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February 13, 2007


Could we maybe stop talking like primary challengers or single issue voting in primaries are armed insurrections or signs of "panic"? Why, in a democratic republic, is public pressure against a war illegitimate? Especially when we know damn well that Congressmen are going to face pressure in the other direction.

There just seems to be this attitude that people should listen to their betters, who after all have high placed advisors and secret information.

We're talking about pretty mild stuff, and you just don't seem willing to engage specifically with any of hil's arguments. You divide them into little bite sized bits, describe each bit in a generalized way, and argue against your generalization rather than what she said specifically.

We're talking about pretty mild stuff, and you just don't seem willing to engage specifically with any of hil's arguments.

I don't understand this comment at all, particularly given the fact that Hilzoy's first comment seems based on a misrepresentation of what I originally wrote.

Regarding refusing "to engage specifically with any of [X's] arguments," where do I state that "primary challengers or single issue voting in primaries are armed insurrections" (I do, admittedly, say that endorsing a litmus test on Iraq is a sign of panic). Where do I say that "public pressure against a war [is] illegitimate"? (Indeed, have I note stated the exact opposite?)

This is utterly ridiculous. Read my posts before you offer a response, Katherine.

The insurrections thing is sarcastic. Sorry, thought that was obvious. The "public pressure against a war is illegitimate" thing is based on these parts of your first post:

"Foreign policy is one area in which democracy is ill-equipped to handle. An effective foreign policy requires flexibility, a consistent approach, long-term positioning, and careful use of language. It requires the ability to instantly adjust and react to changes on the ground. It is therefore a realm for experts, not laypeople."

"Indeed, managing a state's foreign policy at the grassroots -- whether through the direct democracy of Athenians or the more indirect democracy of modern states -- is frequently a disaster. The grassroots are neither experts, nor are they particularly flexible. They do not react well to changing events. Special interests (here, the peace wing of the Democratic party) frequently have a disproportionate effect."

I suppose I overstated my point--you think public pressure against a war is illegitimate unless it takes a form that has no chance whatsoever of influencing policy.

And I think publius's post makes clear that his test is context-specific, and he is talking about candidates who support an actual war, before 2008, not a vague statement that "all options are on the table." If I am misinterpreting him I'm sure he'll correct me.

There are other ways to argue against a strike on Iran.

How about you make some of those arguments then, instead of parading through town explaining how your view is the "long view" and everybody else is being "profoundly unwise."

Tithes from the garden, gnats, camels... It never ends...

von: If you're interested in a litmus test that says that Congresspeople and Presidential aspirants should fairly judge the evidence themselves, avoid engaging in deceptions, and act with prudence -- a litmus test that Hilzoy's argument would support -- I'll wholeheartedly agree to it.

As opposed to those Senators and Presidential aspirants who were planning to campaign on a platform of deception, ginning up bogus evidence, and behaving rashly? Can you name a single Senator or Presidential hopeful who wouldn't sign on to the above?

And if your point was simply to say that we should simply discard litmus tests altogether (i.e. the above is so watered down that it's not a litmus test so much as an inert paper strip) and that we should instead trust the judgment of our leaders on stuff like this, then doesn't the AUMF against Iraq completely undercut your argument?

There's always "a President who seems certifiably insane to 50% of the electorate"? I don't think that's true anywhere close to most of the time, much less always. Of course it's not even true now, but I'm assuming a certain amount of defining "insane" down.

May there are always unique circumstances, but that doesn't mean we're never in unique circumstances.

Von, what you consider unwarranted "disclaimers" are nothing more than simple reality. We, as educated members of the electorate, are saying that the case for military action against Iran has not been made to us, the public. We're not willing to say "Gosh, we've got no idea, use your best judgment."

Publius' litmus test is a no-brainer in my book. Our elected representatives dropped the ball on the last war; this time, the road goes through us. Hypothetically, if there's a case to be made for military action, then show it to us and persuade us to drop the ultimatum. Otherwise, it stands. If you think this is too close to mob rule, I'm sorry, but we won't get fooled again.

We aren't in unique circumstances, true; we're repeating the circumstances of thirty-plus years ago: an executive branch that believes itself to be above the law.

