Friday, February 27, 2004
Go on, Leon, tell us how you really feel.
I have not seen, and do not intend to see, The Passion of the Christ, primarily for the reasons articulated here (scroll down to "BUCKETS O'BLOOD" - I assume this is an Irish joke, Derb?). Violent, gory films are not for me.
Because I haven't seen the film, I'm not going to comment on the anti-Semitism angle. I think that debate should be left to those who've seen the movie. I will say, though that Wieseltier's complaints should not be dismissed out of hand by those who assume that he's another Jewish hysteric; someone who wrote this cover story deserves a little more credit than that.
But I do want to disagree with Wiesletier about one thing. He's got a problem with the idea of martyrdom that infects the rest of his criticism of the movie, and I wish he could separate that issue out.
Wieseltier thinks that any concept of martyrdom amounts to "holy suicide." I don't think that's right at all. A martyr, properly understood, is not one who seeks death at all, but one who seeks life even in the fiery furnace; someone who, faced with the choice of a death in life or a life in death, chooses the latter. A martyr chooses to die meaningfully rather than live emptily. That is not an anti-life concept. It's not even exclusively a religious concept; you can be an existential martyr, a martyr to beliefs that have no origin outside the universe. Robert Bolt's Thomas More is portrayed as an existential martyr of this type; the substantive content of Bolt's More's beliefs are of little interest compared with the significance of the fact of those beliefs for his life, and his death. But More does not seek death. Far from it; he seeks to live by any means at his disposal that do not put his soul in jeopardy.
Nonetheless, I think there is a difference between martyrdom in the Jewish tradition and in the Christian. And this difference may, perhaps, be elucidated by the difference between the Passion (the concept and event, not the movie) and the closest Jewish equivalent, the eleh ezkerah ("these we remember") recounted on the Day of Atonement.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, Jews recount the story of ten martyrs murdered by the Romans as part of their crushing of the Messianic revolt of 132-135 CE. The story is thoroughly as gruesome, and the suffering fully as intense, as that of the Passion. One has his skin flayed entirely off before being killed. Another is raked with iron combs before death. Another is wrapped in a Torah scroll and burnt alive, doused with water to prolong his sufferings as he burns. It's horrible to read. And in many congregations, the stories are supplemented by stories of more recent sufferings, typically stories from the Shoah.
What does this have to do with atonement? Christians recount the Passion because what Jesus, whom they understand to have been God as well as man, by means of his sufferings took upon himself the sins of the world, and thereby redeemed the world from destruction. The eleh ezkerah serves a similar and yet crucially different purpose. Judaism has no concept of Incarnation; indeed, the idea is profoundly blasphemous to Jewish ears, and always will be. And I do not believe that it is a canonical Jewish idea that suffering itself is redemptive, though there are texts that suggest this. The eleh ezkerah, though, with its place in the Yom Kippur liturgy clearly suggests that the willingness to suffer as a martyr for God has redemptive power. These ten, by their willingness to die rather than deny God's name and refuse to teach His word, played the part of the ten righteous men whom Abraham sought in Sodom; by demonstrating that God was still present on earth, in a quorum of believers, their willingness to die may have spared the earth from ultimate destruction.
We recount their story on the Day of Atonement because we pray that God will remember their z'chut, their merit, when he considers our own sins. We pray that their righteousness will prompt God to be merciful to us on a day when we stand naked before him, full in the knowledge of our sins, struggling to repent. We dwell on their sufferings not for our sake, not to make us feel guilty of our sin (which, as I understand, is part of the point of the Passion), but for God's, to remind Him of the sufferings He visited upon them, and which they accepted since there was no other choice but to deny Him, which would be a greater suffering, and a greater death.
Wieseltier would call the ten martyrs victims of a crime. He would, in other words, assign the meaning of their deaths to their persecutors; the meaning is that evil is evil. I can't go along with him there. Perhaps that is the meaning of an infant dashed to death by a Nazi stormtrooper; perhaps that is why it is so hard to contemplate a world in which such crimes occur. I do not think such an interpretation does justice to the life of a Rabbi Akivah, with which his death is inextricably bound up.
We're a week shy of the holiday of Purim. Purim celebrates the redemption of the children of Israel from the mad and absurd persecution planned by the wicked Haman the Aggagite. I could go on for a while about Purim, but one thing in particular about the holiday is significant for this discussion. Purim is the only holiday which, we are told, we will continue to observe after the Messiah comes. Why? Because on Purim the children of Israel voluntarily reaffirmed the covenant with God, without God's prompting, and without any obvious sign or miracle. (Indeed, the Book of Esther, which recounts the story of Purim, is the only book in the Hebrew Bible not to contain the name of God.) It is the most precious holiday, therefore.
It is, moreover, the holiday which commemorates the entire Jewish people signing up for martyrdom. How so? Well, when they reaffirmed their covenant, Israel had just been faced with the most comprehensive destruction ever planned, the murder of the entire people on a single day. They could have averted the destruction simply by bowing down to Haman, the king's Grand Vizier, and abandoning the faith of their fathers. But they did not do so. The whole people chose, in other words, to remain in a relationship with God that they knew might well cost them their lives, because choosing otherwise would have been the greater death. That's martyrdom. It's not seeking martyrdom, it's not seeking death, and hence it is in no sense holy suicide. But, as someone smarter than I once said, the readiness is all.
Follow-up: Ramesh Ponnuru seems to think that it would take a "pretty flinty old-school conservative" not to support Scalia's dissent. But he assumes that the only reason to reject the dissent would be that one rejected incorporation. But I accept the idea of incorporation. I just don't accept the idea that the core idea of the First Amendment's religious freedom provisions is anti-discrimination. I think that freedom of religion isn't about equality; I think it's about, you know, freedom. I think that's a much more basic reason to oppose Scalia's view than quibbles about incorporationism.
Be that as it may, what makes Ponnuru think that giving the states less lattitude in how they structure school vouchers - and that's what Scalia's position is - would encourage them to adopt such plans? If states knew that any voucher plan that was not open to all religious schools would be struck down, then wouldn't there be more opposition to vouchers? Folks worried, for example, about funding Islamic fundamentalist schools would be more likely to join the opposition to vouchers if they thought their state would have no lattitude to exclude such schools from voucher plans.
Washington State wrote their scholarship law in an attempt to comply with what they thought was settled Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Now they've discovered that what they thought was required to comply with the Establishment Clause is, according to Scalia, forbidden because it transgresses the Free Exercise clause; indeed, Scalia would argue that what they thought was forbidden is in fact mandatory.
I thought the joke about what is not forbidden is compulsory was a joke we told about the other guys, not one they told about us.
Scrappleface thinks he's making a cute point, but I think he makes the opposite point of what he intended. I mean, obviously a state can offer scholarships that cannot be used to fund a course of study in journalism. No one could really suggest that, if the state passed a law giving scholarships to be used in courses of study other than journalism, that this somehow infringed on freedom of the press. Hmm?
But that's exactly the claim made by Scalia in his Locke v. Davey dissent. Scalia claims that a state benefit sets a "benchmark" from which any failure to deliver a benefit constitutes a "penalty" or even "discrimination." You'd think he was an old welfare-rights liberal from the 1970s. Or - even better - isn't this the very logic used by those who demand government funding for abortions - that a right is not substantial unless you have the means to exercise it, and therefore not paying for an abortion is discriminating against those who can't afford one, and denying them their right to choose to terminate a pregnancy? Sure you want to climb aboard this wagon, Tony?
