December 17, 2003


The Grounds for Celebration (Harold Meyerson, December 17, 2003, Washington Post)

[T]he case against the war was necessarily a complex one. If the only factor had been ridding Iraq of its Baathist thugocracy, why, of course, the war merited support. But supporting the war also meant supporting a new national doctrine in favor of preventive -- that is, discretionary -- wars. It meant the shredding of the United Nations and NATO and the very idea of international institutions, the rejection of long-term alliances, the normalization of unilateral and discretionary wars in what was already a dangerous world. It meant acquiescing to the idea that the president can lie this nation into war. It meant an overextension of our armed forces that emboldened North Korea in threatening its neighbors and China in threatening Taiwan. It meant the transformation of the United States from a land admired throughout the world into a nation, by the evidence of all available polling, almost universally feared. Call those externalities if you will, but they sure do add up.

War is tragedy, and either supporting or opposing it involves tragic trade-offs. Most of the movement that emerged to oppose the war in Vietnam, for instance, did not welcome the prospect of a communist takeover of the South. The movement included such dedicated anti-communists as Robert Kennedy and Mitch Cohen's predecessor as editor of Dissent, Irving Howe. These were people with no illusions about communist regimes; indeed, Howe, a lifelong democratic socialist, was as trenchant a critic of those regimes as you could find anywhere on the U.S. political landscape.

During the Vietnam War, he continually condemned that portion of the antiwar left that glorified the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. But he opposed the war withal: The immensely bloody means required to win it, he believed, finally eclipsed, indeed subverted, the end.

And so it is for those of us who had no illusions about Hussein, and believed that if the United States went to war, it could surely overthrow him -- but opposed the war anyway.

This is an exceedingly curious argument, one which has been disatisfying since they made it during Vietnam: even if we accept the concern about tearing apart Vietnam or Iraq, literally, or about tearing apart the international community, figuratively, why are they so willing to tear America apart with their anti-war demonstrations and heinous talk about our own government and the majorities who support these wars?

If you acknowledge that, taken in isolation, it's worthwhile defeating a North Vietnam or a Saddam then you're left with a simple equation: what's more important the social fabric of America or the viability of intenational institutions? Indeed, this seems to be the divide in America, as it was throughout at least the 20th Century--the Left deems the health of internationalism the highest consideration while the Right cares most about effects on American society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2003 8:34 PM

Then you'd better win unequivocally, which we didn't in Vietnam and, as you know in my opinion, could never have.

Remember Vespasian.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 9:10 PM

The next year is going to be extremely tedious.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 17, 2003 9:38 PM

So, they somewhat wished that the communists wouldn't take over the South, but actively worked for an outcome which had the clear and obvious consequence that the communists *would* take over the South.

If you don't want B to happen, but work for A which has the consequence that B will occur, then how can you logically claim that you really didn't want B to happen?

And as far as the "immensely bloody means required to win it"---how does this compare to the blood that was spilled in Vietnam after we lost the war?

Posted by: ray at December 17, 2003 10:12 PM

"Tearing apart the United Nations" - what rot. The UN is the greatest weapon of mass destruction for anyone living in an oppressive Third World country. The veil was completely torn yesterday by the representative of the Iraqi council. Kofi Annan should be on Bush's list of terror enablers (and I would hope that some brazen American diplomat has told him so).

Even more pathetic is the assertion that war is discretionary. So is appeasement - and surrender.

The victims in Iraq (and numerous other countries) had no choice - but we do. Thank goodness Harold Myerson won't be making them for us.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2003 12:36 AM

Right. "International Institutions" to the rescue. So many wars they've prevented in the last half-century.

Given the record, you would think he'd be clamoring for their destruction, for the sake of something better.

Posted by: Twn at December 18, 2003 1:51 AM

Excellent points, Jim.

Though what is most interesting, here, I think, is Myerson's mutation from consistently shrill Bush critic to more measured, thoughtful commentator (e.g., "of course I despised Saddam--didn't we all?--but nonetheless, etc...")

Similar to the "re-evaluation" regarding the "forgiving the Iraqi debt" amongst certain European nations, perhaps?

I wouldn't call it epiphany. Not yet, anyway; but it's rather curious what a massive anti-terror protest by Iraqi citizens and/or the capture of Saddam can achieve.

Together with American resolve.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 18, 2003 2:09 AM

"[T]he Left deems the health of internationalism the highest consideration while the Right cares most about effects on American society."

