Thursday, August 25, 2005


The reaction to Robertson

There is absolutely nothing defensible about what Pat Robertson said on Monday. His remarks deserve the kind of response they have gotten from Reverend Graylan Scott Haglar and Rep. Barbara Lee, who rightly said that "the call for murder from someone who claims to be a man of God is an insult to people of faith everywhere.”

I also think, however, that these kinds of public pile-ons, where everyone and his dog hastens to agree that so-and-so is a dog, have limited value. Yes, Robertson's remarks deserve to be--must be--condemned by every right-thinking person. But that's just the thing: because everyone agrees about that, condemning Robertson's remarks easily becomes a reassuring kind of confirmation that "I am a right-thinking person." And when that happens, when criticism becomes so unanimous and overweening that the offender stands alone with his sin, the ability to examine ourselves quickly weakens. The same kind of thing happened, I suggested, with the comments of Sen. Dick Durbin earlier this summer. The condemnation there was not nearly as unanimous as the condemnation of Robertson's comments seem to be. But in Durbin's case, too, the collective rush to say that we Americans, in all our righteous fury, simply will not stand for that, makes us rush right past the uncomfortable question of what we do stand for, what we have stood for in the past.

The responses of government officials to Robertson's remarks have been unanimous. They do "not represent the policy of the United States." Assassination of democratically elected leaders is "against the law. Our department doesn't do that type of thing." But what is the policy of the United States? What kinds of things are done in our name? Are they morally superior to the wrong of murdering a head of state who is regarded as a threat to our security? Those are the kinds of disturbing questions that are easily put out of mind during fifteen-minute hates, no matter at whom they are directed.

Here is the stated national security policy of the Bush administration: the United States does not have to suffer an attack before striking militarily at a target deemed to pose an imminent threat to the nation. "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."

Now, I'm aware that preemptive military strikes are theoretically distinguishable from assassinations. But it is harder to distinguish them than it should be. For example, is the difference that a military strike is preceded by a formal declaration of war? The American invasion of Iraq, defended by its architects as a preemptive strike against an imminent threat, was preceded by no such declaration, and one of its earliest events was a series of decapitation attempts on a head of state. Those assassination attempts were defended as consistent with the national security strategy of the United States as outlined by this administration; were they different from the talk of assassination now being condemned by administration officials as not the policy of the United States?

I'm aware that a careful account could be given that would distinguish between what Robertson is calling for in the case of Chavez and what the Bush administration actively tried to do in the case of Saddam Hussein. Presumably, for supporters of the Bush administration's policy on "preemptive strikes," the difference would hinge on Chavez's being democratically elected.

But here's my point: piling on Pat Robertson gives the administration an opportunity to wash its hands of such "inappropriate" remarks, to distance itself from the clear outer boundaries of acceptable policy, and thus to shield its policy from examination by saying that it at least does not stand for that. I'm not saying that the Bush administration is responsible for what Robertson said (Pat alone must answer for that). But if you systematically redefine our national security strategy to justify preemptive strikes against states and heads of states, if you erode respect for international law by refusing to participate in international criminal courts, if you routinely set aside conventions of warfare as not applicable to us while wryly noting that we abide by them anyway, if you arrogate and explicitly articulate the right to change regimes when they pose threats to us, even when the rest of the world is not convinced that they do ... if you do all these things over the course of four years, then it's a bit much to slack your jaw when Pat Robertson floats crazy proposals for assassination and say "Gosh golly gee, did he say that out loud? That's illegal! We don't do that! He's definitely not one of us."

If you're the Bush administration, you have to be willing to ask the harder question: once we start relaxing the accepted conventions of just warfare and flouting international law and institutions, can we be surprised that fringe elements of our constituency will start to push things this far? And if you're a concerned American, you have to be willing to ask: if I don't agree with Pat Robertson's national security strategy, do I agree with President Bush's? If so, what reasons do I have for viewing the two strategies as morally and legally distinct?

Collective Improvisation:
Well said, although another question to ask might be: To what extent does current administration policy truly differ from that of earlier adminstrations? Even if a doctrine of preemptive military strikes has not been explicitly stated in the past, military, strategic, and financial support--both covertly and openly--has been given to groups opposing governments seen as hostile to United States interests, without those governments engaging in hostile activity. Similarly, leaders perceived as hostile to the United States have been targeted for assassination.  

Posted by John

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/25/2005 09:39:00 PM : Permalink  

Good point.

This is a little bit of a tangent to your comment, but the same press conference  in which Secretary Rumsfeld said that the Defense Department "doesn't do that type of thing" began with Rumsfeld comparing Iraq's struggle to the El Salvadorans' battle against "an insurgency in their country" in 1982, which proved "the power of freedom's appeal in the struggle against tyranny." There's more than a little irony there, and it's a bit troubling that Rumsfeld might view U.S. covert operations in El Salvador in the 1980s as a model for Iraq.

Maybe, too, what Rumsfeld means when he says "our  department doesn't do that sort of thing," as in covert assassination and kidnapping missions, he means that other agencies might. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/25/2005 10:38:00 PM : Permalink  

I wasn't aware of Rumsfeld's (scary) reference to El Salvador. In bringing it up, I don't think you're going off on much of a tangent at all, it being one of the many examples (such as Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, etc.,) I was thinking of.

You write: "Maybe, too, what Rumsfeld means when he says "our department doesn't do that sort of thing," as in covert assassination and kidnapping missions, he means that other agencies might." My thoughts exactly.


Posted by John

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/25/2005 11:16:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for this great post.

Arguably, preemptive military strikes are worse  than assassinations, since they (by definition) involve many more casualties. Of course, there are still good reasons for not making assassinations a routine part of policy, not least because of the temptation that would exist to use it in cases where there is little or no actual threat to legitimate security intetrests (as history shows).