Scalia's argument is not conservative in any sensible meaning of the term. It is not humble and restrained. It depends on an equal-protection-based understanding of rights that should be anathema to conservatives. It aggregates to the judiciary power that belongs in the legislatures and to the national government power that belongs with the states. It is the best example since Bush v. Gore that purported conservatives on the Court can be so swayed by the interests of ideologically-friendly groups that they have lost sight of their constitutional principles. It is an utterly unpersuasive dissent.
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
This chart is kind of interesting. It shows the Bush/Kerry and Bush/Edwards polls by state. I don't interpret it quite the way RCP does, though. I think the numbers look pretty good for Bush. RCP worries he's vulnerable in Indiana and Kansas, states he's going to win no matter what. What I note is that he's got a strong lead in Arizona (a must-win state that the GOP is slipping in), and that he's in a strong position in Michigan (winning against Edwards, close against Kerry) and Pennsylvania (tied with Kerry in the most recent poll). Both of these are states that Gore won, and that Kerry must win to be elected. By the same token, it's clear that Bush is going to have a real problem holding on to New Hampshire, and that fantasies about making a play for Washington State - to say nothing of California - are just that: fantasies. Bush needs to hold on to his base and make a strong push for every Midwestern state except unwinnable Illinois. If this is what Bush looks like state-by-state with national polls showing him losing, he's not in such bad shape.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Well, the battle is joined.
As I've said before, the idea of calling same-sex couples marriage is seriously misguided, and will do real damage to the institution. I worry less about the "slippery slope" arguments that Stanley Kurtz focuses on - the fact that cultural radicals who are highly influential in the academy will use this as the opening wedge to polyamory and whatnot - than about the direct violence to the meaning of the word, as I've talked about before. Marriage is an institution created for men and women. To say that the word applies to same-sex couples is to say that there is no way of talking anymore about men and women, only about people. And that's a very significant loss. Phyllis Schlafly opposed the ERA in part because she said it would lead to same-sex marriage. I've described my own opposition to same-sex marriage as "Schlafly in reverse" - I am primarily opposed to the idea because it implies that androgyny is now the law of the land, not because I have any interest in denying any particular benefits to gay couples.
For that very reason, I'm supportive of the idea of civil unions, open *only* to same-sex couples who are single and are not blood relations. Civil unions would provide for many of the rights and benefits that are at the core of the same-sex marriage agitation: hospital visitation, inheritance rights, etc. I'd be entirely comfortable with a Federal law that provided for Federal benefits for couples in civil unions that tracked the benefits (tax, Social Security, etc.) for marrieds. I would *not* be comfortable with a blanket anti-discrimination law that made civil unions *entirely* congruent to marriage, for a few reasons, most notably that I think adoption law should favor married couples over gay couples. (For similar reasons, I would be fine with adoption law favoring *gay couples* over singles. We have no real data on how gay couples perform as parents. We have a *lot* of data on single women parents: the outcomes are significantly worse than for married couples. So single women should face a greater negative presumption than gay couples in this area, in my view.) But, in general, this is the sort of thing that ought to be fought out in every state, as different states seek their own solutions for how to properly accommodate gay people, for whom marriage is not a realistic option but who have formed long-term relationships of mutual assistance and, quite reasonably, want some public support for those relationships.
(As aside: I'm often asked how I can possibly reconcile the above view with Biblical prohibitions against homosexual acts. First, those prohibitions are considerably narrower than generally thought; among other things, female same-sex relations are not biblically prohibited, but are condemned by the rabbis as an instance of the general category of "lewdness." Second, we're talking about civil law here, and it can be prudent to permit legally what one condemns morally in certain instances. Morality is not irrelevant to law, but it's not identical to it either. Third, I believe that there is an irreducible core of people who cannot relate to the opposite sex and for whom celibacy is not a realistic option. They fall into the Jewish category of one who sins "under compulsion" and this is, in some circumstances, exculpatory. Here I'm going out on a limb; this is *not* the accepted interpretation of Jewish law, though there are a handful rabbis who have made this argument. But the fourth reason is most important: a civil unions law such as described above says *nothing* about whether the parties involved are having sexual relations. Marriage carries with it all sorts of connotations about sex; non-consummation was, for example, traditional grounds for annulment. There is *no reason* why a civil unions law would need to say *anything* about sexual relations, precisely because these relations (being *necessarily* non-procreative) are something the state has no interest in promoting. Couples entering into a civil union could be celibate and the state would be perfectly satisfied.)
So this is where I've been for some time on the question. I'd call it the mushy middle, except I don't think it is. I don't think it's a compromise between two principled positions; I think it is a principled position, one that tries to be true to what marriage essentially is and what gay people - including friends of mine - tell me they essentially are.
Now that the battle has been joined, however, sides will have to be chosen in a war I do not want to wage. I do not believe that a Constitutional amendment is the appropriate response to lawless local officials in California or an activist Supreme Court in Massachusetts. This is not the sort of thing that belongs in the Constitution. If courts are to be rebuked, rebuke them directly - impeach judges, pass an Amendment restricting their authority, put the fear of God into them that they remember who has granted them the authority to interpret the law. This is not a solution to the particular challenge of the same-sex marriage advocates and it is not a solution to the general problem of judicial over-reaching.
I worry about the specifics of the proposed Amendment as well. Most obviously, it strikes me as unclear whether civil unions would be struck down under its terms. Proponents of the amendment themselves can't agree on this question, and arguments I've read on both sides strike me as good enough that I could see a court ruling either way, leaving it to Sandra Day O'Connor to decide. (I wonder why we don't just make her Queen and be done with it.) So I worry that my own preferred solution to the question would be banned, but also that there's enough ambiguity to keep the war going over this question for years. What a wonderful achievement. That's what happens when you try to set social policy with Constitution-appropriate language.
Second, I don't think there's been enough discussion of the implications of the amendment beyond the same-sex marriage debate. Let me give one example: common-law marriage. It's not a highly-regarded concept in these liberated days, but it has a long history and I daresay it might be due for a revival. I see no reason why a man who fathers children by a woman and then abandons her *shouldn't* be subject to the legal disciplines of marriage as well as fatherhood; he has, after all, done the woman injury, and this must somehow be made good. But if the Constitution *forbids* the extension of "legal incidents of marriage" to "unmarried couples," doesn't that imply that the Constitution *forbids* any statutory recognition of common-law marriage? I should think so. And what about statutes that explicitly forbid discrimination based on marital status? I'm not crazy about such laws, but I think they are legitimate, and I think they could come under challenge under the FMA. After all, if they are *not* illegitimate under the FMA, what would stop a locality from passing a civil unions law under the banner of an anti-discrimination statute? Simply forbid the state from discriminating on the basis of marital status in all areas associated with marriage law, and suddenly gay couples have equal status in all areas to married couples. Regardless of whether these particular examples would actually be endorsed by the courts, my point is that they could; that Constitutional language is necessarily vague and therefore the potential for unintended consequences from putting social legislation like this into the Constitution is quite significant.
For all these reasons, I hope the amendment doesn't pass. But what else is to be done? I've suggested elsewhere that Bob Lafollette's proposed amendment to empower a Senate super-majority to override a Supreme Court decision be revived in some form or another. Massachusetts is currently being tested as to whether they are ruled by a court or by the people. That's a matter for the people of Massachusetts to resolve, and I suspect they will do so. I don't see why the people of Wisconsin or Kansas or anywhere else have to opine. If the people of Massachusetts decline to rebuke their Supreme Court, and meekly accept its diktats, so much the worse for the sons and daughters of Cotton Mather. More generally, we should be rolling back the scope of equal-protection language in our state constitutions, because this is the banner under which same-sex marriage and legal androgyny generally is advancing, just as Phyllis Schlafly said it would. And we should be pushing for laws that would strengthen marriage explicitly: reintroducing the concept of fault into divorce law, and the distinction between divorce and annulment; restoring the presumption of paternity (the "marriage veil") that has been pierced in recent years; etc. Passing these laws will necessarily result in the reintroduction of a certain asymmetry in the treatment of men and women in marriage law, which in turn will make it clear - to the courts and to the people - that marriage is about men and women - and children - and not abstract "people" and their love. Same-sex marriage is a symptom of an underlying legal dysfunction, and amending the Constitution to treat a symptom strikes me as very foolish indeed.
