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History Political Philosophy Politics

The Spirit that Animated the American Experiment


[Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.]

Moderation [in the use of power] is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.1

So said Henry Kissinger, one in a long time of the power-hungry and the unrestrained whose sense of hubris led them to take unto themselves as much power as they could amass. It is on this point that Kissinger would agree with George W. Bush, with Mao Tse Tung, with Josef Stalin, with Maximilien Robespierre, and with radicals throughout history.

This sentence contains two fundamental insights about radicals and their approach to power:

  1. That moderation is a limit on power;
  2. That those who reject the seemingly unimposing virtue of moderation in favor of the more attractive quality of “moral clarity” or some similar sense of certainty are bound only by the limits of their power.

My preference is this prescription masquerading as a definition used by Plato:

Moderation, which consists in an indifference about little things, and in a prudent and well-proportioned zeal about things of importance, can proceed from nothing but true knowledge, which has its foundation in self-acquaintance.

This is the spirit animates the American experiment and liberal democracy and represents a truly fundamental achievement of collective wisdom. The past century has been the story of numerous ideologies that have challenged this spirit of moderation – Nazism, Communism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism. All have offered certainty and clarity and rejected moderation. So far, each ideology, certain as it may be, has been beaten back by the forces of moderation – often led by America.

It is the rejection of this fundamental virtue by the Bush administration that led to our own failed experiment in hubristic radicalism.

  1. This might be an unfair addition by me. I cannot find any information about the context in which it was used – only many sources attributing it to Henry Kissinger. I am interpreting it based on my understanding of Kissinger’s character and place in history. []
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Election 2008 Foreign Policy McCain Political Philosophy Politics The War on Terrorism

Killing the United Nations

[digg-reddit-me]Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.

  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []