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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Why We Fought

(Reprinted from the issue of June 26, 2003)

Capitol BldgRush Limbaugh is gloating again. It turns out that the looting of Baghdad’s great museum was much less serious than first reported; all but a handful of the thousands of treasures believed missing were preserved or have been recovered. For Limbaugh this is further confutation of the war’s opponents and further confirmation of the righteousness of the war.

This is a curious argument. The Bush administration did nothing to protect the museum; it didn’t deny the early reports, but dismissed them as unimportant. And Limbaugh’s first reaction to those reports was to mock the value of the treasures that were thought lost and destroyed. Whatever the outcome, his crassness is a matter of record. He was willing to defend the administration even if the worst was true.

Such responses illustrate the difference between a visceral right-winger and a genuine conservative. The former, typified by National Review and The Weekly Standard, is an apologist for war. The true conservative, though he may accept war as a tragic necessity at times, regards it with foreboding and a sense of loss, never with enthusiasm. All political enthusiasm is against his grain. His patriotism doesn’t preclude skepticism about his rulers; even the most venerable institutions, he knows, are bound to be administered by men flawed by original sin.

Right-wingers are still defending the Iraq war, even though its chief rationale — Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction — have failed to surface. They have two answers to this. One is that the weapons may have been hidden or removed from Iraq (some insist, with President Bush, that they will eventually be found); the other is that the mass graves of Saddam Hussein’s victims justify the war by themselves. Of course this second reason was never actually given as a reason for going to war. We were constantly reminded that Hussein was a remarkably vicious tyrant, from whom the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated; but the war was supposed to be defending the United States against an external and imminent threat, as part of a war on terrorism.

It all began with the 9/11 attacks. These quickly led to all sorts of wild charges against Iraq — that it was harboring terrorists, sharing WMDs with them, and so forth. Skepticism about these charges was shouted down. The drive for war took on a life of its own — spearheaded by the “neoconservatives” who had sought to destroy Iraq long before 9/11 — and the doubtfulness and even irrelevance of many of the charges didn’t seem to matter. Nor do they seem to matter now. The war’s apologists will keep coming up with new justifications for what has already been done.

What outrages provoked the Mexican War in 1845? Who cares? The United States gained immense stretches of territory, which later came to seem sufficient justification, though this was never given as a reason for going to war at the time. The Civil War was fought over the principle of secession — though it’s now justified for destroying slavery, which Lincoln disavowed any intention of doing at the outset. Pearl Harbor ignited an anti-Japanese fervor that brought the U.S. into World War II — though the German persecution of Jews is now used to justify it. That was barely mentioned at the time; the war began over the German-Soviet invasion of Poland, and ended with Poland being turned over to the Soviets, who joined their new allies in condemning German aggression.

When the dust settles, the losers often turn out to have been the aggressors, even if this requires some careful editing of history by the victors. President Bush is already calling critics of the Iraq war “historical revisionists,” but he is the one who has some explaining to do. If those weapons don’t turn up soon, it will be hard to argue that Iraq was even contemplating aggression. Opponents of the war doubted this all along. How have they been proved wrong?
Our “Secret” Constitution

Abraham Lincoln has a new defender, who reveals perhaps more than he intends to. George P. Fletcher, of Columbia Law School, has published a book with the provocative title Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy, arguing that the Civil War destroyed the original U.S. Constitution and virtually replaced it with a new one, never officially acknowledged, but no less real for that.

For Fletcher, the key part of this new Constitution is the 14th Amendment, which has enabled the federal judiciary to pursue a radical egalitarian and centralizing agenda at the expense of the powers formerly reserved to the states. Of course Lincoln himself was long dead when the 14th was ratified (very dubiously, by the way, but let that pass); still, its adoption was a direct result of the Civil War, which, Fletcher rightly sees, overthrew the original Constitution.

And good riddance to that old thing, says Fletcher. It was an “elitist,” reactionary arrangement, leaving far too much power to the separate states. In effect, and almost explicitly, he concedes that in the constitutional debate that led to the war, Jefferson Davis, not Lincoln, had the Constitution on his side. But for Fletcher, to paraphrase Marx, the key thing was not to understand the Constitution, but to change it.

Lincoln might not be grateful for this defense. He always insisted that the purpose of the war was to “save the Constitution” against the secessionists. He flatly denied that he was violating it; he had to deny it, if he wanted Northern public opinion to support his war on the South. He even doubted that he had the authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; and he did so reluctantly, not in the name of human liberty but only as an executive war measure. By today’s standards, Lincoln was a strict constructionist.

Fletcher thus joins several of Lincoln’s recent defenders in applauding him for paving the way for a radically new kind of federal government. Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln “changed America” with the Gettysburg Address, which placed equality, rather than constitutional liberty, at the core of American national values; James MacPherson credits Lincoln with achieving a “second American Revolution” by destroying the Southern social order and centralizing power. The whole country, not just the South, would shortly be revolutionized. After Roe v. Wade, a further application of the 14th Amendment, it should hardly be necessary to point this out.

Of course the very notion of a “secret” Constitution — unknown to the public, imposed and capriciously interpreted by a judicial elite, unratified by the people themselves — is hard to square with Fletcher’s own professed concern for democracy. Surely Lincoln himself would have had severe qualms about it; he thought the relatively restrained judiciary of his own day had already become a menace to self-government.

Lincoln’s real legacy is a tragic one. Setting aside a terrible war, he never intended, foresaw, or even dreamed of the enormous forces he was releasing. The present size and scope of the federal government would astound and appall him. He would hardly covet the credit Fletcher gives him for it. Yet Fletcher is right in one crucial respect: Lincoln made it all possible. The Union he ultimately “saved” bears no resemblance to the one the Framers designed and bequeathed.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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