Let me close by talking about the politics of the question. They are awful for the President, and I'm sure he knows it. The notion that the President is doing this for political reasons strikes me as prima facie bizarre. Jonah Goldberg is right: most of the country just wants this issue to go away. They certainly don't want a fight about an amendment to the Constitution. Kerry can look "centrist" simply by opposing an amendment while reiterating that he's against "gay marriage." That kind of waffle makes him look ridiculous when he's talking about the war; it will dovetail perfectly with swing voters' preferences on this issue. Heck, it even sounds, superficially, like my own view. As with most of the President's decisions, the best bet as to why he made them is he thought they were the right thing to do. He may be wrong. He may be ill-informed. (Certainly, critics of his decisions on Iraq and on immigration think he is both, frequently.) But I find it bizarre that people think Bush would embrace an amendment *opposed* by most Americans in order to win votes. Will it fire up his base? I suppose it will. But frankly, if Christian right types need a Presidential endorsement of this amendment to justify their support, Bush is in a weaker position than I thought. That's the one part of the base I thought he had pretty well locked up.
A final word to the wise on politics. I said I hoped the amendment wouldn't pass. I'm sure that supporters of the amendment hope it passes, but I'm sure they also hope that, if it doesn't, they'll have made their point, and will still have an impact on how the law develops. Don't bet on it. If the amendment fails, that will be interpreted by its opponents as an endorsement of precisely what the amendment proposes to prohibit. Opponents of same-sex marriage have brought out the big gun. If this doesn't win them the war, who will fear them further? What could they possibly threaten if they can't pass this?
I said once before that I think the FMA is more a cry of anguish than a proper piece of legislation. I still believe that. Conservatives - understandably - think they are losing on an issue that means everything to them. This is a desperation move. For that very reason, it unnerves me to see the President endorse it. If this issue is so important - and it is - the President should be thinking not only about what he thinks is right, but what will win. The FMA won't.
Monday, February 23, 2004
So as I expected, the withdrawal from Gaza is going to look more like the withdrawal from Lebanon in the 1980s than like the withdrawal from Lebanon under Ehud Barak. In other words: the IDF is not leaving Gaza entirely, they're just going to move the settlements out and redeploy to locations that do more for Israel's security. Yosef Goell makes a pitch for a widened Philadelphia corridor - the equivalent, in Gaza, of the Security Zone in South Lebanon, where the IDF sat for two decades.
By the way, does anyone else think it's bizarre that Israel's job (according to Goell) is to protect Egypt from the Palestinians, when the reason Egypt has to fear them is that they do nothing to stop the weapons traffic from Egypt to Gaza which arms the terrorist intifadeh against Israel? I've blogged many, many times about Egypt in the past; to reiterate briefly, Egypt's foreign policy goals are: (1) avoid war with Israel; (2) weaken Israel in any way possible short of triggering war (hence Egypt's role in urging Arafat to remain rejectionist at Taba); (3) keep the aid money from America flowing; (4) assert its leadership within the Arab world. That's roughly in order of priority, though these things are never absolutely fixed. In any event, actually turning to Israel for protection is a pretty big comedown for the country. It's one thing for Jordan and its plucky little king (or his son) to rely on understandings with stronger powers - Israel, Iraq - for its survival. It's another thing for once-mighty Egypt. Israel should respond favorably, of course. But it's not a good sign that it's come to this. Frankly, Israel - and America - needs Egypt to rest on a bit of a firmer foundation than Jordan does. Losing Jordan would be bad. Losing Egypt would be a disaster.
Another point: does anyone think it's weird that this stuff gets leaked? Whose interests are served by revealing that Egypt privately and secretly asked for Israel's assistance in this manner? Egypt will, of course, have to deny everything. But the reason Egypt won't admit this sort of thing publicly is that Egypt can't risk riling their own radicals, and these are precisely the people who won't believe their denials. Meanwhile, Israel supposedly looks favorably on the Egyptian request. So why would they undermine them by leaking the request? I'm mystified by this sort of thing, and too frequently it turns out that the reason stuff got leaked is that someone wanted to brag (anyone remember Fuad "running to tell the guys" about his conversations with Cheney?), or someone with a radical policy agenda wants to disrupt the government, or some other reason that is really kind of embarrassing for Israel, supposedly a mature democracy and a serious country.
By the way, that piece of mine in First Things is now available online, here.
Periodically, I announce that I'm going to start commenting on the weekly parshah (Torah section), and I do it for a couple of weeks and then fall off the wagon. (I guess it's a good thing I'm not a rabbi.) Frequently, the reason I fall off is that I haven't studied the text prior to hearing it read in synagogue on Saturday morning, which means I don't have anything to say until after that's no longer the parshah of the week.
Well, this was one of those weeks, but sitting in shul this week (actually, standing; I was gabbi, that is to say, the fellow who stands next to the reader to correct him if he - or, in our liberal Conservative synagogue, she - makes a mistake), a particular line from the parshah jumped out at me.
It's not the line you'd expect. Here it is:
Lo agarshenu mipaneycha beshanah echat pen-tihyeh ha'aretz shmamah verabah aleycha chayat hasadeh. "I will not drive them [the nations of Cana'an] out in a single year, however, lest the land become depopulated, and the wild animals become too many for you." [Exodus 23:29]
The context is a promise of the conquest of Cana'an and the displacement of its inhabitants by the invading Israelites, and Israel's obligations to destroy the vestiges of Canaanite religion rather than follow foreign gods, etc., and the blessings that will accrue to obedience.
So, why did this line strike me?
There is a common tendency to place in opposition idealistic objectives and realistic assessments of the world. With respect, for example, to the war in Iraq, there is a tendency, particularly on the Right, to divide people into believers, who, depending on your perspective, want to bring freedom and hope to a despairing region or (from the other perspective) are delusional enough to believe that the region can be made free; and the skeptics who, depending on your perspective, are cognizant of all the dangers and responsibilities of occupation or (from the other perspective) look down on both the region's people and on the capacity of idealistic Americans to change things for the better, preferring the devil they know to the uncertainty of change.
But this divide is false. Ideals without a realistic approach to bringing them to fruition *are* delusional. By the same token, realism without a core set of values degenerates easily into the cynical management of decline.
And that's why this passage struck me. God is talking about His grand plan for history, how He is going to redeem His promise to Israel. And yet His own assessment leaves room for an entirely realistic assessment of how to put that plan into practice: He's not going to wipe out the Canaanites too quickly, lest the land be taken over by wild beasts. If He can plan for such contingencies, is it really a sign of lack of faith on the part of us poor mortals to do the same?
The wild beasts have done their share of ravaging of Iraq since we came in and drove out the evil ruler of that country. They are not, I think, too many for us. But nonetheless: let us hear no more about what we could not have known, or how the morality of our cause (in which I believe) somehow invalidates discussion about how we are to achieve it. It is a bit unseemly to be more idealistic than God.
