Philosophical Detection: Dissecting Slate’s Michael Kinsley

by | Mar 24, 2003

The closer a con artist gets to being exposed definitively, the more desperate he becomes. If his con relies on moral intimidation, his threats and denunciations become more and more hysterical. This is the source of Saddam Hussein’s threatening bluster in the weeks before the war–and no doubt of Kim Jong Il’s as well. Among […]

The closer a con artist gets to being exposed definitively, the more desperate he becomes. If his con relies on moral intimidation, his threats and denunciations become more and more hysterical. This is the source of Saddam Hussein’s threatening bluster in the weeks before the war–and no doubt of Kim Jong Il’s as well. Among the intellectuals, the partisans of the UN are trying desperately to save their lost credibility in the same fashion.

One such is Michael Kinsley, founding editor of You can judge how threatened he is by the degree of hysteria in his March 20 column, which concludes: “George W. Bush is now the closest thing in a long time to dictator of the world. He claims to see the future as clearly as the past. Let’s hope he’s right.” The fact that he can say this with a straight face shows just how out of touch with reality a university education puts you these days, if you are uncritical enough to let it.

Kinsley’s column is called “The Bush Doctrine: War Without Anyone’s Permission,” a title that in itself betrays a lot. The antiwar crowd’s complaint against “unilateralism” amounts to the same thing: “How dare you go to war without permission?” This is essentially an argument against national sovereignty, an argument that the UN is a world government that has the sole authority to make such decisions. But in fact it isn’t, it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t–and the argument attempts to portray as a fait accompli something that few people ever accepted in the first place.

Kinsley’s strategy for promoting obedience to the UN is to make President Bush out to be a dictator. On the domestic side, Kinsley observes the lack of a formal Congressional declaration of war:

Right or wrong, Gulf War II resembles the imperial forays of earlier centuries more than the nuclear standoffs and furtive terrorist hunts of the 20th and 21st. Yet Bush, like all recent presidents, claims for his person the sovereign right to launch such a war. Like his predecessors, he condescends only to accept blank-check resolutions from legislators cowed by fear of appearing disloyal to troops already dispatched.

I have had my concerns about the lack of a formal declaration of war, but to claim that the president is acting outside the law is just plain false. Congress’ resolution of December 14, 2001, authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” He has determined that Iraq granted training in poisons and gasses to Al Qaeda and that it has been harboring a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Since that time, Congress has continued to back the president. On October 11, 2002, the Senate passed 77-23 and the House passed 296-133 a joint resolution stating that “The president is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq, and (2) enforce all relevant United Nation Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” The resolution did not tie US action to a UN resolution. And last February 24 (see “The Rest of the Story,” 2/25) a federal judge threw out a lawsuit from several congressmen claiming that the resolution improperly ceded the decision to go to war to the president, and demanding a formal declaration of war.

In light of all this, to claim that President Bush has usurped some sort of extralegal, dictatorial power is bordering on dishonesty.

Having portrayed Bush as a usurper at home, Kinsley can now characterize Bush’s going to war without a second UN resolution as a manifestation of the same dictatorial impulse:

If the United Nations wants to be “relevant,” he said, it must do exactly as I say. In other words, in order to be relevant, it must become irrelevant. When that didn’t work, he said: I am ignoring the wishes of the Security Council and violating the U.N. Charter in order to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The premise here is that we have no right to judge the UN. It will make whatever decision it makes, by whatever means it makes such decisions, and we are obliged to accept those decisions, even if they are irrational and contradictory, even if they involve the sacrifice of our own interests. Supposedly, that’s what international law is all about. In this view, ultimate sovereign authority is held by the UN–not by its member governments.

This idea is absurd on its face, particularly as regards the United States. The UN is supposedly an organization of sovereign nations, holding its authority by the mere fact that they have agreed to join it. What authority could it have over a country that decided to leave? Furthermore, if the US pulled out, the organization could hardly continue to exist at all. The only authority such a body has is the authority that we decide to give it. As I wrote recently:

America is supposedly hypocritical for bringing its case to the UN but threatening to act on its own if it doesn’t get its way. America is a “bully” because it insists on asserting its own interests regardless of what the UN decides. To those with such views, UN membership involves the sacrifice of national interests for the greater good….

The American founders held a fundamentally different view. For them the only way to reach a valid concept of the general interest was to identify what is common to the properly conceived interests of everyone. Only on this basis can one uphold the idea that government exists to serve the interests of its members, not to sacrifice them. And when government fails in that purpose, as the founders put it, the people have the right to alter or abolish it. Our position at the UN is not hypocrisy; it is the result of a coherent conception of the role and nature of such an organization.

