The Pretext of Principles

[by Mr.Hengist]

There’s a piece in the WSJ, “The Case for Inhumane Intervention” which takes a mercifully brief look at how former SecState Madeleine Albright objected to the policy decisions of then-POTUS Bush and defended those of ex-POTUS Clinton. Well, sure she does, as surely does the sun rise – every morning! What’s interesting to me is that she did it on the basis of an overall principle rather than weighing and judging their respective policies based on their unique circumstances. The piece ends by saying, “Albright’s position is simply incoherent.”

That’s not exactly true. Her positions are coherent but the principles invoked are in conflict. The Liberal penchant for framing an argument on the basis of principle appears to be a common approach to Democrat arguments, and what makes it particularly amusing is how the principles invoked are dependent upon the policies pursued. That is to say, policy guides principle, rather than the reverse, but they make a show of standing on principle. Federal deficit spending is outrageously bad, usually; dissent against government policy is patriotic, except when it’s not; filibusters are obstructionist, or the fullest expression of open democratic dialogue, depending. Such arguments posturing on principled ground cannot be wholly reconciled one with another but for the common ground on which they all stand.

Their overarching and unspoken aim is to portray the Republicans as always wrong, whereas Democrat policy is sound and justifiable, i.e., it’s wrong when Republicans do something but OK for Democrats. Democrats start from this assumption yet they must somehow circle that square and justify their positions by other means, and situational principles are their go-to tool for doing just that. Logical conflict often arises when these principles clash from one situation to the next. Let my try to illustrate this with a couple of examples:

During the height of the Iraq war a handful of retired generals, less than a half-dozen of them of the over six thousand who are retired and still amongst the living, had criticized the Bush policies of the war in one way or another, and the Right was admonished to “Listen to the Generals” – that was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi right around the time that Gen. Petraeus was unanimously confirmed as the U.S. Forces Commander in Iraq, and it was an imploration echoed by Liberals everywhere. The message was clear: The Executive Branch should take the advice of its experienced military leaders.

It’s a sound principle, but it became problematical later as the situation changed. When Lt.Gen. Sanchez made his criticisms at a gathering of Military Reporters and Editors (in Arlington, VA, Oct 2007). Sanchez spent the first half of his speech criticizing the deplorable reporting by the MSM, but this went unreported by the NYTimes and AP, and received only scant mention in the front-page article in the WaPo. Can we therefore conclude that the Left believes that Generals should be listened to except when they criticize the Liberal MSM for their shoddy reporting and partisanship, in which case nobody needs hear of it? Not at all; that would be to extrapolate a coherent principle from their varied positions, but that’s not necessary for Liberals. Taking the idea of Liberal principles too seriously leads to cognitive dissonance – there isn’t necessarily any coherence in their arguments when taking them at face value, for these are only useful cudgels couched in the pretext of principles. To illustrate this more fully, when General Petraeus returned stateside to report progress and improvements in Iraq, he was snubbed and insulted by Democrats.

The comments of General Sanchez were useful to the Left only insofar as they echoed what Liberals and Democrats were saying. His comments on the press were not useful or flattering to the Left and so they were ignored. In contrast, the report by General Petraeus was not helpful at all to the Left because they wanted to end the Iraq war as soon as possible, whereas General Petraeus told us that the Iraq war was very much winnable. What he said in open Congressional testimony could hardly be ignored, and therefore his character was attacked by the Left, from the children of Kos, MoveOn and Think Progress to the top clown Democrat leadership, including, amongst others, Pelosi, Reid, and Clinton. Some and only some of the comments of Gen. Sanchez were useful to the Left as a cudgel, whereas the report of Gen. Petraeus undercut their position so thoroughly that he was accused of being a tool of the Bush Administration.

This brings us to the Obama Administration; in late June of 2009, National Security Advisor Jim Jones met with commanders in Afghanistan and to say: “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops,” he told them. The WaPo describes the key part of that meeting as follows:

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?” Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

The message is clear and wholly inappropriate. The role of the Executive Branch is to task the military with a desired outcome, after which the military presents a set of options for achieving that outcome, each of which has an estimate of probable success, cost, and risk. The Executive Branch must not, however, both decide military tactics for their objectives and assign resources; to do so is a reflection of deep ignorance and arrogance. I’m reminded of episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series), in which Captain Kirk would bark orders at Scotty or Spock, telling them to fix a problem after he’s been told it’s impossible to do so; he would then order them to do so anyway, i.e., pull a rabbit out a hat. In reality, the role of a commander is to be advised of facts and presented with options. One of the few Hollywood productions to get this right was “Apollo 13”, in which Flight Director Gene Kranz polls the team for reports on status and advice on options, and upon the basis of the information he’s received he makes decisions on which course of action to pursue.

As of this writing there is a crisis in Honduras which very well illustrates this pretext of principles. Only last month POTUS Obama declared that he would take pains not to be perceived as “meddling” in the affairs of Iran or other nations, only expressing admonitions about how Iran should not brutalize their citizens for rioting in protest of their sham democracy. The principle of not meddling does not apply to the government of Honduras after they legally ousted their Chavista protégé President; in that crisis, the Hondurans have been punished by the withholding of OAS funds on the basis of the principle of upholding democracy.

In contrast, Iranian elections under the Mullahs have always been a sham, and thus any claim of “democracy” in that country is a hollow lie. Surely the principles of upholding democracy are more urgently in need of support for Iran than Honduras. It appears to be a contradiction that the support of democracy is cited as the reason for meddling in Honduras whereas democracy-free Iran is not held to the that standard, and it is. The key to understanding this contradiction is that for Liberals and Democrats the principles they cite are entirely situational. What we’re left with is speculation as to their real motives. With the treatment of Iran vs. Honduras, I think POTUS Obama is eager to “hit the reset button” with our enemies because he believes that the poor relations between our countries are really the fault of past, mostly the Republican Administrations, whereas he casts a gimlet eye on any allies who had good relations with same. Further elucidation on POTUS Obama’s motives are better explained by Noocyte in this post, and I am in agreement with the good points he makes.

Where we disagree is that Noocyte does POTUS Obama the courtesy of taking his words at face value, and concludes that the Obama policy is flawed on the basis of these principles in conflict. On the contrary, those principles are pretext and are therefore irrelevant, except insofar as they should be thrown back in the faces of the Liberals who hoist those high-minded banners to justify their policy choices.

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