Monday, February 16, 2004
Apologies for being away. Things have been very busy at work, and now I'm off on a business trip. Planning to do reviews, though, of two books I recently read (or, in the former case, re-read): Ulysses, by James Joyce, and The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria. The former was wonderful, and the things I admire about it now are very different from those I was enthralled by ten years ago when I first opened the book (in fact, many of the things I most admired then I don't like much at all now). The latter was a big disappointment. I remember Robert Kagan wrote a scathing review of the book in The New Republic - indeed, that review was a major reason I had for wanting to read the book, to see if I thought Kagan was right. Well, to too great a degree he was. Before reading the book, I was inclined to agree with Zakaria's thesis - that democratization where there is no existing liberal, constitutional culture is dangerous, and may even be counterproductive - but by the time I'd finished it I was less inclined to agree with him than I had been going in. The biggest problem with the book is that it defines its categories - liberal autocracy, illiberal democracy - in such a way as to define away any substantial objections to the thesis. The second biggest problem is that whenever he senses that the reader might object to something he says, he hedges, with the result that Zakaria can always object indignantly to a reviewer like Kagan attacking him in a broadside fashion. I think that's cheap, frankly. But, while less significant than these macro problems, the thing that probably annoyed me the most was sloppy writing and research. Small example: Zakaria thinks President Bush is a Baptist, when in fact he's a Methodist. This would seem to be a minor point . . . except that the fact comes out in a whole sub-chapter devoted to the rise of Southern Baptism and Pentecostalism. That's the sort of thing that makes one doubt the author's veracity generally. It gave me the feeling that the book was written in haste and not particularly well thought-through. Anyhow, more on this topic later.
Thursday, February 05, 2004
Back to politics. Now that we know Kerry's going to be the nominee (am I going out on a limb here?), what should he do? And what should Bush worry about most? And what should he (Bush) do in response?
First of all, Kerry should not stop running. He is way ahead in Michigan; he should not lose that lead. He should compete hard for Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. The latest polls of Tennessee and Virginia have Kerry in the lead. If he wins either of these states, he can claim to have won in every region in the country, and there is no plausible reason for any of the other campaigns to continue. If he loses both, it won't make a difference to the final outcome (can you see Clark or Edwards winning New York, California or Florida at this point? can you doubt that if Kerry wins all three, he'll be the nominee?) but it will drag out the fight. Edwards and Clark are going to be fighting each other to be the Southern-credible candidate. That gives Kerry room to achieve at worst an Oklahoma-type result (a rough 3-way tie), which is all he really needs to close down the Edwards and Clark campaigns.
But the main reason he should not stop running is: he needs to be present in the South in the general election. Neither Kerry nor Bush have the luxury of writing off a huge chunk of the country in its entirety. Kerry should no more write off the handful of Southern states that he might pick off (e.g., Virginia, Louisiana) than Bush should write off those Midwestern states that Gore won but that might go for the GOP (e.g., Minnesota, Pennsylvania). If he ignores these states in the primaries, he'll be making his first impression when Bush is fully engaged. He should make his first impression now, while the context and the press are both favorable.
Second, Kerry should not pick Dick Gephardt or John Edwards as his Vice Presidential nominee. Edwards is not going to be as much help for Kerry as he would like Kerry to think. I don't think he'd make the difference in carrying any Southern state. And I'm not convinced that John Edwards will make the difference in energizing the black vote, something Kerry will need help with. I can see why *Edwards* would want to get picked; it would keep him alive for 2008, which he'll otherwise be poorly positioned for. But I don't think an Edwards pick gives Kerry much buzz. Gephardt, meanwhile, is just too tired. It's a backward-looking pick, like Dole picking Kemp. Kerry's already got a problem seeming like the candidate of the establishment. How does Gephardt help him shed that image? If Gephardt were at the top of the ticket, he'd be favored to win Missouri, which is a must-win state for Bush. But I'm less convinced that he'll make the difference as Veep. Besides, both these guys are Washington legislators.
So who should he pick? I don't think Hillary would take the job if offered, and I don't think Kerry would offer; he'd be overshadowed by his Veep - and, un-PC as it is to say this, by a woman - and neither is a good thing. Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico would be a very intelligent choice. He's got a moderate reputation and he's Hispanic. That would do a lot to boost Mexican-American turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado and would certainly give Kerry New Mexico. And if a Democrat is competing seriously for Arizona and Colorado, the Republican is in trouble. Richardson is also well-balanced in the experience area. The only person I can think of who'd be a better pick than Richardson is Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan, and she's ineligible because she's an immigrant from Canada.
Regardless of who he picks, Kerry's biggest strengths are going to come out late in the game. Bush is going to be riding high around the time of the GOP convention. He'll have been pummelling Kerry in both TV ads and direct mail all through the summer, making maximum use of his enormous warchest. The economy will be puttering along, more or less, I suspect more. Kerry will have bored everyone to tears. Bush's guys'll put on a great show for the TV cameras at the convention. God-willing, nothing horrible will have happened on the war front, at home or abroad. But, right when most people start to pay attention, Kerry will hit his stride. Kerry is a very strong debater. I remember his contest with Bill Weld - like Bush, a much more personable guy than Kerry, someone ordinary people were more likely to identify with, and personally popular. Kerry will not walk into the same traps Gore did. And Cheney, in the Veep debate, won Bush a lot of points last time around by seeming extremely reasonable and sane and informed. He won't play that way this time around. He's going to be much more on the defensive - about his role in the structuring of pre-war intelligence, specifically. And anything Bush does wrong, Kerry is going to hammer on relentlessly, to try to throw Bush off his game, make him defensive and cautious. If Bush falls into that trap, he really could lose.
Bush is going to get cocky by the end of August. That's his nature. He's going to start to coast. And then Kerry is going to surprise him, probably in the debates, and throw him on the defensive. Bush isn't strong in that position.
How should Bush fight? Well, I think the "liberal, liberal, liberal" line is not going to work too well. It's just not the swear word it used to be. Bush'll get mileage out of some social issues, but not much; the country is just too evenly divided. Kerry will be harder to tar with the whole litany - soft on welfare, soft on crime, anti-gun, pro-flag-burning, pro-pornography, etc. - than Michael Dukakis is. But besides, many of these issues - welfare and crime in particular - are much less salient than they were a decade ago. Bush knows that.
I think conventional "character" attacks are also going to be relatively weak. Not enough of the country cares that Kerry is a gold-digger, and they certainly don't care if he plays dirty as a candidate (besides: about this Bush can complain?). Bush can't run on "Kerry's aloof and I'm fun and friendly." People are going to be looking for a leader, not a dinner companion. Kerry comes off as boring and arrogant; Gore came off as weird, which is very different. Kerry's more like Bill Bradley than like Gore. (Bradley, by the way, was also notorious for being lousy at constituent service, for considering himself above that sort of thing. He had a division of labor with Frank Lautenberg kind of like Moynihan's division of labor with D'Amato, albeit no one ever accused Moynihan of being aloof. Drunk, yes; aloof, no. Anyhow, that almost cost Bradley his seat when Christie Whitman ran against him. But he was known for real, substantive accomplishments on the national level, unlike Kerry, who's legislative record is almost nonexistent.)
Bush can try to run on Kerry's testimony about Vietnam in the 1970s, but he has to be very careful. And the reason he has to be careful has a name: John McCain. McCain is a friend of Kerry's, and while he's loyal to the GOP, he's no friend of Bush's. If Bush or his surrogates attack Kerry for his association with anti-war groups, McCain will speak out. And that could be absolutely devastating among swing voters Bush needs to win.
