Friday, April 07, 2006

What He Said (Take X)

It sometimes frightens me how well Publius captures my unspoken thoughts on "big picture" issues. Today is a perfect case in point. In the context of the latest Plamegate info, he writes in part:

One of these common “roots” is the assumption that the executive branch gets to be the final arbiter of the limits of its own power. This single assumption ties together a number of the administration’s most troubling policies. For instance, according to the administration, it alone decides how detainees will be treated in wartime. It alone decides what constitutes torture. It alone decides who is deemed an “enemy combatant.” It alone decides who will be wiretapped. It alone decides whether it will follow the requirements of the Patriot Act. It alone decides whether America can legally go to war. It alone decides when documents are declassified. It alone decides when the Geneva Convention should be followed.

The tie that binds each and every one of these positions is that, in each one, the executive alone gets the final say on the scope of its power.

Although the “final arbiter” assumption explains a lot, it doesn’t explain everything. In fact, I think the “final arbiter” assumption is itself a symptom of an even more fundamental and flawed assumption held by the administration. And that assumption is the unyielding certitude of its own correctness and goodness. That arrogance, to me, is original sin of the administration – and the source of its most disturbing and often disastrous policies.

Think about it – most everything that you don’t like about the Bush administration can be traced back to their belief that they’re always right – and very right – about everything. Most obviously, the belief in their own goodness and correctness explains why they think they get to be the final arbiters of their own power.
(Emphasis mine)

It follows naturally. If you know, know that you are on the side of angels (or perhaps more accurately, that the angels are on your side) then these rules and laws are simply impediments to the cause of rightousness. Of course, you could be wrong.

One of the most dangerous failings one can have is hubris - forgetting for a moment that you don't know everything or could simply have miscalculated. This isn't exactly new, by the way. As Publius puts it:

Of course, history has shown all too clearly that executives are often wrong. In fact, when you really get down to it, the evolution of Western law has been an ongoing response to executive wrongness. The Magna Carta was about constraining the executive and subjecting its actions to the public will. The United States was created in part because of perceived abuses of the executive. Finally, even though our Constitution created a stronger executive (compared to the Articles), it still takes an obsessive number of steps to limit the power of the executive – even in wartime.
A conscious decision was made to limit the powers of the executive, so that we would not have to trust in the good will of an executive to respect individual freedoms. And if such freedoms need to be reordered in light of current concerns, we have processes in place to accomplish that reordering.

Alternatively, we can choose to live in a world where this astonishing piece of logical gymnastics is reconcilable with any reality in which we live:
The President believes the leaking of classified information is a very serious matter. And I think that's why it's important to draw a distinction here. Declassifying information and providing it to the public, when it is in the public interest, is one thing. But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious. And there is a distinction.

Now, there are Democrats out there that fail to recognize that distinction, or refuse to recognize that distinction. They are simply engaging in crass politics. Let's make clear what the distinction is.
Coincidentally and conveniently, the public interest always seems to coincide with certain political interests and opposing political interests inherently compromise our national security (see above re: certitude). Or, shorter Scotty Mc-C: "I'm right and you are wrong. By definition."

If that's so, why bother?


Icepick said...

It alone decides whether America can legally go to war.

Funny, I seem to recall Congress authorizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Goddamn and hellfire, even the UN was on board for the Afghan campaing!

This is why I think the nation is shot, Pooh. This is just blatantly wrong, but it's slipped in in a laundry list of complaints. Maybe no one will notice if it's done that way, and before long it's considered to be true. The Big Lie, and all that. I wonder how many of Publius's comments I will have to read before someone mentions that the Republicans are all traitors....

Icepick said...

No treason talk yet, and 24 posts into the comment thread! However, it does have this kind of high-minded commentary:

I think you'll see that Justice Thomas is an utter goon. And probably illiterate.

Yep, classy. Oh, and I see the very next commenter agreed with me. I can't tell if he's being sarcastic like I am, though.

But I am seriously impressed by the length of time it's taking to get to any treason talk. The stuff I was reading on the Washington Monthly site a day or so ago got to it much more quickly. Delayed gratification shows good character.

Icepick said...

A few comments later:

The only difference between this administration and the Nixon administration is that Nixon's staff became born again Christians AFTER they went to jail!

Yep, that's the spirit. Slander them Christian assholes. Nobody who's anybody likes those goddamned do-gooders anyway. Rod Hoffman piles on a few comments later in the same vein, but you'd have to read the whole comment to get the gist of it. It's better constructed than the other comment.


Finished. Amazingly, not once was the President or any Republican called a traitor! Pretty not-at-all veiled sneering at anything Republican, though, and all but calling the President a Tyrant.

I'm not terribly impressed. It's debate of a slightly higher callibre than most of what I've read recently, but it still constituted a debate based on the proposition "I'M RIGHT AND YOU'RE WRONG!" Which is funny, because that's what Publius seems to be complaining that the President is doing.

That country is fucking shot to hell. It's just a question of whether it falls apart in a few years (ala the Soviet Union), a few decades (ala the European empires in the 20th century) or over several centuries (ala the Roman Empire).

Note that even if I'm completely wrong and Publius is completely right, the problem is the same. There is nothing but partisan grasping for power and spoils going on now. Maybe Islam won't present an existential threat, but history will not stand still, and something will come along eventually. We've put our heads in the Guillotine, and now we're just waiting to see who releases the blade.

Icepick said...

So I've read some more of Publius's blog now. His basic point seems to be that Bush lied, Republicans are evil, and Iraq would be MUCH MUCH better off if Saddam was still putting people in plastic shredders. Oh, and that the stupid American public needs to be replaced. He approvingly cites this bit from another blog:

What the health of the Republic requires, in other words, may not be a new crop of leakers and whistleblowers, or a fresh young generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins -- or even a more independent, aggressive media. What it may need is a new population.

So how much longer before this guy decides to just get his and screw everyone else? Seriously Pooh, if Publius is right about things, then we're already lost. If he's wrong but thinks he's right, we're already lost. And the whole country is filled with this attitude, on all sides of every issue. It's just a matter of time, and a question about who or what comes next.

Fletch said...

Not to protect the chattering masses, but the point seems to be that if we unquestioningly accept the executive's peraogative, we may as well not engage in the difficult work of a democracy. Sure it is great that we have a president who can make decisions, but it is more important that we have a president who can stape back and consider the possible implications of his actions and make responsible decisions. Just because the executive believes that he is right and just does not make it so.

Now if God really is on his side, then it is a whole different argument...

Mr Furious said...

I'll be right back, I gotta run over to Publius' and call the President and the horse he rode in on "traitors"...

Icepick said...

Not to protect the chattering masses,

Thank you.

but the point seems to be that if we unquestioningly accept the executive's peraogative,

And Publius's comment wasn't questioning that perogative? Feingold isn't questioning that perogative in the Senate? Did I miss the election in 2004 where the major opposition party ran a pretty well funded and publicized candidate who was highly critical of everything the current president is doing?

I must be living in an alternate reality, as I seem to recall guys with names like Padilla and Hamdi were challenging some of these executive perogatives in the US judicial system. Or was none of that questioning executive perogatives?

we may as well not engage in the difficult work of a democracy.

Hm, I can't decide which pissy response to use, so I'll use two.

First, I do believe that we had an election in 2004. And before that we had a mid-term in 2002. Last I checked, we will be holding another one later this year. SO far the critics have taken their arguments to the citizenry, and the citizenry has been unimpressed.

And as I pointed out above, some of the guys in office currently are questioning Presidential perogatives. So far they haven't got the votes to get a win for their side, but that will probably change later this year. I expect we'll have a President Pelosi by December of 2007.

Second, you are aware that we live in a constitutional republic, right? And that such a beast is a different thing entirely from a democracy?

Sure it is great that we have a president who can make decisions,

So then, you're not down with the idea of President Hamlet? Based on the 2004 election results, most voters don't like that idea either.

but it is more important that we have a president who can stape back and consider the possible implications of his actions and make responsible decisions.

And naturally if the President doesn't see things in exactly the same way that you do, he must not have stepped back and considered the possible implications of his actions and made responsible decisions. Otherwise he would have done what you would have done, yes?

Just because the executive believes that he is right and just does not make it so.

But of course the executives critics are always just and right in their decisions. That's why they never need to question themselves.

Now if God really is on his side, then it is a whole different argument...

So you're saying your arguments only work in the absence of a higher moral authority?

Icepick said...