And that's because we've put one of that era's 'President as dictator' true believers in power and kept him there, as he rules from his newly discovered fourth branch of government, accountable to no one -- public, Congress, courts. Talk about a cancer growing on the presidency...

Von: As per Hilzoy's post and my comment on another thread about the campaign promise as *ultimate tactical surprise weapon*, there is simply no reason to think that the original litmus test doesn't have natural caveats.

After all, a campaign promise is a promise, no more, no less. The pull of a promises can be, in a certain sense, defeasible. For example, if I promise a person to make a tennis appointment, but then my kid falls violently ill and needs to be rushed to the hospital, while my original promise didn't go away, but it would be wrong of me to keep my promise.

My suggestion is that most every promise (and certainly a promise not to attack a country) has scenarios where it ought to be broken. Maybe you think promises are only made with certain exceptions implicit. Maybe you just think they are defeasible.

This is all to say: promises aren't oaths.

Take another campaign promise that could have been a litmus test: Bush I's NO NEW TAXES. Well, he did raise some tax or another, and maybe he should not have. But it seems to me that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with an anti-tax voter both (a) using that as a litmus test to decide between candidates and (b) acknowledging that there are scenarios in which a Prez ought to break his pledge (say, if we went to war).

So, to take your line about the litmus test with Bush I, it seems you have a few choices here: (1) Bush I ought not have never made the campaign promise because it is unwise to say you won't raise taxes (2) Bush I ought not have engaged in any war during his term which might have compelled him to raise taxes (3) no matter what the urgency, Bush I should have hamstrung our forces and never raised taxes no matter what the consequences for the battlefield and our ability to win the war.

So which is it?

* That's Bush I ought not to have ever. Don't know how the double negative slipped in.

Second, Hilzoy writes that "speculation about war with Iran generally involves not a US strike out of the blue, but a pattern of provocation by the US that ultimately leads to some Iranian retaliation, which in turn allows us to attack Iran." This is wholly irrelevant to Publius' proposed litmus test, and an attempt at misdirection. Publius proposes restraining the hand of any Congressperson or Presidential aspirant -- regardless of the Bush Administration's alleged motivations or the available evidence.

Hilzoy can speak for herself (most ably!), but I for one see her scenario as far from irrelevant to the litmus test.

The point of the litmus test is, as you say, to bind the hands of our elected representatives in this area. We tell them, in essence: no matter how reasonable war may seem, and no matter what pressures may be brought to bear to make you sign on to a war resolution, you may not do that. The ramp-up-to-war scenario is directly relevant, because it is the most likely way in which war will be made to seem reasonable.

If the Administration were likely to make the case for war in an honest way - i.e., by simply submitting to Congress its recommendation along with supporting evidence - we would probably not need to bind our representatives' hands. They are, by and large, good people, fairly bright, with good staffs, and the best interest of the country at heart. But, as seen last time around, the Administration will pull out all the stops to sell a war policy. As Hilzoy says, they are likely to deliberately provoke an attack, then go to Congress and say, look, we're already at war, please ratify it so we can defend our country. And who could refuse such a reasonable request? Nobody seeking re-election, that's for sure. UNLESS they are immunized from such pressure by an equally strong threat on the other side.

The hope is that, if the Administration knows in advance that Congress would refuse to ratify even a "defensive" or "reactive" war, then maybe the Administration will not provoke one. Admittedly, this possibility depends on rational thought on the Admin's part, but some of them do have brains, and even sometimes use them.

Your own pleas to keep the credible threat of war on the table have weight -- but we must balance the risks here.

On the one hand, we may tie our hands when we need them free in case Iran, e.g., starts to nuke Israel. Chance of doing serious harm: low. As Hilzoy rightly says, there's no such thing as a "no exception" rule in real life, and everyone including Iran knows that. So the threat remains present, it's just that we can't use it for relatively trivial matters. That puts us at a negotiating disadavantage, but by definition does not leave Iran free to do anything truly cataclysmic.

On the other hand (the status quo) we leave a free hand to people who have already shown they can't be trusted, when it's obvious that the same guys who misled them last time are now trying to drag us into another, even bloodier and more expensive, war. Chance of serious harm: very high.

