Good Riddance to a Bad Man
The death of Qassem Suleimani is not an occasion to mourn.
Dear Reader (and those who are merely reader-curious),
Qassem Suleimani is dead and I feel fine.
He was a bad guy, and I don’t mean in the glib Good Guys vs. Bad Guys sense. I mean, he was literally a bad guy. I do not mourn for him. Indeed, even if it were to turn out (and I don’t think it will) that his killing was unlawful, bad policy, based on bad intelligence, or sold with lies, I would still not feel sympathy for Suleimani, because he did a dozen—two dozen? A thousand?—other things that would make almost any death overdue.
This is a point a lot of people seem to struggle with. Forget foreign policy for a second. Say Joe commits murder, but the police can’t prove it, so they end up framing Joe for the crime he committed, or even some other crime. Being outraged by such violations of due process is right and proper, and I have no quarrel with people who blow a gasket when things of this sort happen. But I don’t feel a lot of sympathy—any, really—for Joe. When you break all the rules, you may not have forfeited your legal right to complain when the authorities don’t follow them either, but you have forfeited your moral right to whine about it.
I sometimes feel like I’m in the minority about this sort of thing. There’s something about the human brain that makes it hard for many people to make such distinctions. If they’re angry at the cops, they also need to be less angry, or even sympathetic for, the “victim.” Just to be clear: I’m using quotation marks around victim because I don’t mean the murdered person; I mean the murderer.
I’ll never forget the angry reaction I got when I wrote, years ago, that if the “pre-crime” system in Minority Report actually worked, there’d be nothing wrong with using it. My larger point, which drew much condemnation, is that we have due process rules to protect innocent people, not guilty ones. If there were some safe, non-intrusive, and foolproof way of determining guilt—“pre-cogs,” mind-reading, a divine oracle, 100 percent-reliable truth serums, whatever—we could dispense with Miranda warnings, lengthy trials and appeals, the right to confront your accuser, and all the rest, and just go straight to sentencing.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t have any such shortcuts, and so we have to set up elaborate rules to ensure that the innocent aren’t wrongly punished and that the state doesn’t abuse its power. Those elaborate rules are important, because they ensure fairness (as much as practicable) for the innocent. That the guilty sometimes benefit from them is the price we pay for that fairness. There’s a reason we call them procedural rights and not natural rights—because in a state of nature we’re not born with the right to a lawyer. I’ve never really understood why this opinion draws such rage from some people, but it does.
There’s a similar distinction to be made in foreign policy. Saddam Hussein deserved to be killed many times over. In fact, while there are plenty of good arguments for why he shouldn’t have been fed alive to hogs, none of them has to do with his not deserving it. The Iraq war, for all its failures, doesn’t change that fact. Likewise, Qassem Suleimani had it coming, regardless of what comes next or what factors led to the decision to kill him.
Not this time.
But first, since I brought up the Iraq war, I feel like I should make another point. The Iraq war was a mistake, on its own terms. I don’t think it was an evil war for oil or Israel or any of that garbage. I think people of good will, acting on the best information they had, made the wrong decision(s). I supported the war at the time, quite vociferously, because I thought the facts and the arguments were on their side. But the WMD program wasn’t what we believed. That was a colossal intelligence failure. Yet the even bigger intelligence screw-up was our failure to understand the true nature of Iraqi society and the limits of our ability to stand up a functioning democracy once Saddam was gone.
But that’s not the point I want to make; it’s just the context for it. The two biggest shocks to my worldview in the last 20 years were the Iraq war and the election of Donald Trump. Both, in their own ways, were wrecking balls to my pillars of certainty. I’m still an advocate for a strong foreign policy that protects American interests, including support for democracy and human rights around the world. But I’m much more skeptical and, one might say, humble about how to do that. I’m slower to trust the government, not in a conspiratorial sense, but in a prudential one.
This will confuse people who think “neoconservative” means “bagel-snarfing-warmonger.” But these experiences have made me more neoconservative in the original sense. The first neocons weren’t foreign policy hawks; they were mostly former liberals and leftists who became more skeptical about what government could do and more aware of the law of unintended consequences.
The election of Donald Trump—and the subsequent transformation of so much of the right—only compounds my skepticism. I’ve lost my taste for the rah-rah boosterism, the glib way a cult of personality or the cult of the presidency substitutes for arguments. I don’t think even at my most partisan or asinine depths I’ve ever been close to the sort of insecure goon Sebastian Gorka is on any given Tuesday. But the mere thought of being on the same team as him elicits the sort of pre-vomit reflux I normally associate with encountering the interior of under-serviced Porta-Johns in August.
Upon the news of the Suleimani strike, the first instinct of all these self-avowed experts on terrorism was to give voice to their tumescent infatuation with Trump, to act as if they have some ownership of the flag, and to prattle on about “beta males.”
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrumphttps://t.co/VXeKiVzpTf
Is there anything more “beta” than literally auditioning daily to be some alleged alpha’s sidekick? If Gorka hadn’t been fired, he’d be like Chester, the little dog from Looney Tunes that follows Spike around:
Instead, he provides an interesting codicil to Bismarck’s observation that “No man is a hero to his valet.” It turns out that some men are heroes to the creatures dreaming of being his valet. But Gorka and his ilk have served a purpose. Like the Dread Pirate Roberts’ tactic of developing immunity to iocaine powder by ingesting small doses over time, exposure to these charlatans has inoculated me to these cheap partisan patriots and their grifts.
