those who were once warriors themselves argue that only a perfect war in which no mistakes are ever made will satisfy them. And as we all know, there is no such thing as a perfect war, fought with no innocent loss of life. There can never be such a war, except in a hypothetical universe filled with latter-day Pontius Pilates who govern by symbolic votes and non-binding resolutions while our troops face a determined and deadly enemy in a world where the consequences of their refusal to act are most decidedly real.

But even this can be waved away, because in the new Zero Defect Mentality of the 21st Century's perfect ethical warriors, all wars are inherently illegal and immoral. Such wars can never be "worth" the moral cost of winning:

The killing at the Samarra checkpoint was not an atrocity; most likely it was an accident, a mistake. Yet plenty of evidence suggests that in Iraq such mistakes have occurred routinely, with moral and political consequences that have been too long ignored. Indeed, conscious motivation is beside the point: Any action resulting in Iraqi civilian deaths, however inadvertent, undermines the Bush administration's narrative of liberation, and swells the ranks of those resisting the U.S. presence.

Thus is "winning" redefined by the moral equivalence brigade. Now in order to "win" and justify the moral legitimacy of the war, we must not only liberate the Iraqis but treat each and every unintended casualty as a paid employee of the United States government:

It's not that we have no regard for Iraqi lives; it's just that we have much less regard for them. The current reparations policy -- the payment offered in those instances in which U.S. forces do own up to killing an Iraq civilian -- makes the point. The insurance payout to the beneficiaries of an American soldier who dies in the line of duty is $400,000, while in the eyes of the U.S. government, a dead Iraqi civilian is reportedly worth up to $2,500 in condolence payments -- about the price of a decent plasma-screen TV.

For all the talk of Iraq being a sovereign nation, foreign occupiers are the ones deciding what an Iraqi life is worth. And although President Bush has remarked in a different context that "every human life is a precious gift of matchless value," our actions in Iraq continue to convey the impression that civilian lives aren't worth all that much.

Bacevich closes by asserting:

Unless we demonstrate by our actions that we value their lives as much as the lives of our own troops, our failure is certain.

Is it any wonder that this war drags on and on, that we cannot seem to bring it to a close? The Democrats lambast the President for not "listening to the commanders", yet their endless parade of generals contradict themselves with every word. Those who purport to speak for the troops cannot seem to make up their minds what they wish the President to do. Now that he has implemented their suggestions, they lie and accuse him of not listening.

It is becoming increasingly clear that nothing this President does will please his opponents. He will not be allowed to win this war, yet if we are beaten he will bear the blame for a failure architected by his opponents who defeated him, not by an honest up or down vote, but by the death of a thousand non-binding pinpricks.

If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.
- Ulysses S. Grant

Update: Miserable Failure Alert!

As the ripples spread from the crushing Democratic defeat, Sen. Warner's own surrender bill -- setting benchmarks with troop-withdrawals attached -- also failed. Sen. Levin, seeing the handwriting on the wall and reluctant to join the Democratic exodus out the door, withdrew his demand for defeat without allowing it to come to a vote.

Seeing nothing but "miserable failure" on all his anti-victory bills, Majority Leader Reid has evidently given up; he is now likely to admit the Democrats cannot pass any of the troop-abandonment bills that relentlessly burble up from the chamber on the other side of the Capitol Dome


via Mark

Posted by Cassandra at May 17, 2007 07:45 AM

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Crystal clear. Another outstanding post Milady.

I've been having this nagging feeling for a pretty long while now that the office of the POTUS is devolving into a sort of federal Project Management position in that the job title is impressive as heck, the responsibilities are enormous, but the authority to execute is being stripped from the position. All responsibility, no authority. And if someone or something does not cooperate to further the probability of success, the powerless PM… er POTUS is keel-hauled.

Posted by: bthun at May 17, 2007 12:19 PM

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?

O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?

Wherein thou art less happy being fear'd
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery?

O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think'st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it?
No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know

'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:

And... but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 17, 2007 12:35 PM

Hypothetical Question: If this U.S. government started rounding up non-Republicans for opposing...?

...the government, and putting them in prison compounds with no consideration for due process, what would your position be?

Bizarre? Sure. Let's call it a bizarre question about something that could never possibly happen... but hypothetically, if it did happen, where would you stand?

Posted by: paulxty at May 17, 2007 01:54 PM

Merely for opposing (politically) the current administration?

Obviously I'd have to come out publicly against it. On what ground, though, would they do that?

Unless of course it was Tim Robbins or Alec Baldwin. Pure blessed relief might tempt me into betraying my principles in that case.

And if it were Keith Olbermann, I'd have to vote to impeach the Prez on grounds of sheer stupidity. Every single word out of that idiot's mouth is a visible refutation of his central thesis that the administration is brutally crushing dissent and Americans are "afraid" to speak out against the BushReich.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 17, 2007 02:01 PM

What an apocalypse now sort of question.

And I was all psyched for a loaf of distressful bread, a few grogs of ale and maybe some slap and tickle with my lovely wench here at the hovel but now I’m gonna fret over the possibilities for… well… ok I’m over it.

Posted by: Falstaff at May 17, 2007 03:50 PM

And I was all psyched for a loaf of distressful bread...

Forsooth, is not the villainry wicked snarky today? :p

Posted by: Bada Boom, Bada Bing at May 17, 2007 03:52 PM

I get the distinct impression, at times, that you do not like Brother Keith. But I may be wrong about that, eh?

But the dichotomy of the relationship between Mother Russia and the Islamic World is really a strange one. I read something the other day that the deliberate effort of Saudi Arabia to LOWER world oil prices in the '80's, had a direct financial reprecussion, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, it looks like they are in cahoots to KEEP UP the price of oil in the world market (along with Iran). Strange world we live in, no?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 17, 2007 05:00 PM

I get the distinct impression, at times, that you do not like Brother Keith...

Now where on earth would you get an idea like that? :p

And yes, it *is* a very strange world.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 17, 2007 05:28 PM

Ooh, baby! Instalanche may be on the way!

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 18, 2007 08:22 AM

Scarily enough, he actually linked to this yesterday afternoon Don.

This makes two in one week. I am sort of stunned - this isn't any different from my usual overthought blather. However, I am not complaining :p

Posted by: Cassandra at May 18, 2007 08:32 AM

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