Friday, July 25, 2003

Steven Den Beste can still surprise me, I'll give him that. When confronted with a reader that asked why the American people needed to be mislead about the true goals of the war, his response was simply this:

They don't need to know, and can't be trusted to know.
If there were a way for Bush to share this little secret with [the American people] without it leaking out to the rest of the world, perhaps it would make sense to talk about it. But that's obviously impossible.

It is nearly always a mistake to reveal any information when there's no need to do so. That applies on every level, from the mundanity of operations all the way up to the grand strategic. That's especially the case in a war like this one, where the goal is so diffuse and which affects so many nations in so many ways.
The question, then, is simple. Was there a need to do so? Steven appears to believe so, but as I mentioned earlier, he has completely failed to even consider the negative ramifications of this act when making his case for deception. It not only means that foreign nations literally cannot trust the United States, but that the American people can't trust their government. This is absolutely unacceptable. This cannot happen.

See, Steven's case for deception only works if the reasons are absolutely flawless for that deception and the reasons for the act that the deception surrounds. There is, of course, a theoretical situation where this could be right and just, and it is explored in great detail in Plato's Republic and its concept of the "noble lie"... lies that are told because it helps society. Plato, unlike Steven, realized how dangerous such an idea really is, and the very concept of the philosopher-king stems in part from the necessity of absolutely surety in justifying these sorts of acts.

American presidents, however, are (notoriously in this case) nothing like philosopher kings- they must be elected by the people, and they are flawed citizens like everybody else. They can draw on a greater store of information than most, and can receive advice from the best and brightest on how best to go about doing what they do, but in the end they are still flawed human beings. That was the very reason why the United States decided on revolution in the first place. This, therefore, creates two enormous problems.

(He says that the invasion of Iraq is a "narrow case", but provides reasons that could be applied to any number of conflicts.)

First, this "need for secrecy" can place the country and its citizens in deadly danger of which it was not appraised and the reasons for which it was not really given. This could have easily happened in Iraq (Steven's gloating over the worst case scenario not having happened misses the point that it could have), and Steven's assertions aside, the American people are waking up to the realization that the quick war they were promised was not ever going to happen. In the future, however, things could be much, much worse; under Steven's rationalization, presidents become all-powerful whenever there is a claimed need for secrecy and some sort of conflict to justify it. This is disasterous.

Second, and more important, are the electoral implications. As presidents are flawed human beings, they can (and do) exploit their office to increase their chances for re-election and the election of their partisan partners. Steven himself brought this up a while ago when he was defending term limits, so he knows full well about this problem. Conflicts rarely follow the electoral cycle, so it is almost certain that elections will occur during some sort of conflict. A president could easily exploit conflict to benefit his party and harm the other, and this is almost precisely what happened in 2002. The 2002 election wasn't the reason for the war, but everybody knows that Bush and the Republicans exploited it to the hilt. This could become the rule rather than the exception, and it could pervert the operation of the American Republic by giving the party of the President an unstoppable advantage. Sure, that might benefit Bush right now, but would Steven be so prosaic if a Democrat managed to get in and cemented the Democratic party as solidly a ruling party as, say, the LDP in Japan?

Even worse if Steven's argument is valid, however, is the fact that there is no way that elections are meaningful, because the voters must make their choice "blind". They simply cannot properly evaluate the platforms of the candidates and the actions of the president, because they cannot understand the context within which those actions take place. Whether you support the president and his partisan candidates or not, this is a poor situation to be in; a president could be re-elected despite his plans being a danger both to American security and the international system, or be voted out despite having a brilliant (yet secret) plan for securing the safety of the American people. This could also happen on the Congressional level as well, as coattails sweep parties in and out of power. Sure, presidents might be able to explain their actions after the conflict is over, but perhaps not... some conflicts rage for decades, and Steven himself says that the War on Terror will likely do so. Elections become pointless, if not totally random. Without a functioning system of democratic election that can realistically take into account foreign policy, the Republic is not only a complete sham, but it is inevitably doomed.

Steven's case is, in a word, indefensible, and if he is correct about the Bush administration's actions then those actions are also indefensible. He is right in saying that honesty with the American people could make things much more difficult for presidents, but nobody said the job would be easily, and his claim that such honesty would involve unacceptable costs:

What price are you willing to pay for that? How many American soldiers are you willing to sacrifice? Are you willing to risk losing...
...misses the point, which is that under his justification, the Republic has already lost. The idea of the American Republic that is supposed to be its beating heart would lie dead and rotting.

That isn't "Jacksonian", Mr. Den Beste. It's not even Nixonian. Hell, it isn't even Machiavellian, because Machiavelli required leaders to sacrifice everything they hold dear (to "kill the sons of Brutus") for the sake of justice and for their people. It is, appropriately enough, the words of a Stalinist bureaucrat or a French Sun-King. "L'etat c'est Den Beste", as it were.


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