The Bourne legacy.
When Randolph Bourne said that “war is the health of the State,” he meant something very specific. He did not mean that war is the health of the government. For Bourne, the government and the state were very different things, perhaps even opposites. The state, for Bourne, is most akin to the crown in a monarchy. It is the all-encompassing symbol of the nation and the people (which is why the monarch in Great Britain is the head of sate but not the head of government). The government is where we hash out our political differences systematically. Government, like democracy, is the process of reconciling disagreements between interests, factions, branches of government, and policymakers. The state is both the catchall and the spirit of us. Government reflects the gloriously messy disunity and disagreement of a liberal society, the state claims to speak for everyone and disparages those who don’t speak for it.
“In times of peace,” Bourne observed, “we usually ignore the State in favour of partisan political controversies, or personal struggles for office, or the pursuit of party policies. It is the Government rather than the State with which the politically minded are concerned. The State is reduced to a shadowy emblem which comes to consciousness only on occasions of patriotic holiday.”
But, he adds further on, “With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again.” And later still: “The patriot loses all sense of the distinction between State, nation, and government.” Debate is synonymous with disunity. Decisions are left to the state without even a nod to democratic processes.
(This is why the left has been making “moral equivalent of war” arguments for domestic policies for a century now—they love the unquestioned authority the state gets during war; they just don’t like the war part. This is also why I dislike so much of the talk about nationalism. When you make “The Nation”—the country, not the magazine—the philosophical lodestar of everything, you make the government more like Bourne’s state, because it is the only institution that claims to speak for the whole nation.)
Now, I don’t think that is about to happen here. War remains unlikely, and total war seems even less probable, perhaps even impossible, for a host of reasons. You have to go back to the world wars, particularly the first, to find an example of this sort of thing happening across nearly all of society. But something like this did happen to the GOP during the Iraq war, and you could see glimpses of it on the left when Obama used force as well. If war with Iran is required, I’ll support war with Iran. But count me out of anything like a Freedom Fries redux (though I do like the sound of Liberty Carpets.)
That doesn’t mean I will join the left-wing asshat chorus either.
Nonsense like this puts teeth to Robert Frost’s line about how a liberal is too broadminded to take his own side of an argument. The notion that if you’ve haven’t heard of Suleimani your ignorance should translate into a presumption that he did nothing wrong is quintessential Michael Moore: Make people feel smart for being dumb or uninformed.
Look, I don’t think I’m in some ivory tower. If you define the remnant as the people between the antipodes of asininity that are Moore and Gorka, than most Americans are part of the remnant. But that’s not going to be reflected in the national conversation as we head into the 2020 campaign. Which is just one of the reasons why I feel like my affinity for Bourne, Mencken, Nock, and the other superfluous men is going to get more, not less, acute.
Still, it’s worth pondering the question: What if Trump really needs the support of more than just his base? He might get it, if Iran overplays its hand. But one of the reasons presidents act presidential during times of peace is so that they have the benefit of the doubt during times of war. The problem is Trump himself has been governing as a war president from the first day of his presidency, conflating nation, government, state, and, of course, Trump whenever it suits him. It’s just that, as Ron Brownstein has argued, he normally aims his bellicosity against internal enemies. So it will not require much of a change in posture for Trump. The Gorkans won’t even have to get new pom-poms and the Moore-ons will barely have to update their talking points. But for Americans not already on board, Trump will have a hard time earning the sort of credibility a president needs during a crisis.
Various & Sundry
Get ready for the full Dispatch! Starting Tuesday, the website TheDispatch.com goes live. We’re still connecting all the wires and refining the dilithium crystals, so fingers crossed. If you haven’t signed up for our wares, please do. Indeed, if you find yourself agreeing with—or intellectually or ideologically challenged b —the idea of an outlet that is conservative but not cheerleading, I implore you to give us a try and tell your friends. We need not just your support, but your participation.
Travelogue: This is my last night in Spain. The Fair Jessica and I had a wonderful time with my daughter (they’re currently in Vienna for a few days). It was hard saying goodbye (she’s staying behind because she’s spending her junior year of high school in Zaragoza). I’m also a little concerned that I may be doomed. On New Year’s Eve in Spain, the tradition is to eat 12 grapes as the bells ring in the New Year, one grape for each gong. If you can keep that pace, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. I was doing great…until the end. when I somehow managed to crack my tooth on a grape seed. (Seedless grapes, like proper martinis, haven’t made it to Seville apparently.) That can’t be good luck. It’s like rubbing a rabbit’s foot and cutting yourself on the claw. So I’m more than ready to get home, and not just for the access to dentistry. I’ve had my fill of Iberian ham and cobblestone streets. Also, I really can’t wait to see my dogs and at least 50 percent of my cats. Which brings me to the…
Canine update: Except I don’t have much to report. We got regular proof of life videos, and the dogs by all reports were very good girls under difficult circumstances. Because the Iran news broke in the wee hours, Declan Garvey, a correspondent for The Dispatch as well as a fine canine caretaker, had to rework The Morning Dispatch. The dogs monitored the situation closely, even though Declan informed them that they could go back to bed. Watch my Twitter feed Saturday night for the first video of the Welcoming Committee.
I talk about my trip a bit—and this G-File—in the latest episode of the Remnant.
And now, the weird stuff.