I am reminded of the problem with Alan Dershowitz's argument for introducing a procedure to obtain torture warrants. After all, he said, the ticking-bomb scenario is unlikely, but what if it really happens? Do we dare take the chance that our law-enforcement people won't give the terrorist the third degree when an American city is at risk? Well, yes, we do dare. No court would actually imprison police for giving someone the third degree in a real-life ticking-bomb situation. But by refusing to craft a statutory exception, we make the police (or FBI, CIA, military, whatever) a little more cautious about deciding that they really do have a ticking-bomb scenario. We keep the burden of proof on them, and the standard of proof high. Given how likely police are to rough suspects up for information, the balance of risks favors a no-torture no-exceptions rule.

Just so, our reps could point to a nuked Tel Aviv and say, see, we had to renege on our no-war pledge. Nobody would say boo. But they're going to have to be very sure of their ground before they support a war with Iran. And that, ultimately, is what we want.

this notion that Iran can only respond to US aggression via Shia militias is bizarre. they do have an army, navy and airforce you know. probably most importantly, they have a decent amount of artillery and missiles for which big fat targets like the mega-embassy in the green zone and the various sprawling bases in iraq are well within decent-accuracy range, before you even start thinking about other american resources in the region.

"There always are unique circumstances, a President who seems certifiably insane to 50% of the electorate, and new challenges."

New challenges, yes. Unique circumstances, yes. A President who seems certifiable to 50% of the population? No.

I think I just see the costs and benefits very differently from you. The likelihood that we will find ourselves in a situation in which it would make any kind of sense to attack Iran, in the near future, seem to me minute. The likelihood that we will be in a situation in which we need restraint, much less so.

As Yglesias said, and von linked, in the later post, the CIA has very little information on the Iranian nuclear program. The only option that the US currently has for attacking Iran is airstrikes; troops are not an option for the forseeable future. Without quality information on the nuclear program, airstrikes on Iran are useless.

In summary, there is no evidence the US could make an effective military strike on Iran. They could fly in and blow up stuff, but hitting anything of strategic value would be unlikely. Unless the CIA has a bunch of Farsi-speaking spies in the wings waiting to be unleashed on Iran, there's also no evidence that this situation will change in the next couple of years.

Without an explanation as to how the capability of the US to successfully attack Iran (actually damaging their nuclear capability, rather than just annoying them) can change in the next 2 years, I support publius's litmus test.

Where do I say that "public pressure against a war [is] illegitimate"?

In your previous post.

(Indeed, have I note stated the exact opposite?)


There's no point kicking Katherine just because you don't like being confronted with what you actually said. If you no longer agree with what you said yesterday, update to take it back, or post again to say you changed your mind.

Wow, a lot of water under these three (now 4) bridges. It would have made more sense to me to make your complaints in the comments and suggest that Publius make an update rather than wage discussion by front page post, though that is just a suggestion.

Publius's proposed litmus test, taken literally, looks dangerously inflexible, but it should be understood to come with an implied exception for extreme scenarios in which there would be near-universal support for attacking Iran.

Von's objection seems to be to the literal version of Publius's litmus test, not to the test as I would understand it.

If that's the case, then there's not really a major disagreement here.

Von, do you actually object to the litmus test if it contains an implied exception for sufficiently extreme situations?

There always are unique circumstances, a President who seems certifiably insane to 50% of the electorate, and new challenges.

I challenge you to produce any other President in history, save Nixon, who was regarded as insane by even a third of the electorate. Not malign, not misguided, not crass or ineffectual or corrupt or dissolute, but genuinely off his rocker. Failing that, I'll take any other Administration which was collectively regarded as insane.

Von, update: I think everyone would benefit if you would look at the words of Publius' litmus test -- reprinted above -- and defend that test, not some hypothetical test that involves caveats or Administrative deception.

The problem with this update, Von, is that it appears that you don't want to acknowledge that it's really not hypothetical that the Bush administration would lie the US into a war: they already have, and they appear to have got away with it. The Bush administration's track record of deception is, as I understood it, a strong reason for setting the Publius test.

Second, your presumption that Democratic senators/representatives who meet the Publius test will never vote for war is a nonsense, a hypothetical not worth taking seriously. What the Publius test means is to try to get Democratic senators/representatives into Congress who will not let themselves be pushed into war when it's plainly unnecessary. As it was with Iraq: as it is with Iran.

You are arguing for a hypothetical test, not Publius: Publius's test is part of the real world.

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