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October 18, 2007

DANIEL HENNINGER ON THE POLITICS OF IRAQ: "Arguably it is the proper role of politics to intervene, to question. But during Vietnam and again now, we haven't been able to avoid simultaneously putting troops on the battlefield while fighting bitterly amongst ourselves at home for the length of the war. The U.S. officer corps is aware of this. While no one is talking about a stab in the back, they may conclude that the home front and its institutions are unable to, or will not, protect their back."

The problem is that our political and journalistic classes lack sufficient patriotism to promote self-discipline, or perhaps sufficient self-discipline to allow them to act patriotically.

On the other hand, here's some important post-Vietnam progress, demonstrating that the troops have managed to improve even as the political class has deteriorated. Though there are troubling aspects to that differential.

UPDATE: Henninger's column inspired some lengthy thoughts from reader Scott Wallace, which to some degree parallel my own worries. Click "read more" to read them.

Wallace emails:

"The problem is that our political and journalistic classes lack sufficient patriotism to promote self-discipline, or perhaps sufficient self-discipline to allow them to act patriotically."

It's both, to a certain extent. The 'sufficient patriotism' comes from just flat-out different views of what the nation should be about--internationalist versus Americans, to be blunt.

That then leads into the second--the self-discipline to realize one has lost one's favored policy proscription and now must decide whether one is going to abide by the result and support the team or try to sabotage the effort in a backdoor attempt to get one's way.

This is why I keep on sounding the clarion call of future civil conflict. I have no problems with people carping about the war effort--something obviously wasn't going well (beyond the normal refusal of the enemy to roll over and play dead for us). And, frankly, only with public pressure was anything going to change, which is a poor statement on the chain of command. And if we weren't going to fight it to win, I had problems telling people to keep supporting the effort.

However, I have to believe that one reason the chain of command was reluctant to change course in Iraq was the belief that the opposition was not in good faith, but instead was a stealth attempt to finally achieve what they could not win outright in 2003--and therefore any change in policy or admission that things weren't progressing would be used as a hammer to just end the entire thing.

I think this year has validated that view--we can win, but the other side would still prefer to lose, for various reasons. It's almost like if, in WWII, the German-American Bund was still trying to figure out how to end Lend-Lease as Patton was getting ready to cross the Rhine (i.e., lot's of fighting left to go, but you'd rather be in your shoes than the Germans).

The problem, to me, goes beyond the war. It goes to the very heart of the democratic ideal--that the loser on any issue, to a certain extent, needs to shut up and get on board, as payment for being allowed to participate. Its like poker--you don't put your chips on the table, play some hands, and then take your money out of the pot if you should lose--because other people put their money down in good faith, and would have paid up if they had lost.

The left has made it perfectly clear that the only legitimate outcome of any debate is the one where they get their way. If they don't, they grumble, and protest, and tear apart, and sabotage, and try to delegitimatize the other side--what they never do is say "well, people have spoken, we disagree, we will continue to state our side, but within limits, and now lets go forward and make this work".

A marriage based on an arrangement like that is never going to work. And a nation based on a democracy won't either, because the other side decides two can play that game. And eventually it is going to occur to one side that if the power struggle became more of a, say, "historically traditional" model, there seems to be a enormous differential in the potential of each side to field strength on the physical plane. At that point, it becomes tempting, and less aggravating, for one side to just cut the Gordian knot.

Leftists, nutroots, and Dems are akin to the classic 16-year-old obnoxious adolescent, who goes around doing whatever he wishes and thinking the world can't touch him, because others will play by the rules while he doesn't.

That is--till the world touches him, because the world is a lot bigger than the 16-year-old.

I would prefer to avoid all of this. But to do so, we have got to start talking about the ground rules--the Code of Democracy (well, they're more like guidelines...)

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader known only as Danny emails:

So, according to your reader--and by extension, you--the issue of abortion has been resolved, and all pro-lifers should shut up and get on board? Do we want to continue in this vein?