Also, I think John is right to point out that the break between the Bush administration and previous ones is not as stark as it has been presented (often by Democrats seeking partisan advantage). The stated policy of the US for quite some time has been one of overwhelming military superiority and de facto hegemony, and to discourage any other country, friend or foe, from building up its forces as a possible counterweight. It seems to me that this strategy makes things like preemptive strikes virtually inevitable. 

Posted by Lee

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/26/2005 10:09:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments. I agree with both of you that the disjunction between President Bush's policy and the policies of previous administrations should not be overdrawn. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/26/2005 10:51:00 PM : Permalink  

It's a tribute to your writing, Caleb, that this post made me want to respond with two or three different posts of my own. I went in a different direction with your opening ideas on my site, so I thought I'd respond to the foreign policy portion here.

It think you're right to mention assassination and preemptive strikes in the same breath. To borrow a term from Philip K. Dick, they each offer the allure of dealing with "precrime." In extreme circumstances, we could certainly make a pragmatic case for either. But in our pragmatism, we'd be throwing away both the judicial tenet of innocent until proven guilty and the Christian ideal of grace.

Even if we were able to justify to ourselves that either option was ethically permissable, I think it's essential that we set the evidentiary bar extremely high before proceeding. In either instance, your "Doubt War" post becomes even more important.

I'm not telling you anything you don't already know in saying that we didn't come close to that evidentiary standard before launching an attack on Iraq in 2003. Worse than that, I don't think that meeting that standard was ever a guiding concern for this administration. (And by this standard, Robertson's thoughts on Chavez aren't even worth a mention.)

Sadly, our electorate continues to conflate militarism and foreign policy strength. As long as we continue to reward politicians accordingly, not much is going to change. 

Posted by zalm

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/27/2005 02:37:00 AM : Permalink  

There is always a tough choice between means than ends.
You could say 'we never support assassination or pre-emptive action and it sounds lovely until you end up sitting by idly while a despot commits genocide and prepares for war.

A rational (and concequentilist) person will is really being a little dishonest to say "we don’t do that" when they really mean "we wouldn't do that in this case". While the non-concequentailists live in the lovely moral simplicity of never feeling responsible for the havoc that they wreck. 

Posted by GeniusNZ

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/27/2005 04:20:00 AM : Permalink  

Zalm, thanks for the kind words. I agree with what you've said here, and I also enjoyed your post at From the Salmon .

GeniusNZ, I appreciate your comment, although I disagree that when dealing with a bellicose "despot,"the only alternatives to assassination or pre-emptive action amount to "sitting idly by." And I agree with Zalm that even if one thinks that violent action against another state is a good means toward the end of stopping or minimizing violence, the "evidentiary bar" must be extremely high before proceeding with military action against another state, especially if the crime we are punishing hasn't happened yet but is only "anticipated."

You seem to imply in the second paragraph of your comment that those who reject assassination and preemptive military strikes as viable foreign policies are responsible for wreaking havoc. I disagree with that claim; in fact, just the opposite seems true: if a government decides to wreak havoc on another state, the architects of that policy are responsible for what results, not its opponents.

I think what you may mean is that those who doubt policies like assassination and preemptive strikes are responsible for the havoc that despots cause because they would just "sit idly by." Surely you don't mean to say that someone who thinks we should not assassinate foreign leaders is thus responsible for whatever that foreign leader does. I do think a non-consequentialist has to come up with good moral reasons for his or her positions, but I doubt that non-consequentialists ever find that process lovely or simple. These are thorny moral questions that can't be easily answered just by calling into question the seriousness or rationality of people with whom we disagree. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/27/2005 04:21:00 PM : Permalink  

Are you familiar with the book, Confessions of An Economic Hit Man?
It describes how our support of people who wrangle leaders of countries like Venezuela into actions that are against their country's interests.

I think it may be fair to suggest that it has been our actions in this that have contributed to making Chavez the bully he is. It has spawned popular xenophobia to int'l MNC influence and made them support an anti-MNC strongman like Chavez coming into power.

ps, I have had a discussion with Streak over at Jesus Politics on my idea that some of the vituperous nature of the racism that develope in the Southern States after the Civil War was due to the way the southern states were excluded almost completely from having voice in the fed'l gov't for a long time and lagged seriously in their economic development.

I think that if Lincoln had not been killed that he would have seen to it that the South had more voice and that the regional divergence would have been reduced with a large number of later stuff like the Fundamentalist-Modernist schism being mitigated some.

Here's the post,

I was hoping to get a 2nd opinion. I think it's a different tact than much historical research has taken, but that it would be worthy of consideration.


Posted by dlw

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/31/2005 04:32:00 PM : Permalink  

> the only alternatives to assassination or pre-emptive action amount to "sitting idly by."

there ae indeed other options usually - but if there is a perfect option every rational person would of course support it.

> the "evidentiary bar" must be extremely high

it is a balance of risks and reward I guess

> Surely you don't mean to say that someone who thinks we should not assassinate foreign leaders is thus responsible for whatever that foreign leader does.

Actually I do. I see no reason why inaction is all that different from action (it is just a matter of perspective).
For example if you refuse to give a baby any food or water until it dies you are just as responsible as if you smothered it with pillow (in fact the former seems slightly worse).

You are responsible for the results of your choices.
You could stay home and do nothing and if only action is a sin that is the ultimate moral position but I dont think that is true.

But having said that - I dont see life as a "blame game" the important point is for us to consider the arguments fairly. 

Posted by GeniusNZ

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/19/2005 04:05:00 AM : Permalink  

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