More generally, I think that going with any largely negative campaign will fail. Why? Because people are not scared of what the Democrats will do; they are scared of what the Democrats *won't* do. They are scared the Democrats are not up to snuff on foreign policy, where the GOP gets something like a 2-to-1 advantage. On domestic issues, the country is divided on various matters, but not fundamentally scared, the way they were before Clinton proved Democrats can be trusted not to wreck the economy. And if Bush runs a largely negative campaign focused entirely on foreign policy, he's leaving Kerry a huge opening to attack Bush as unconcerned with "real Americans" and their economic troubles - the way Clinton ran against Bush's father in 1992.
So how should Bush fight?
First, he needs to run on, not away from, his record. He should strongly defend the Iraq war, and his general conduct of foreign policy. He should strongly defend his domestic record as well.
Saddam was a homicidal maniac with a vendetta against America. He was playing cat and mouse with the UN and was not someone we could allow to continue to remain in power. After 9-11, it would have been the height of folly to allow a dangerous man like that, who had thumbed his nose at his own agreements, massacred his own people, and threatened the United States, to remain in power. So I, George Bush, made the decision, with full legal authority from a series of UN resolutions and from the US Congress, to remove him from power. I made the call.
In late 2000, the US economy had been growing at a blistering pace. The stock market had recently hit all-time highs. But the market was falling, bankruptcies were picking up. I, George Bush, and my advisors believed that the economy was vulnerable. A serious slump in investment could put us into a prolonged recession. Monetary policy wasn't going to do enough. We needed to shore the economy up with good fiscal policy, on both the demand and the supply side, by cutting taxes across the board. Put money in people's pockets and improve the incentives for investment. We did that, and the economy responded. You can quibble with one or another detail about the tax bill that I passed, and you always have to compromise with Congress. But I saw what the economy needed, and I made the call.
Health care. Democrats and Republicans have been arguing for twenty years about how to fix health care. There's a lot still to be done. But we knew that there were some things people agreed on - for example, that comprehensive coverage had to include prescription drugs. We need to do more to get costs in line and make sure there's robust choice. But we couldn't say any longer that seniors should go without this coverage because we can't agree on all the details. So I made the call, and we passed a bill.
Education. My opponent has articulated some of the terrible deficiencies of American education. It's a problem we were all aware of, but nothing was being done. At a minimum, you have to have accountability for things to improve. I knew we wouldn't pass anything without strong bi-partisan support. So I sat down with my opponent's Democrat colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy, and worked with him to establish overall principles for accountability, and craft a bill. Some say we've shortchanged the bill we passed. We've increased education spending by 65% at the Federal level, a far bigger increase than under President Clinton. There are ways we can make No Child Left Behind better, and I'm eager to work with Republicans and Democrats to do that. But we needed to make a start, and I made sure we did.
You see the pattern, right? Kerry complains that what Bush has done on this or that issue is insufficient, or biased to the rich, or handled badly. Okay, mister: what have you done? Decisions need to be made, I make 'em. What do you do?
I'm not suggesting Bush run an "it's about competance, not ideology" campaign. He should hit on the same themes that have worked for him in the past, and they are ideological themes: aggressive defense of America's interests and the American homeland, a pro-investment tax code, accountability and choice in government services, promoting the culture of life and the culture of marriage. I am suggesting that Bush needs to run on his record, and weave that record into a story about how he's a strong, decisive leader, just what America needs at a time like this. By contrast, he'll make Kerry look like a whiner who sits on the sidelines complaining that he could do it better. That's a very good contrast to draw, in part because the picture it paints of Kerry is pretty much true.
How's Kerry going to respond? There are three strong themes Kerry can harp on that have bite.
The first is: Bush's achievements are all show. He passes an education bill, but doesn't care whether the bill works or not. He stumps for a prescription drug bill, but lets the lobbyists write the bill, so that costs skyrocket while seniors get stiffed. He starts a war with Iraq without any plan for how to handle the country afterward, and then wings it, changing policy every few weeks in response to events. He has a national security strategy that calls for American preeminence over everyone in the world, and a defense budget growing by leaps and bounds, but he won't spend money to increase troop strength and improve benefits for soldiers, so that we have enough men who go into and stay in the service to fulfill the mission he's assigned them. He even says we're going to go to Mars, and guts NASA's basic science budget. His political team is really smart, and comes up with great-sounding initiatives to announce. But there's no there there - nothing behind the image.
Why does this work? Because it plays to people's real - and legitimate - concerns about Bush's character. People trust Bush's instincts and values. They don't think he's the most hands-on guy, though, and they don't necessarily trust the GOP. If Kerry can undercut Bush's decisiveness by saying that Bush's own decisions get undermined from lack of follow-through, that could have some bite. Particularly if Bush doesn't respond well. And particularly if Kerry runs on some real, substantive positions that cannot be caricatured as coming from Bush's left - for example, increasing the sheer size of America's armed forces.
The second is: the Bush recovery stinks. Unemployment remains high. We're told that's because of high productivity. I know and you know America's workers are the most productive in the world - we don't need statistics to tell us that, we know it. So why don't we get a fair share of the benefits? Why are corporate profits up and wages stagnant? You know what "higher productivity" means to Bush's economists? It means people with jobs are working more hours for the same pay, while every job companies can manage to shift overseas they do. Stagnating wages and stangnating employment coupled with high corporate profits: that's what high productivity means to them. The last time America bought the idea that the stock market was all that mattered, small investors lost our shirts. We need good jobs, at good wages, with good benefits, and enough time to take care of our families, our aging parents and our children. That's what America needs, a real deal, that makes sure prosperity is shared by all, and not just by corporate CEOs.
I have very little patience with this myself, but it works. And Kerry can point to lots of specifics besides just repeating "Enron, Enron, Enron" - which, truth be told, has nothing to do with the Bush Administration at all. He can point to both the tax-cut and spending side of the ledger and highlight all the ways the Bush Administration has been friendly to corporate interests. I'm not suggesting he do a full Bob Shrum. I think he'll get more traction by just saying: Bush thinks what's good for GM (or, more accurately, Boeing and Halliburton) is good for America. I think what's good for America should be good enough for GM! Kerry shouldn't declare class warfare himself by railing against "the rich" and making people think he's going to raise their taxes. He should accuse Bush of waging class warfare by giving hundreds of millions of dollars away to corporations, running a huge deficit, and *not* cutting taxes that hit or are about to hit the middle class - for example, the Alternative Minimum Tax, or the payroll tax. Edwards' "war on work" line is a good one; Kerry should steal it. (An excellent bit of ju-jitsu would be for Kerry to propose revenue-neutral changes in the tax code to cut the AMT and the payroll tax and increase the IRA deduction for most taxpayers while raising - or even just freezing at current levels - rates on the higher tax brackets. What's Bush going to say to that?) Most important, Kerry should remind everyone, all the time, how many jobs have been lost on Bush's watch. There is no answer Bush can make that is good; he either sounds like he's trying to weasel out of responsibility, or like he doesn't care about unemployment. All he can do is try to change the subject. Kerry shouldn't let him.
The third is: Bush is dishonest. And dishonest about important things. We now know that there were no WMD in Iraq. We know that the Vice President pushed for an interpretation of intelligence that was skewed in order to support his case for war. Did the President know that? Well, if he didn't know if then, he knows it now. Now, we all know intelligence is never perfect. But that's no excuse for making it worse by ideologically-driven interference. And here's the amazing thing: no one admits making a mistake! No one in the Bush Administration has yet admitted that they made a mistake - no one has been fired; no one has even been reprimanded! Why? Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool the American people this time.
This is a dangerous one. Kerry can't appear to be wandering into "Bush Lied/People Died" territory. There should be no suggestion that Bush nefariously tried to get us into war for political purposes. That's beyond the pale. The emphasis should be: Bush oversells to make his case, and when he's wrong he never admits it - and never holds anyone accountable. I think people have a gut-level discomfort with the fact that Iraq has not turned out to have the weapons we thought it did. Kerry has to turn that into a political issue against Bush without making it sound like he's soft on defense or engaging in 20/20 hindsight. The issue should be: Bush is so concerned about appearances, and so unwilling to admit he or anyone loyal to him could be wrong, that he's undermining American credibility. And that's hurting America. The only way to restore that credibility is for Bush to clean house - which he won't do - or for America to clean house by getting rid of Bush. If Kerry can play this one well, he could do Bush real damage. If he plays it poorly, it'll backfire - badly.
That's Kerry's strongest anti-Bush case. Kerry'll have a harder time making a positive case of his own, because that means actually standing for something, taking a position, and that's not exactly something Kerry's known for. The usual Democrat litany is Health Care/Education/Social Security. Bush has, I think, effectively neutralized the second, and the third is an entirely negative issue (stop those evil Republicans from taking away our Social Security!). Kerry needs something positive. Health Care remains a very salient issue, but I don't know that Kerry has anything more useful to say about it than a zillion other Democrat campaigns.
If Kerry is looking for strong, positive themes, they should be:
1. End the war on work. Cut the payroll tax and remove the wage cap. Freeze the upper-income brackets where they are today (it's not a tax hike - we're leaving them where they are!) and instead cut the Alternative Minimum Tax. Have the government match IRA contributions for low-income taxpayers. And before we give our jobs away to foreign workers, let's raise the minimum wage so Americans - new or old - can earn a decent living for an honest day's work. This is not lowest-common-denominator Shrummery and its not anti-capitalist. It's smart politics - smarter than just saying "tax the rich" or even "middle-class tax cut." I think Bush would have a hard time countering.
2. Beef up defense to win this war, not the last war. We need four more divisions in the regular army to comfortably meet our current mission and be able to deter future threats. If that costs money, let's spend the money; that's money well-spent. If we take out regime's like Saddam Hussein's - which I supported [on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays] - we need to have the forces to help police the country afterwards and shepherd it to a stable democracy. We should have a branch of the Army specifically devoted to this kind of occupation duty; we're going to do it, we'd better get good at it. We need to invest more in port security, security at chemical plants and nuclear power plants, security for our water supply. We are not spending the money we need, not hiring the people we need. Why? Because we're spending too much on nuclear subs (no other country even has a substantial navy), missile defense (only Russia and China have substantial nuclear-tipped missile forces) and stealth fighters (with smart bombs and drones, we can fight from a distance, and don't need stealth so much) that we don't need. We need to transform the military, but that means making choices. We need more men, and we need to spend money on that, not weapons systems to fight an enemy that no longer exists. This whole spiel will resonate with moderate Democrats and Independents, and it has the political virtue of adding to government payrolls, always a plus for Democrats.
3. Restore our alliances. Bush brags about our coalition in Iraq. But that coalition could be three times the size if we bothered to listen to our allies instead of dictating to them. We need to get NATO into Iraq. We need to work collectively, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and our other Pacific Rim allies, to fight terrorism and to end the threat of war on the Korean Penninsula. We can't do it alone, and if we don't work together with our allies we will be doing it alone. (This is a very vague point - what, precisely, is Kerry going to say we should do? But it plays to perceptions about Bush that are strong, and play well with the Democratic base without, I think, alienating moderates.)
4. Health-care. Well, he's going to talk about it whether I put it on my list or not. So here it is. I wish him luck devising a solution to our health-care woes that is both popular and possible. No one's done it yet, and we've tried several times. (Remember catatrophic health care? Hillarycare? And now Bush is getting beat up over finally passing a prescription drug benefit. This is a no win issue for the GOP: anyone who actually tries to pass something gets murdered, but if nothing gets passed the issue works for Democrats. So it won't go away any time soon.)
That's a solid, clear, compact message. It plays to Democrat strengths on three points, and tries to get to Bush's right in a creative way on a fourth point (beefing up defense). It's a lot clearer than the mess Gore ran on in 2000. It's a lot more concrete than the vague mush that Kerry's running on now. Will he shape up and run a focused campaign? I doubt it. But then, I don't think Kerry's so hot. And I'm a Republican. I mention all this to lay out what he could and should do, not to predict what he will do. Bush should be prepared for his opponent to do the smart thing, not just the most likely thing.
What else should Bush worry about?
He should worry that the gay marriage debate is no-win for him. Most people in the country are not comfortable with the idea. But they mostly don't want to make a stink. 20% to 30% of the country is viscerally outraged, and expects their President to be viscerally outraged as well. That puts Bush in a bind. If he comes out swinging for a Constitutional Amendment, he'll lose votes at the margins among independents and among suburban women (not to mention among gays). If he endorses an Amendment but tries to play down the issue, his base will be furious, and some of them will stay home. That will not only hurt Bush, but it will also hurt down-ballot contests for the Senate in the South that Bush badly wants to win to make it easier for him to govern. No one will punish Kerry for being wishy-washy on this issue; anyone for whom it's a voting matter is never going to vote for Kerry anyhow.
(By contrast, I think the abortion issue can work well for Bush, better than it ever has before for Republicans. The Democrats are now so far to the left on this issue, and the country has been moving in the GOP's direction. Bush should not be shy about talking about how to reduce the number of abortions in America and how important it is to have restrictions on abortion generally. He shouldn't talk about it as a black/white issue; that could scare people. But he should paint the Democrats as extremists on the question, and force Kerry to defend the kinds of lunatic things that, for example, General Clark came out with on abortion.)
He should worry about a third-party protest candidacy from the Buchananites. Bush has done absolutely nothing for the paleos. They are against the war, against his expansion of government, and violently against his immigration proposal (which will go nowhere, but the damage in this quarter has been done). Plus Buchanan specifically can't stand the Bush family. (Not that he'd be the strongest candidate.) A paleo candidate could make the difference in a handful of states that Bush absolutely needs to win: Louisiana, for example, or Nevada, or New Hampshire. A Bush nightmare could be: he runs against a Kerry-Richardson ticket, and Richardson pulls record numbers of Hispanic voters to the polls in the Southwest. Bush downplays racial issues, leaving him vulnerable to a paleo challenger running on closing the borders, throttling back on the war, and cutting Federal spending. The squeeze puts Arizona, Nevada and even Colorado in play in the Southwest, Louisiana in the South, New Hampshire in the Northeast, and makes real inroads in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania that complicate Bush's Midwestern strategy. In a close race, a Buchananite candidate could do to Bush what Nader did to Gore: force him to defend states that he should not have had to defend (e.g., Wisconsin, Oregon) while making the difference between winning and losing in close states nationally (e.g., Florida). Bush should be very worried about this scenario because there's nothing much he can do about it; he can't pander to this voting bloc without wrecking his general strategy and he can't really deter them. He just has to hope a candidate like that doesn't get traction. Depending on how the war goes, I think a Buchananite candidate could get between 1% and 5% nationally - 1% if the war is going extremely well and employment picks up; 5% if Iraq really deteriorates or the economy dips back into recession. I may be overly pessimistic about this . . . but I don't think I am. I think there are several sectors of the GOP coalition that Bush has done little for. Libertarians are furious about spending and nanny-state interventions. Paleos are furious about the immigration proposal and do not like the war. And there are probably a few quirky Perot voters who have wandered back into the GOP tent but are not tethered there, and could wander off if they get cranky enough. It all depends on context, and on who the protest candidate is. In any event, I don't think Bush should ignore this possibility.
But mostly he should worry about America. If he does the right things, I truly believe he'll be re-elected. If he coasts, and things turn south, he'll be booted.
