Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Yo yo! Hegel's in da (White) House!

A useful article in the New Republic about how Condi Rice admitted to believing that the ends justifies the means, and takes her to the woodshed for it. In response to a question from Senator Biden, Rice responded:
I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment but in how it all adds up. And that's just strongly the way I feel about big historical changes. I'm being as straightforward with you as I possibly can.
To which Jeffrey Herf (a scholar of Nazism), comments:

The idea that a decision cannot be judged at the moment but only retrospectively opens a slippery slope of justification. The future Secretary of State was indulging an understanding of politics favored by advocates of a Hegelian view of history--most of whom have, in the last century, been communists.... Fidel Castro captured this communist faith in the redeeming power of history in one pithy phrase: "History will absolve me."

The capacity of history to absolve political actors is a cynical and immoral doctrine. No one can know for sure how political decisions will turn out. Iraq may emerge as a stable democracy. Yet that fact would not justify having gone to war in spring 2003 based on false premises. It would not excuse the woeful lack of preparation for battle after the major combat operations. Nor would such success justify the use of torture. Nor would it absolve the leading officials of the Bush administration, including Rice, who declined to share their uncertainties about the facts in Iraq with the public. Nor would it excuse their decision to allow rampant speculation that Saddam had something to do with September 11 to percolate among Americans. Nor would it render moot their assertions, made with far more confidence than the facts allowed, that the threat was so imminent that a war could not be delayed until fall 2003 or spring 2004.

That seems just about right. Rejecting consequentialism is a basic tenet ethical responsibility. Consider the following examples: just because you made it home in one piece doesn't mean that you were justified in driving drunk; just because you didn't get an STD, doesn't mean the unprotected anonymous sex was a good thing; just because your number came up, doesn't mean it was smart to bet the family farm on the roulette wheel.

Likewise, just because things may turn out okay in Iraq, doesn't mean the invasion made sense. Certain chances just aren't worth taking, because the downside risk is too high -- "low probability, high negative utility" as the economists say. In politics, the essential conservative principle is to avoid unnecessary risk-taking. Iraq was just such a risk.

And we should never forget that what we're seeing in Iraq is actually not nearly as bad as many people expected. Just imagine if Team Bush had been right about the existence of WMDs: all those car bombs might well be releasing nerve gas.


Anonymous said...


jcafe said...

All of this is well stated. But really what this begs is the issue of how to best to engage a team that is so good at telling half-truths and lies in order to further their agenda while enfeebling the opposition through subterfuge, lack of discourse and a zealot's faith. They are (re)writting history, often before it happens, and so far they are getting away with it all. Small comfort that events have unfolded with less dire consequences (thus far) than opponents have predicted.

This is all very surreal, sort of like having political Parkinson's.