That's a pretty good formulation of any important point: the Right, to some degree, still cherishes the nation-state, whereas the Left more nearly despises it. But before we get too boastful, ket it be noted that many on the Right are abandoning ship. The late Robert Bartley, for example, famously said "the nation-state is finished" and did not bat an eye about it -- in fact, one might argue he actively worked for such a state of affairs.

At least the Right (most of it anyway) still has its head on straight about how important the preservaton of the nation-state is to the survival of Israel.

A strange phenomenon, that: The paleconservatives generally dislike Israel, despite the fact that it, alone among Western nations, applies their principles to the maintenance of it sovereignty. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives, whose support for Israel is unquestioned, will not support the applications of its principles, in even attenuated form, to America.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 7:18 AM

Paul --

I don't have any theoretical attachment to the nation-state and, if I didn't live in the US, I might not have any practical attachment to it. The problem is, of course, that any supernational arrangement requires some compromise between our system and that of the other members. What nation would I make that deal with? None.

What has always struck me as wierd is that our system is available for any other country to copy, but none do. I'm not so naive as to think that it would work as well everywhere else as it does here, but you would think that what is arguably the most successful system for governance in history might attract more imitators. What is particularly strange is the prediliction of other countries to copy the British parliamentary system, which works well enough for the British but to which there are huge theoretical objections and which is a historical accident rather than an intelligently designed system.

In any event, if other countries did successfully adopt our system, my guess is that the need for international organizations would drop off substantially.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 18, 2003 9:00 AM

Interesting comments.

One of the reasons I believe that the left is supposedly less in favor of the nation state may well have to do with the progressive view that "history is ended" and that thus "the nation state is secure." Certainly, once all threats have disappeared, self defense is no longer required, so that one can dismantle the nation state and, while so doing, rid society of such negative traits as chauvinism, patriotism, exclusionism, pride, and other vestiges of primitive humankind, and get on with the business of erasing borders and making the world a better place for all, etc.

Those on the left, who, following 9/11, were shocked into realizing that such declarations of the end of history may have been slightly pre-mature, adjusted their worldview accordingly, at leasts on certain issues. While for these, the shock was too great to either ignore or rationalize away, many others on the left decided, when dogma collided head-on with reality, that their loyalty lay with dogma. For them, apparently, ideology trumps all, and vision and logic must be adjusted (and/or filtered) accordingly.

Regarding Israel, though the country does have its fair share of those who support compromise on the issue of territories (and even a relatively small hardcore of those who believe 'twould be better if the country disappeared altogether), such support, because of the country's brief and turbulent history, has always been tempered by the potential, if not consistently palpable, external threat, a threat that the US, after the fall of the USSR and prior to 9/11, was firmly convinced had vanished, and that Europe has consistently, if not altogether successfully, wished away (abetted, perhaps ironically, by the good fortune of American protection).

Since the latest Israel-Arab war broke out just over three years ago, the extent of the threat to Israel has re-emerged with a vengeance (after having become increasingly dormant since Oslo was signed in 1993). As a result, Israel's left-wing parties have for all intents and purposes lost, at least for the (longish) moment, any position of influence.

Just why the nation state of Israel ought to be subject to the disappearance (or "transmutation") favored by those progressive forces who believe in the efficacy of "the end of history," while nation states such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, et al. are not (though to their credit, the progressives have not offered any serious objection to Syria's swallowing up of Lebanon), may, for some, have more than a faint whiff of double standard. Especially since those same progressives appear to be hell-bent in favor of the nation state of Palestine.

Similarly, just why certain ideologies that support the rights of nation states, as long, it seems, as they are not Jewish nation states, may cause puzzlement and/or consternation, and merely fuel the ire of those frenzied folk who see anti-Semitism in every nook and cranny, behind every rock and tree.

On the other hand, perhaps somewhat ironically, as has been noted by others previously, Israel's remarkable ability to unite progressives on the left (whose ideology denies Israel's right to exist) with certain principled parties on the right (whose ideology favors Israel's erasure) and also with certain committed groups of Arabs/Muslims (whose ideology calls for Israel's destruction) should be more universally appreciated.

That it is not, though, should come as no real surprise. Still, Israel, has, I think it's safe to say---things being what they are---generally come to appreciate any support it can muster from any and all quarters. Heartfeltedly. Even though, it may seem, at times, that it goes out of its way to act against its own self interest....