Whew! That was a long one.
Andrew Sullivan points to this post on Winds of Change as an example of a straight guy defending the idea of gay marriage.
I just want to highlight a key paragraph from the post, and a key phrase within that paragraph:
What it is that matters in a marriage? Commitment. Duration. Primacy. It is a commitment - which means that in the face of conflicting desires, you have to anyway. It has duration - meaning it gains in value over time. An old good relationship is better than a new one. My dream is to grow old with TG, and to have the span of our history together as a part of what we share. It means that I will take care of her, and be taken care of by her in turn, and that in the time where long shadows come over our lives, we won't be alone in facing them. And it has primacy over your other relationships. The act of saying to this person "You are the most important person in my life. Not my children, not my boss, not my pastor or anyone else matters more to me than you do," fundamentally changes both one's life and one's relationships to others.
I don't think Maggie Gallagher could have made her point any clearer.
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Glad to know there's a Corner reader ready to defend the Husserlites.
I suppose I'm officially an irredeemable geek now, huh?
John Podhoretz weighs in on the topic of the day with the following argument: we didn't go to war because we thought Saddam was on the verge of building a bomb (though we worried he might be) but because we knew he wanted one. Why wait until the threat was imminent? And Saddam was still very dangerous because, even without a robust WMD program, he could have cooperated with terrorists to do terrible damage with the limited capabilities he had.
That's a reasonable case. I'm on-board with the idea that Saddam could not be turned into a friendly or a neutral, had too much reason to seek revenge on the U.S. and otherwise make trouble for us, and therefore could not be allowed to remain in power post-9-11. That was my main reason for supporting the war in the first place, and I think it was a primary reason why the Bush Administration pursued the war.
But it still strikes me that you could have made the same case about Libya in the wake of Reagan's airstrikes. And Qaddafi's links to international terrorism are a lot more robust than Saddam's were. We now know that Libya was further along the nuclear path than Saddam was, and that our war in Iraq was a major reason Qaddafi opened up. Maybe we should have gone to war with Libya, and this would have convinced Saddam to give up his own nuclear ambitions?
I'm being facetious, but you see what I'm saying?
The best reason to take out Saddam was: why not? Why on earth leave Saddam in place? Why leave an unstable maniac in charge of Iraq? Isn't Iraq too important for that? Maybe we can tolerate a Saddam-scale maniac in Burkina Faso, but not in Iraq. Right?
But there are few other places like Iraq in that way - places that have WMD or ambitions to get them; places that have unstable or hostile governments. We're not going to invade them all.
We can't have a doctrine of preemption that says: anyone we think might be a threat is fair game. We either need iron-clad intelligence (which we didn't have in Iraq and can't count on in the future). Or we need more than just our own threat-assessment.
Listen: I'm a friendly critic. I think we need to pursue the war vigorously. But we are going to fail if we persist in a kind of bull-headed, take-no-prisoners, never-admit-error manner which too often characterizes the Administration's public stance. I had - and still have - high hopes for this Administration. I don't want them to fail.
I may have gone overboard a bit in the last post, so let me stress two things:
First, I think the "show of force" rationale for the war is still entirely valid, as is the human rights justification. I was skeptical about the democratization rationale before, and I still am. It's one thing to say we went to war to depose a psychotic killer. We're not obliged to deposed every psychotic killer on earth, but it's hard for me to see how taking one out is wrong. It's another to say we went to war to make the Middle East safe for democracy. I don't think that's happened, I don't think Iraq is a good candidate, and I don't think democracy emerges from the point of a bayonet. But the point is: there is still perfectly good justification for the war, independent of the threat assessment.
Second, I can accept the idea that, in the post-9-11 world, we should be erring on the side of caution, and that it was reasonable to conclude that the Iraqi threat was significant and growing and could not be solved but by force. Trouble is, we live in a world of finite resources. We can't invade everybody. I am much more worried about Pakistan than I was about Iraq. I'm worried about Iran and North Korea. I'm worried about Syria. I'm worried about the Hizbullah in Lebanon. We can't invade everybody.
Therefore, we need to assess threats, weight them against each other, and decide on priorities. We actually do that: the advocates of the Iraq war were and are pretty much sanguine about Russia, for example. Implicitly, moreover, the bulk of the supporters of the Iraq war disagreed with Michael Ledeen's assessment that toppling Saddam *before* taking out the mullahs of Iran was too risky. So they did assess threats relative to each other. It's just that part of that assessment was wrong, and wrong in part because the pro-war agenda affected the interpretation of intelligence.
It's just not credible that the collapse of the public case for war - the WMD case - has no consequences. Sure, we wouldn't know the extent of the Iraqi threat without invading. Guess what: we won't know the extent of the North Korean threat without invading. Or the Iranian threat. We didn't go to war because Iraq wouldn't tell us how many chemical warheads they have. We went to war - in part - because we believed the worst about what Iraq had and what they intended to do with them. Maybe that worst-case assessment was the most reasonable assessment given the information available at the time; it was still wrong. Had we assessed that threat differently - had we decided that Saddam was a nutter but that North Korea was a more serious national security threat - we might not have placed the Iraq war at the top of our priority list. Or we might have placed it there on different grounds - and those grounds would have been debated, assessed, and either approved or found wanting. And the legitimacy of our policy would be greater. That's the point.
So, David Brooks thinks it's the CIA's logocentrism that's the problem.
(For the uninitiated: "logocentric" is the key deconstructionist putdown of Western philosophy. The idea is that Western philosophy is oppressive and destructive because it enshrines reason at the top of the hierarchy of values; the liberating thing is to have no hierarchy and just let the values fight it out in a war of all against all. Or perhaps not, but once you have tenure you can stop worrying and learn to love anarchy.)
I'm with him part of the way here. The CIA thought Castro would be easy to knock off. (Wrong.) They thought there was a missile gap. (Wrong.) They thought the Soviets wouldn't invade Afghanistan. (Wrong.) They thought the Shah was doing OK. (Wrong.) They thought Khomeini's revolution wouldn't be so bad. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq wouldn't attack Iran, or Kuwait. (Wrong, and wrong.) They thought the Soviet economy was booming. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq was years away from getting the bomb in 1991. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq still had substantial biological weapons capabilities, and an active nuclear weapons research program, in 2002. (Wrong.) Sometimes they overestimate the threat; sometimes they underestimate. That's not the pattern. The pattern is they often get it wrong.
So what are we supposed to do? If I understand Brooks correctly, what we're supposed to do is not let the facts get in the way of a good policy.
Am I missing something here? Am I misreading him? The CIA's job is to provide intelligence - in its most basic form, information. What's happening out there. Who's trying to kill us. Who could be persuaded not to kill us, and who can be turned into at least a neutral. They've done a mediocre job over the years of providing accurate intelligence of this type. So Brooks wants us to . . . wing it? Go with our gut?
Let me assess the practical implications of this. Dick Cheney is convinced that Iraq is a threat. Why? Because he's sure of it. So we prepare to go to war, and try to marshall the rest of the world behind us, and all we've got to persuade them is Dick Cheney's gut? All we've got to persuade the American people, for that matter, is Dick Cheney's gut?
And further: Brooks' complaint is that the CIA tries to be too disinterested, too scientific in its assessments. So presumably it should be more . . . interested? In other words . . . biased?
