The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

National Interest

In an episode of “Inspector Lewis” Dame Grace Orde has written an autobiography of her years with MI5 that promises to reveal all (some?) of the dirty little secrets of that organization. During a presentation prior to a book signing, she tells her audience that it is sometimes necessary to set aside ethics when it is a matter of national interest. That, of course, is right out of Machiavelli’s Prince. Or, if you prefer, it is out of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he insists that the right thing to do is that action that produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In a word, the end justifies the means. In the real world of dirty tricks this is a given and I have less trouble with it as an abstract principle than I do as a concrete action or set of actions. where it is used to “justify” such things as waterboarding. The really hard question is: who decides what is in the “national interest,” or what will produce the “greatest good”?

A  case in point is the invasion of Iraq which was undertaken in “the national interest” by the United States with a “coalition” consisting of a few other countries for show. Even at the time there was considerable doubt about the wisdom of such a war which was initially undertaken to uncover “weapons of mass destruction” that weren’t there. When their non-existence was revealed, the rationale shifted to the capture of Saddam Hussein. When that was accomplished, the rationale morphed into bringing peace and security to a troubled country — whose troubles largely began with the invasion and the killing or displacement of millions of Iraqi citizens.

In any case, George W. Bush insisted later that he only undertook the invasion under duress, that he was “reluctant” to start a war in that region. There was considerable doubt about that claim at the time it was made, but there is even more now that Colin Powell has revealed in an upcoming book that the issue was never discussed in the Security Council. Powell’s claims, of course, directly conflict with those of the Shrub. But, given the weight of evidence on Powell’s side, and the fact that he has much less reason to say an untruth, I side with him on this. As a recent blurb surrounding the publication of Powell’s book puts it, But Powell supports the increasingly well-documented conclusion that there was actually no decision-making point — or decision-making process — during the events between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks.

With the possible collusion of Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and perhaps his wife, the Shrub pretty much did this on his own in the name of “National Security,” or “Iraqi Freedom,” or whatever else came to his troubled mind. One man, pretty much on his own, decided to order the invasion of a sovereign nation on the spurious grounds of “National Security.” The man ought to be tried as a war criminal.

The point is that the principle advanced by Dame Grace Orde, or anyone else, may have the appearance of respectability when found in the pages of books by philosophers like John Stuart Mill or even the pages of Machiavelli’s Prince. But when push comes to shove, it translates into unmitigated evil — murder and mayhem, and even widespread disaster brought on by the fact that humans in power are motivated by greed and the love of that power and they seldom think about the consequences of their actions.