The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, February 04, 2005

Premises, Premises

George Soros, in an editorial syndicated to the Lebanese Daily Star, praises President Bush's stated goal of advancing freedom while differing sharply on the means. His critique is, to a great extent, a psychoanalysis of America:

Paradoxically, the most successful open society in the world, the U.S., does not properly understand the first principles of an open society; indeed, its current leadership actively disavows them. The concept of open society is based on recognition that nobody possesses the ultimate truth, that one may be wrong. Yet being wrong is precisely the possibility that Bush refuses to acknowledge, and his denial appeals to a significant segment of the American public. An equally significant segment is appalled. This has left the U.S. not only deeply divided, but also at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world, which considers its policies high-handed and arbitrary.
Bush regards his reelection as an endorsement of his policies, and feels reinforced in his distorted view of the world. The "accountability moment" has passed, he claims, and he is ready to confront tyranny throughout the world according to his own lights. But the critical process that is at the core of an open society - which the U.S. abandoned for 18 months after Sept. 11, 2001 - cannot be forsaken. That absence of self-criticism is what led America into the Iraq quagmire.
[I'm ignoring Mr. Soros's use of "quagmire" here, not because I agree with him.] So the problem is America's lack of self-criticism, and its failure to recognize that it is wrong. This seems to mean several things.

First, America did not choose to invade Iraq after national reflection. Soros simply excludes the possibility that the arguments against invasion were tried, weighed, and found wanting. He believes they were adequate, and assumes that no one, on reflection, could fail to agree.

Second, it would be somehow better if Mr. Bush were to ackowledge "being wrong." It is clear that Bush has four options; he can admit or not admit his wrongness, and he can change or not change his course. If he wishes to stay the course, "acknowledging" its wrongness will make his task infinitely more difficult. Of course, Mr. Soros is well aware of this -- he desires the words of admission only as a prelude to the facts of withdrawal. [See my earlier post on Tragedy and Disgrace for more on this sophomoric tactic.] Even if Mr. Bush believes himself to be wrong, it would be foolish -- and harmful to America -- for him to acknowledge it. [One could split this more finely, arguing that Mr. Bush should "confess" [note the verbiage of humiliation which surrounds all these demands for words of repentance] to his smaller errors, even while defending the overall goal. However, bad strategy on the large scale is also bad tactics on the small.]

Third, if the U.S. is "at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world," this necessarily illustrates a problem which lies with the U.S. We should note, as Mr. Soros does not, that an "equally significant segment" of the world is not opposing America. We should question his unstated assumption that other nations have purer motives, or that the motives of an aggregate of nations embodied in "international law" are higher than those of individual nations. In fact, just the opposite is likely to be true.

Mr. Soros makes one strong point at the end:
Bush is right to assert that repressive regimes can no longer hide behind a cloak of sovereignty: what goes on inside tyrannies and failed states is of vital interest to the rest of the world. But intervention in other states' internal affairs must be legitimate, which requires clearly established rules.
To Mr. Soros, this clearly implies that the U.S. should more closely adhere to the existing rubric of international law, and its embodiment in the United Nations. But his premises are mistaken. What the U.S. should do, and what Mr. Bush's administration appears to be preparing to attempt, is to establish rules which will work in the best interests of freedom, replacing the decayed and malevolent international order in the process.

[Hat tip: Charles Johnson. Update 7 Feb: fixed broken link noted by R. Alex.]