Biased in which direction? For decades we were in a state of Cold War with Russia in its incarnation as the Soviet Union. Now, Russia is back in the hands of a former KGB agent, and is rapidly turning into a dictatorship. It continues to play a double game with American enemies (e.g., Iran). Should we restart the Cold War with Russia? Suppose someone in the CIA is an inveterate Russophobe, convinced that trusting Putin is madness and that Russia is about to emerge as the big new threat. So he brings his biased assessment to bear on everything he does: reports worst-case scenarios of Russian intentions, hypes the Russian threat at every turn, and generally makes the case for his preferred policy by artful selection of facts. Meanwhile, another CIA mucky-muck is a Chinaphobe, and does the same thing with respect to China. Another one is a Saudi-phobe. Another one thinks Israeli intrasigence is the big problem. Another one frets about India's intentions.
You get the picture. What is the President supposed to do with a series of reports indicating that, variously, everyone on earth is a terrible threat to the security of the United States, no one can be trusted, and we had best be prepared for total war against just about everyone?
This is why I'm starting to worry about paranoia. You cannot make policy this way. If Brooks, and Ledeen, and the rest of those who refuse to understand the implications of the intelligence mistakes with respect to Iraq keep going the way they are going, they are going to wind up right down the rabbit hole.
I want to stress: I understand the point Brooks is trying to make. He's trying to say that you have to have a strategic vision, and make sense of facts within that context. Facts don't speak for themselves. But we *had* a strategic vision of the situation in Iraq, and it led us to *miss* the facts. We understood just how unstable Saddam was, and that led us to assume that anything awful he might be doing he was doing, hence the elevated threat assessment - an assessment which turned out to be *wrong.* If Brooks was being honest, he'd say that the process was fine - we assessed the threat within a contextual vision that enabled us to make sense of things - but that the resulting intelligence failure proves that the strategic vision was wrong. What else could it mean?
The only other thing it could mean is that intelligence assessments of the Iraqi threat were not an important part of the real case for war. That the Bush Administration did not really care whether the Iraqi WMD threat was serious. If that's the case (and it's a case that Tom Friedman - a liberal supporter of the war - has made, among others) and the strategic rationale for the war is to be found almost entirely elsewhere, then that strategic rationale may remain intact, and the case for war as well, but two other things follow. First: the Bush Administration must take the hit for having based the public case for war to such a degree on the threat assessment, for putting American credibility on the line for "facts" that turned out to be specious. That was an Administration decision, not a CIA decision, and the buck cannot be passed. Second: Brooks' thesis must be jettisonned. Because if threat-assessment is not really very important to the Administration's case for war in Iraq, then the CIA was itself misled by those who urged them to evaluate the equivocal data they had in the context of a Saddam Hussein bent on vengeance against the United States. You can hardly blame the CIA for that.
There's a more rational - logocentric, even - response to what we have learned. That is to admit error. The case for war had many pillars. One of them - the one we overwhelmingly relied on in making the public case for war - has turned out to be almost entirely false. We assessed the Iraqi threat - reasonably - in light of Saddam's past behavior, and in light of our overall strategic vision. That - not some CIA cultural flaw - led us to error. We wanted to believe that the best public case that could be made - Iraq is bulding atomic weapons, so we have no time to waste in getting rid of Saddam - was also true, because that would make it easier for us to justify what we had independently decided was a necessary and just war. That wishful thinking - precisely what Brooks is calling for more of - led us to error, and has had costs.
If the Bush Administration adopts the Brooks/Ledeen/Frum/etc. line, that would be entirely in keeping with its predilections. But it would be a mistake. I don't worry so much about Bush's credibility, and its electoral prospects. I do worry about America's credibility, and the consequences for America's ongoing war.
Monday, February 02, 2004
And so it begins: Sharon to commence withdrawal from Gaza settlements in June or July.
I honestly don't know what to think about this. On the one hand, no one - no one - in their right mind wants to hold on to Gaza. The entire justification for the settlements there is security-based; everyone assumes that any resolution of the conflict would mean their removal. There were Jewish settlements in Gaza in the pre-state period, and this is the basic justification for the existence of the settlements today, but the real reason for the settlements is to justify an Israeli presence in Gaza (to protect the settlers). If that presence is now detrimental to Israel's security, then to keep the settlements for the sake of never retreating is the height of folly.
And yet: is that presence detrimental to Israel's security? What happens now? Grant that Gaza is not a territory that will ever be incorporated into sovereign Israel; grant that it is more like South Lebanon than like the Golan, or certainly than like Ariel or Efrat. So: what happened when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon? Nothing good as I recall.
What is going to happen now in Gaza, if Sharon really does pull up stakes? What is Israel going to do if it becomes a Hamas state, and starts firing rockets at Sderot, or even Ashkelon (it's not far)? There are clearly some who assume that Israel will get some credit for withdrawing from Gaza. What makes them think that? Clearly, the reaction of much of the world will be to pressure Israel all the harder for a repeat performance in Judea and Samaria.
All this was articulated long ago, back when Chaim Ramon was running to be the head of the Labor Party. He was the big advocate of unilateral withdrawal within Labor, and the idea never got much traction because it smacked too much of fleeing under fire, and we'd all already seen where that led. Labor's voters divided between the candidate of "keep fighting" (Ben-Eliezer) and the candidate of "keep talking" (Avram Mitzna). Very few were happy with a policy of "run away."
So, while my attitude towards Gaza generally is "good riddance" I am skeptical that Israel really will be rid of Gaza so easily.
I'm starting to really worry about paranoia.
Take a look at the latest from Michael Ledeen at NRO.
We are approaching the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, and we are past the anniversary of the re-introduction of weapons inspectors into the country. There are no substantial signs whatsoever that Iraq had a functioning nuclear weapons program - certainly nothing on the scale of, say, Libya or even Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Iran or North Korea. Not only that, there are no substantial signs of a large-scale biological weapons program. David Kay, whom Ledeen calls a "good man" and someone he "like[s] a lot" has testified that Iraq had essential nothing in the way of weapons of mass destruction, and no prospect of getting any in the short term. Were we bluffed? Was Saddam himself bluffed? Still worth debating. Were the weapons there? Not worth debating anymore.
Before the war, we heard a lot about clientitis in the State Department and inertia at the CIA. We heard, from Ledeen and others, that career men in these departments were unwilling to bring forth intelligence that would be used to justify military action, and therefore deliberately sabotaged policy. Precisely because of this presumed bias, Cheney and Rumsfeld authorized the creation of an alternative intelligence shop that would evaluate the same source material as the CIA had, but in the "correct" way - giving more weight to allegations by dissidents and defectors, less weight to other, contrary intelligence.
Before the war, I thought there was probably a grain of truth to these stories. But how can I believe that anymore? The CIA wasn't wrong because they were suppressing evidence of WMD production and collaboration with terrorists. They were wrong because they over-estimated these threats - reasonably, given their pre-1991 failures, but wrongly.
But Ledeen can't help himself. He had a "good person" ready to take Kay to an underground lab from which enriched uranium was transferred to Iran. Kay was intrigued, but the CIA, according to Ledeen, stonewalled. No follow-up. Mysteriously, no one could be bothered to investigate evidence of actions that formed the key basis for American foreign policy.
What are we supposed to make of this story? Just how vast is this conspiracy to cover up the truth about Iraq's weapons programs? Just how perfidious are the enemies of our country ensconced in the State Department and the CIA - so perfidious that they would willingly destroy America's foreign policy rather than give the neo-cons the satisfaction of being right?
This paranoia is worse than unbecoming. It is dangerous. America's credibility is already in a parlous state because we justified the Iraq war on the basis of lousy intelligence made more lousy by an over-aggressive sales job. The utter unwillingness on the part of the war's chief advocates to reevalute the sources who were pitching them this stuff is making our credibility problem much, much worse. And the consequence of that credibility problem is that next time we won't be able to act preemptively, when we need to do so.