But to the antiwar movement, our role is to obey. [“An Open Letter to Richard Perle,” 2/17/03]

Kinsley’s objections to Bush’s behavior, in sum, stem from a wrongheaded and profoundly anti-American view of the role of government.

Kinsley continues his casuistry by claiming that Iraq poses only a potential, not an actual, threat to America:

[T]he right Bush is asserting really has no limits because the special circumstances he claims aren’t really special. Striking first in order to pre-empt an enemy that has troops massing along your border is one thing. Striking first against a nation that has never even explicitly threatened your sovereign territory, except in response to your own threats, because you believe that this nation may have weapons that could threaten you in five years, is something very different.

Bush’s suggestion that the furtive nature of war in this new century somehow changes the equation is also dubious, and it contradicts his assertion that the threat from Iraq is “clear.”

… Bush is asserting the right of the United States to attack any country that may be a threat to it in five years. And the right of the United States to evaluate that risk and respond in its sole discretion. And the right of the president to make that decision on behalf of the United States in his sole discretion. In short, the president can start a war against anyone at any time, and no one has the right to stop him. And presumably other nations and future presidents have that same right. All formal constraints on war-making are officially defunct.

…and in this manner he goes floating off into the vapors of his own fantasy. Let’s start with Kinsley’s fatuous characterization of the nature of the Iraqi threat. Objective law recognizes many cases of legitimate preemptive action. For example, conspiracy is a crime. The law recognizes that a threat exists and that the police may act, even if the prospective crime has not yet taken place.

Or again, certain behavior by convicted criminals by itself constitutes a threat, by perfectly objective legal standards. For example, parolees may not own or possess any firearm, ammunition, or explosive, or even have contact with a felon; doing so is sufficient evidence for the police to take action. Surely Iraq’s history of invading neighboring countries puts it in this category.

Iraq’s dictatorial rule and its past aggressions are sufficient in themselves to establish that it poses an actual, actionable threat to every free country on earth–just as a criminal poses a threat to every law-abiding citizen, even ones who live across town. Saddam Hussein’s attempt on the life of the elder President Bush, his attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction and his assistance to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups threaten the United States specifically. The threat is absolutely clear and objective, even if we have no evidence of a specific attack plan against the US.

Now look at what Kinsley is trying to put over on the reader. As we have seen, the fiction that the president is able to declare war at his sole discretion is a smokescreen. What Kinsley’s really after is “the right of the United States to evaluate that risk and respond in its sole discretion.” Kinsley knows that no responsible person would deny our right to make unilateral decisions in our own self-defense. So he tries to discredit unilateralism with a smear, by linking it to another fiction: Bush’s alleged claim of the right to attack any country that might be a threat in five years.

That issue is a red herring, for it’s just as “lawless” to evaluate any risk unilaterally, whether five years or five minutes out. The objection comes down to this: “If you don’t obey the UN, then you’re acting lawlessly: you’re saying you can go to war whenever you judge it to be appropriate.” That’s true: we can and will go to war whenever we judge it appropriate. The rightness or wrongness of such action is determined, not by the fact that we make such judgments, but by whether or not they are based on rational standards.

Those who fear moral responsibility would prefer to abdicate such judgments in favor of a woozy international consensus whose only justification is its claim to represent everyone. In that world, nobody any longer makes absolute claims of right or wrong; everyone accepts the collective “decision of the international community” which is accountable to nobody and nothing.

The real beef here is with the fact that the US is the most powerful country on earth, and is therefore only beholden to “international law” if it chooses to be. The critics hate the fact that we are so powerful; they are opposed to any assertion of American power, right or wrong. But in reality, there is no world government. Kinsley and his ilk are trying to use moral intimidation to make the US act as if such a government existed and to bow to it–but such a pretense depends crucially on our willingness to sanction it. The apoplexy we’re seeing is a result of the fact that the game is up–and they know we know it.

Not only is the UN not the government of the world, it shouldn’t be. This is an organization that accords such nations as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya the status of sovereign governments, so that through the UN, the world confers legitimacy on any thug who happens to seize power. Could anything be more destructive to peace?

Any putative “international law” recognizing the legitimacy of dictatorship is ipso facto invalid and deserves no respect; as a sovereign nation, it is our right to alter or abolish it. The fact that tyrants who maintain their power by force are granted seats in the General Assembly merely reveals that the United Nations, not the United States, is the body that worships the doctrine of might makes right.

Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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