On the Road
September 17, 2006
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 17, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: One of the big stories today was the conflict in Washington over the president’s proposed legislation to change the rules governing interrogation and trials of terrorism suspects. Bush met with stiff resistance. Not just from Democrats, which is to be expected, but from leading Republicans: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Warner, Colin Powell, etc., all of whom spoke out against the president’s approach here. Some commentators argue McCain doesn’t want this kind of fight with the president right now because McCain’s focus, in terms of his presidential aspirations, is to shore up his support within the conservative wing of the Republican Party. In going up against Bush on this he’s, in effect, going up against them.
Newman: That election is two years away. The House elections are coming up in seven weeks. Bush’s intention is to shore up his position with the Far Right right now, to make sure that the Republicans hold on to the House.
Salit: That’s the Bush angle on it. What’s the McCain angle on it? Why does McCain do this?
Newman: Because McCain’s next election is not a House election. It’s a presidential election and he has to continuously develop his appeal to a cross-section of Americans, even while he’s cultivating the conservatives. In addition to which, I think he probably believes in it. He stands on principle against the use of torture and for the standards of the Geneva Convention.
Salit: Believe it or not, in the sordid, dirty world of politics, you actually have some people who are taking a stand on principle here. That’s what McCain’s doing, that’s what Powell is doing. This is about a lot of things, but one of the things that it’s about, to use Powell’s term, is “the moral character of the United States of America,” what we stand for as a country and how we’re perceived in the world. So, when you say “he really believes that,” that’s what you’re talking about. Do you think the Bush plan raises issues of moral principle, issues about what kind of country we are?
Newman: Well, I don’t really think that’s the issue. Pardon my perhaps dogmatic single-mindedness, but I think this is another example of a problem that is a consequence of insisting upon there being a war on terror. If there weren’t a war on terror, then all you’d have to do is identify the appropriate police actions to be taken with individual criminals, which is what terrorists are. Once you make it a war on terrorism, you’re stuck with all kinds of things, including the jurisdiction of the Geneva Convention, including, therefore, a concern that if you violate that, then the violators might be identified as war criminals. I think it’s just another unfortunate consequence of the stupidity of insisting that it’s a war, which we’ve addressed in previous issues of Talk Talk.
Salit: In light of the fact that America has gone down that road, the president is saying that we now have to make adjustments in order to be able to conduct that war.
Newman: Well, if you go down enough wrong roads, you’re going to have to make unbelievable adjustments. I don’t know how to respond to that argument. You can’t keep defending your position on the grounds that this is what you have to do, given that we’ve gone down 2,764 wrong roads. What can you say to that? Except that the whole position is corrupt, incorrect and unsound on all kinds of grounds, which includes moral grounds. Bush’s critics don’t want to say that because they’re trying to figure out if they can piece together some position which holds on to a semblance of morality and principle, while the war footing makes that impossible. And that’s where the politics come in. It’s this piecemeal positioning based on the fact that you want to hold on to one constituency in one part of the country, and another constituency in another part of the country. You wind up with positions which are fundamentally and morally corrupt and epistemologically dishonest.
Salit: I’m thinking of the exchange between Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift in “The McLaughlin Group,” when they had an argument about Powell. Buchanan says ‘Well, Powell hasn’t been sufficiently loyal to the president.’ And then Clift said ‘Well, actually he’s been too loyal to the president because he could have stopped the war, if he had spoken out.’ And then Buchanan says back to Clift ‘No, it’s your fellow Democrats who could have stopped the war, if they had spoken out.’
Newman: And they’re both right.
Salit: And they’re both right. So, we’ve gone down this road and I hear the point you’re making that you can’t constantly say Well, we’re on this road, so consequently we have to now make adjustments because we’re on that road, because that’s the new reality and there’s nothing we can do about that. Still, is there a serious question to raise in all of this about how being on this road is degenerating American morality? America stands for certain kinds of principles, for the rule of law. As was said over and over today, we are a democracy, we are a democratic society, and supposedly that’s what we’re fighting for internationally. I know all the brilliant things one would say about how that’s not the true motive or there’s a more complex motive. Maybe I’m asking: is there such a thing as American moral leadership or American moral standing that is being eroded?
Newman: You can’t have the standing that we have traditionally had if, in a post Cold War period, you’re going to become the policeman of the world, intervening militarily – not by necessity, but by choice. If you take that position, you no longer have anything resembling the moral high ground that this country has traditionally had.
Salit: In other words, if you go down that road then how do you stop midstream and say Oh, now we’re about to cross a line that is morally regressive, that’s morally wrong...
Newman: But the moral violations occurred a long time ago, at a much deeper level. What you’re seeing now are the consequences of that moral dissolution or depravity.
Salit: Of waging war as a choice.
Newman: Waging war as a choice. Not participating in international treaties that are strongly advocated by our allies. This has been justified, apparently with some popular sentiment behind it, on the grounds of America First. Well, if America is First and only First, if that becomes the dominant major premise of any political syllogism, you’re going to lose your moral bearings.
Salit: Another thing we saw in the discussion today is a chronicle of how our on-the-ground strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan is failing…the resurrection of the war lords, the drug trade in Afghanistan, the chaos in Baghdad, the sectarian strife, civil war, on and on.
Newman: They grow only two things in Afghanistan. Poppies and rocks. Poppies sell better than rocks…
Salit: … on the world market. Yes, they do. And now you have increasing numbers of people from a lot of different points on the spectrum saying that we need more troops. We’ve got to commit more ground forces in order to hold our position.
Newman: And we don’t have them.
Salit: We don’t have them. We don’t have popular support for sending them. We don’t have the kind of country where you can commit a half a million troops to Iraq. But that’s what we’d have to do, in order to win.
Newman: Someone should have thought of that earlier.
Salit: Some people did think of that earlier. General Shinseki said from day one that you can’t do this with 150,000 troops. You need at least twice that number of troops. And he was cast aside and attacked by the Bush people. But, the decision about troop levels was not a decision based just on an assessment of what you needed to take Baghdad. It’s based on a political assessment of what the response to your presence is going to be. Rather than the 150,000 troops getting rid of Saddam and then acting as a pacifying and unifying force on the public, they got rid of Saddam, and now they’re acting as the exact opposite of a pacifying and unifying force. Hence, you need three times the number of troops than we currently have on the ground.
Newman: If you want your troops to function as policemen, you’re going to need 10 times as many…because they’re not policemen. Once again, it takes us back to the war on terrorism.
Salit: In spite of the Bush/McCain conflict being about “true principles,” everybody agrees that all the players are going to come to the table and compromise in the end.
Newman: That’s how the country works. That’s how decisions are reached.
Salit: So, they’ve got to come up with something where every side can declare victory. Bush can declare victory. McCain and those forces can declare victory. And so forth. What do you do? You come up with some compromise that gives prosecutors more latitude, but which doesn’t violate the Geneva Convention and doesn’t violate the rules of evidence.
Newman: Well, roughly speaking, I think what you do is you put something on paper, something official, which precludes the interrogators from doing this and that, and then you – executively – let them do whatever the hell they want. That’s what you do. In some sense, that’s what we’ve been doing throughout this whole thing.
Salit: Thank you.