Finally, regarding the neo-cons' purported jettisoning of the idea of the nation state, I have trouble seeing how such a view jives with the liberation Kuwait in 1991, the active defense of countries in the former Yugoslavia, or for that matter, the general support given to those countries behind the Iron Curtain prior to the breakup of the USSR, and to those countries that gained independence after its dissolution. In this sense, the neo-con support of Israel can hardly be considered a contradiction, nor for that matter can support of a Palestinian state, even should one object that support of the latter is, for all practical purposes a ratification of Palestinian stated aims to bring about, to the best of its ability, Israel's destruction.

As for the statement attributed to Robert Bartley (which has generated a considerable amount of bandwidth), it should be noted that Bartley claimed he was misquoted, and his words misrepresented, by Peter Brimelow, who was the source of the attribution.,_alien_nation.htm

Thus, while including the purported quote in their respective articles, Pat Buchanan and W. James Antle III indicated Bartley's repudiation of it:

More on the matter can be found (e.g., on page 4) in:

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 18, 2003 9:50 AM


Other nations won't copy our system because the bosses won't have enough power concentrated in one place. Of course, there are cultural reasons, too - the freewheeling attitude here is too much for the Islamic world, even if it had good governments, and the Far East is too tied to behind the scenes dealings in order to preserve face.

But it is still strange that more nations have not tried - the results are pretty obvious, aren't they? And the principles are universal.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2003 9:51 AM

What a silly, shallow geo-political analysis.

The UN is far from shredded, and in fact, had the UN not imposed and maintained sanctions on Iraq, the current war would likely not have taken place.

To the extent that NATO has been shredded, it was by the end of the Cold War, NATO's sole reason for existence.

As for long-term alliances, didn't the Founding Fathers warn against them ?

The Iraqi pacification means normalizing unilateral wars in an already dangerous world ?
Does Meyerson mean to imply that, say, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, or the Palestinian Intifada, were authorized and approved of by the UN ?
Possibly he just can't understand the distinction between those who seek to subjugate the world by force, and those who respond to such evil.

Meyerson also claims that America was almost universally admired, before the latest Iraqi invasion, and is now almost universally feared. The US may be far more despised, but that's not the same as fear. Also, isn't it useful, and part of the reason for the invasion, to have America's enemies fear her ? Would the Taliban have been so hospitable to bin Laden, including their refusal to turn him over after 9/11, if they had realized that a US invasion was a possible outcome ?
Further, it's a very weak fear, or feeling of disgust, if it doesn't interfere with trade. Or, is the EU so intimidated that it feels that cutting off shipments of cheese and chocolate to the US is tantamount to a declaration of war ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 18, 2003 9:52 AM


You write, "What is particularly strange is the prediliction of other countries to copy the British parliamentary system, which works well enough for the British but to which there are huge theoretical objections and which is a historical accident rather than an intelligently designed system."

I rather prefer historical accidents to "intelligently designed systems." Mainly because designed systems have been generally been about as intellent as a my shoe. France has gone through about ten intelligently designed republics; the Soviet's designed something only intelligent from the perspective of Hell. Etc., etc.


I was not aware that Bartley had repudiated that statement. Thank you for enlightening me. But I still contend that neoconservative attachment to the nation-state is waning; and my sharper point is that it wanes particularly with respect to America, which they increasingly see as the Universal Nation.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 10:30 AM

Paul -- You are absolutely right. I don't know what I was thinking. That is, after all, the American miracle.

Still, why do all those foreign rationalists prefer an irrational system? I think that Jim is right. But this is, I suppose, the point. Our system is designed knowing that people are not to be trusted and thus it is purposely set up to be slow and inefficient.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 18, 2003 10:49 AM


Agreed. Without a written constitution we British have always just made it up as we've gone along. But flexibility and common sense have their merits.

And anyway, natural selection is always preferable to intelligent design...


Posted by: Brit at December 18, 2003 10:53 AM

Brit and David:

Spoken like true Burkeans (except for Brit's gratuitous natural selection remark.)