Actually, I think that's a good analogy. You don't have to shut up and get on board, but you have to realize you've lost the political battle at the moment, and not decide to throw out the rules and carry on the struggle by any means necessary. That's the distinction between outfits like Operation Rescue, or people like Eric Rudolph, and people who just think that abortion ought to be illegal. Likewise, there's a big difference between criticizing the war on the one hand, and on the other hoping that the enemy will win in order to secure political advantage here at home. And don't pretend that there aren't people who want us to lose.

But the bigger point is that people need to know how to lose, and lose gracefully. That doesn't mean shut up and get on board -- you can always try again -- but it does mean that "by any means necessary" is not a good model for a democratic civil society.

MORE: Scott Wallace responds to Danny:

To Danny,

This is good.

Abortion was actually something I thought about while writing the original post, and Professor Reynolds pretty much summed up my response, if I had wrote it. Remember, the phrase I wrote-- the loser on any issue, to a certain extent, needs to shut up and get on board,--had that qualifier, "to a certain extent." And to their credit, the abortion foes--despite what the left may have said about protesters in the 80s/90s--by and large did get on board, to the extent that they have used the democratic process to change this state of affairs. This is a credit to their restraint, since I think Roe v. Wade was a gross imposition of judicial imperialism having little true democratic or constitutional legitimacy. If you are going to participate in the system, you need to abide by the results of the system.

So, to a certain extent, I do expect people to sign on board, as perhaps best put by Decatur--"my country, may she always be right, but my country, right or wrong." Meaning, I'm not taking my ball and going home if I don't get my way. Some will disagree, but I feel the anti-abortionists have by and large said "yes" to Decatur's proposition, the anti-Iraq war party has said, at best, "maybe."

But I am an American, the descendant of revolutionaries and troublemakers. I am never going to be Socrates, being a good boy and drinking that cup of hemlock because the law said to do so, and since I have otherwise benefited from the law, I'm going to obey (Plato scholars: yes, its deeper, I know). To be an American is to somewhat sign on board with Thoreau's view of fidelity to the law. (That, after all, is how we got this nation--treason against the Crown still being illegal in the UK. At least for the moment. Perhaps.) We are not merely going to be subjects. We are going to be citizens. We are actually going to be the sovereigns. And that sometimes means we are going to tell the government "hang the rules." (More like guidelines anyway...)

So it's all confusing. I seem to be saying that civil (and not-so-civil) disobedience is as American as apple pie (and it is!), and also that people should render unto the law what is the law's, even if they disagree with it (and they should!). Hypocrisy!

Well, no. I think the resolution of this conundrum may have been given to us at the beginning of the Experiment, when a wise (if flawed, in a human-sort-of-way) man once wrote:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations...

The point I would like to really make is that our constitutional democratic republican process is not just some way of allowing everybody their say. It's a way of allowing everybody their say--and then the loser still gets to have a say and participate after he loses, without worrying about life and limb. He is not ostracized (banished for ten years), as could happen in Ancient Athens. He is not hauled before a Star Chamber, as in Stuart England (despite what the truthers may say about Amerika). He is not even tarred and feathered, as Sam Adams boys did to those of pro-Parliamentary sympathies.

No, instead, he gets to stick around and have a go during the next round. So the system is a shield, as well as a means to an end.

But, if the loser decides that all the protection is for him, and none for the other, and that he need not really acknowledge the legitimacy of the result, or worse, put a smile on his face as he undermines the result from within, as Iago worked against Othello--then that system is not going to exist for long, because the other side is simply going to wise up and stop playing the game. Instead, the contest can enter the field of force, as in the olden times.

Well, I am an American. Thus, if you feel the issue is of sufficient magnitude to call for drumbeats or widespread disobedience, then by all means do so, good luck, and Godspeed. Hope the issue is worth it, be prepared to pay the costs necessary.

But if you are simply trying to get your way, in the petulant way a teenager does, then perhaps you need to rethink your strategy, because there are limits to the patience of others.

I doubt this will be settled here.