To review some blog posts from the last week:

Steve Clemmons posts a longish and serious post on the Iranian nuclear situation. By the second comment the thread is devolving into an "Israel is controlling the USA" thread. Fortunately the third comment gets back on point by discussing the coming military lock-down in the USA by the current administration. Treason doesn't come up until the ninth comment, however.

Kevin Drum posts on the same topic, and the same underlying Foreign Policy article. By the second comment a Bush = Hitler comparison is made. I could go looking for talk of treason, but is there really any point? Godwin's Law has already been violated.

Then there was the Althouse post on the Wisconsin anti-war referenda. Didn't take long for someone to call the anti-war people a bunch of cheeseheaded nitwits. Immediately afterwards, an anti-war type claimed that being called a cheeseheaded nimwit was the same as calling him a traitor. I'm not even going to bother linking up to that one.

That's from more reasonably toned blogs. I imagine I could find LOTS more of the same if I wanted to go to DailyKos, or LGF or... or... or....

So Mr. Furious, why exactly SHOULDN'T I be surprised to find a largish political/policy blog where people aren't immediately calling the other side traitors? Or have you become so desensitized that you don't even notice it anymore?

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
reader_iam said...

Above all, though, you need distrust of your fellow man.


You need trust, but verify, which is an ENTIRELY different thing. Distrust may come, and often will, and then the response varies depending on a variety of factors. (But then, so might trust, if ever tentative in aspects.)

But the statement above is merely the flipside of the coin, a voluntary attaching of blinders and as much an invitation to arrogance and ignorance (that unholy hybrid) as its opposite: blind trust. Thence, we proceed to self-righteousness, overweening regard for one's own small part of the prism, and then outright zealotry--exactly that against which Publius is inveighing.

I think Publius has some good points, some middling ones and a whole number of misleading ones.

But if he truly believes the statement highlighted above, he's betrayed himself, in both senses.

He's now given me reason to approach what he writes with ... well, distrust.

Pooh said...

It should go without saying, but my endorsement of Publius' words which I quoted does not equate with an endorsement of anything and/or everything expressed in the comment threads. Except for the comments written by me.

Pick, I guess you'll have to trust me on this one, but my discomfort with the administration's NSA-related defenses is not motivated by BDS. As I lawyer, I find the arguments badly, badly wanting.

reader_iam said...

And I understand the paragraph in which that was said.

Perhaps it's semantic, but I think there's a difference between a constrained view of human nature and a pessimistic one. I think the former is the more realistic approach, without already coloring the end judgments.

And though I'd pretend no expertise as a philospher or historian, I think that's closer to the sense of what many great political thinkers were observing or advocating, rather than outright pessimism.

What true and outright pessimist could possible be crazy enough to advocate the great experiment that America, at its birth, was--and to a great degree, still is?

Icepick said...

Pooh, I'm not really arguing with your dislike of the administration's rationale for the NSA wire-tapping policy. That is not an entirely unreasonable position, although personally I'm not that concerned with it. I am concerned with the tone of the debate.

My point is that ultimately the US is a collective endeavour. Obviously we are also competing against each other in many ways, but ultimately we are all on the same 'team'. But how am I supposed to trust someone who thinks that I'm evil incarnate because I don't share their policy views? There is no mutual trust there, nor can there be. And I only see it getting worse as both parties try to exploit this for their own gain.

reader_iam said...

There is no mutual trust there, nor can there be.[Emphasis added.]

Sigh (the sad kind).

Icepick said...


Pooh said...

This recalls the "Unhinged" discussions at Cathy Young's a few months back.

Pick, for what its worth, I've never doubted your good intentions (except as far as your efforts to 'earn' AHW). Also FWIW, that particular comment thread is more heated than some (at least one partcipant has a history of...slipperiness, so there is a backlog of skepticism.

RIA, I was going to comment that you may be splitting semantic hairs, but you beat me to it. I think Publius's 'mistrust' and you're 'trust but verify' are largely the same.

I guess the fact that we can have a civil discussion (Furious, play nice) makes me slightly more sanguine about our future than Icepick. Baby steps and all.

Icepick said...

Don't tell Mr. Furious to play nice. He's Mr. Effin' Furious! Besides, I'm no shrinking violet myself.

reader_iam said...


And what am I?

Icepick said...

And what am I?

"Meek and retiring", so as to compare favorably to a donkey.


Hey, it was your blog post!

Pooh said...

Point: Icepick.