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 11:43 AM


The End of History is hardly progressive--it holds that every state on Earth will have to imitate us to succeed. It's monoculturalism.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 12:06 PM


I believe Switzerland's current political system (from the 1874? constitution) was, if not quite a copy of, at least heavily influenced by the US Constitution:

In the name of God Almighty!
We, the Swiss People and Cantons,
Whereas we are mindful of our responsibility towards creation;
Resolving to renew our alliance to strengthen liberty and democracy, independence and peace in solidarity and openness towards the world;
Determined to live our diversity in unity respecting one another;
Conscious of our common achievements and our responsibility towards furure generations; and
Knowing that only those remain free who use their freedom, and that the strength of a people is measured by the welfare of the weakest of its members;
Therefore we adopt the following Constitution:

I'd take their results for the period following against those of the other continental european states...

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 18, 2003 12:22 PM

Er, minor correction to last; the preamble quoted is actually from a 1999(!) draft that apparently otherwise consists of minor revisions and clarifications. The original preamble was (all hail Google!):

In the Name of Almighty God, the Swiss Confederation, with the intent of strengthening the alliance of the Confederates and of maintaining and furthering the unity, strength and honor of the Swiss nation, has adopted the following Federal Constitution:

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 18, 2003 12:26 PM

geography plays a rather large part in switzerland's history, mind...

Posted by: Brit at December 18, 2003 12:42 PM


And in Britian's, and the US's... politics, alas, provides us with plenty of experiments but no controls.

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 18, 2003 12:56 PM

Bassam Tibi, the Liberal Muslim political scientist, argues -- persuasively, I think -- that the nation-state idea is incompatible with social outlooks everywhere except where it does exist, Europe and its political progeny in the Americas and a few other places.

He contends that as long as people identify themselves by religion, as almost all people do, that explains the epidemic of "failed states."

That would also explain why most places do not adopt the U.S. model. As for adopting the parliamentary model, I'd say that Anglicized elites in former colonies have but that the masses in most of those countries (with the possible really big exception of India) never did.

In most of the small Pacific island nations, some variety of British or American polity, or a combination of each, is in the constitutions, but the people just elect the chiefs.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 1:55 PM

Or kings, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

Posted by: Jeff at December 18, 2003 2:16 PM


A couple of follow-ups on why the US system isn't followed more:

A) Jim is indeed right that the American system is of little interest to those who want government to build and do things. Almost the entire world lives under constitutions written after 1900, which means they were created as agents of progress, usually socialist progress, and not as securers of freedom.

B) It also means they were created by the bane of the 20th century--the professional politician. One thing that strikes about the Founders is their personal remoteness from the government they created. If they took power, they did so reluctantly because they had real lives and other things to do. The ethos of government as a necessary evil pervades all their writing. The only other country I know that has a discernable tradition of thinking that way is-hey-Switzerland;

C)Individual and community self-reliance are just not popular concepts in the world, and I am not sure it ever will be. According to the Pew polls we've seen, only North Americans have a strong majority in favour with other Anglospheric countries just over 50%. The rest of the world has a dependant mindset that makes them look to government the moment something goes wrong. Don't tell me about checks and balances, just write me the check! I think many Americans tend to overstate the yearnings of the rest of the world to breathe free, unless the oppression is extreme, which is one reason things get so complicated after you depose tyrants.

D) The American system is simply not well-known and widely taught outside of America, particularly its philosophical underpinnings. Not even in Canada. You simply don't boast and preach enough (yes, my pet complaint again). The quite ridiculous reputation the US has of being anti-intellectual has deep and wide roots, I'm afraid.

E) Finally, no colonial past, and therefore no conscious responsibility for educating leaders of emerging nations. That's what Rudyard Kipling was trying to chastise you for.

Posted by: Peter B at December 18, 2003 6:12 PM

I was with you, pretty much, until your last point, Peter.

American elites certainly have an intense commitment toward educating leaders of emerging nations. You might not like what they are educating them in, but Fulbright Scholarships, USIS etc., plus the whole private infrastructure also devoted to the same (Paul Martin Fellowships, etc.) all say you're wrong.

I once attempted to make a list of foreign heads of state who had been teachers in American schools. I never completed it -- but it's a long, long list. Try it. You'll be surprised.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 7:58 PM


I defer. I was thinking of all those Africans and Asians who studied under Laski in the thirties and forties and the French colonials at the Sorbonne. There was a real sense of learning how to create and run a society from the beloved/hated mother countries. But perhaps I overstated that one.

Posted by: Peter B at December 18, 2003 8:49 PM

All those points are plausible. My question -- and it is a real question, I don't know the answer -- is which is cause and which is effect.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 18, 2003 8:59 PM