The American Constitution (an ancient document that annoyingly hobbled the genius of Barack Obama) is as abused as one might expect of something splendid that excites the envy and ire of those who willfully misunderstand the long history to which it has brought its bright and cleansing light. It prevents those who live to command from ruling like the kings and saints they think they are. It frustrates those who mistakenly attempt to govern man analogously with the physical principles that govern nature. Whether progressives, Communists, socialists, or fascists, the arrogant engineers of humanity are naturally averse to a document that, though it is more excellently reasonable than they are, is a work of art compatible with human nature rather than destructive of it.
The Constitution of 1787 is the product of the philosophical climate of the Enlightenment, a meticulous review of classical history, the evolution of the English legal system, the stress of war and revolution, the physical and political geography of the colonies, the rare brilliance of the leading figures of the time, and, in the last third of the 18th century, a widespread frenzy of constitution-making and debate that be- came a national pastime replaced only later by the invention of baseball.
Hardly ignorant of unforeseeable circumstance, the framers constructed a system so supple as to accommodate changes over time. In that its principles and procedures must be applied in ever-changing conditions, it is indeed a living document, but not as de ned by progressives, who are expedient to the point of recklessness in the belief that varying circumstances should act upon principles rather than the other way around. Though we live in an age in which the most superficial flickers of the present are wielded as instruments with which to wreck the profundities of the past, it is still stunning to hear, for example, the argument that, because the framers didn’t have to buy television time, freedom of speech may therefore be abridged.
The heart and sin of modernist political thought is that transient circumstance has license to alter proven principles. is arises not merely from opposition to such principles but from an insatiable lust for chaos, in that chaos is as much the handmaiden of change as principle is its sobering impediment.
Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments may be proposed either in Congress or by a convention of the states called by two thirds of the 50 state legislatures. (In either case, any proposed amendments would need approval of three fourths of the state legislatures to be val- id.) Given that no one is entirely exempt from the pull of the present, should constitutionalists live to see an Article V convention, they must be disciplined. Not only must they take care not to lard-up the document with pet causes, making it the statutory instrument it was never meant to be, but in making appropriate changes they should balance and counter-balance the impulses of the moment. Two brief examples:
Because the executive branch has molted into a near-Prussian administrative state, and the judiciary long ago succumbed to legislative temptation, two correctives have been proposed. Namely, submission of executive rules and regulations for legislative approval, and the abolition of judicial review.
As much as rebalancing the branches of government is necessary, keep in mind that the tectonic shift from a parliamentary to a written, constitutional system ended in America the British legacy of legislative supremacy. As each component of government must be able to check the other, active legislative review of executive regulation, now long overdue, should not be absolute. Perhaps it could be balanced by presidential veto reversible by something less than a super-majority.
Without judicial review, the equilibrium of courts and legislature shifts too much to the latter. As the judiciary now legislates at will, it cries out for restraint, such as the possibility of overriding judicial review not only by constitutional amendment but, for example, by a super-super-majority in Congress.
Anticipation beyond the passions and problems of the day would honor the framers, who looked not only back but ahead—as should we in seeking to restrain the organs of government that have leapt their confinements. Rather than merely rebalancing in the present, as difficult as that may prove to be, constitutional revision should have as its goal foresight of potential imbalances and their consequences. Impetuous reform might lead in directions such as the legislative preponderance that upon the birth of the written Constitution we chose to abandon.
In granting powers to government, the people should always err on the side of caution and restraint. Nor should the people even in this scientific age hesitate to champion artful rather than scientific governance, because man is not a substance to be engineered, and has neither the consistency nor the predictability of the rest of nature. Not science but art, with its deliberate lack of precision that by indirections finds directions out, is the way to deal with souls, collectively or otherwise. For all its clear reason, the Constitution is nonetheless a work of art, which is why it has worked. By analogy, the Old Statehouse in Boston is surrounded by immense glass towers. How much more humane in scale, warmth, and beauty is the former, welcoming still after 300 years, whereas the towers will be always be blank glass.
And if it is to be touched, the Constitution must be approached with honor, which is not amour propre but rather the willingness to sacrifice one’s interests—immediate, parochial, even essential—in favor of doing right. So it is with constitutional questions, not only in application of law even if the result is contrary to one’s preferences, but in revision or amendment—with the primary concern being not ideological advantage or the politics of the day but keeping the powers of government separate, balanced, limited, and checked, so that the people may forever exercise sovereignty over their lives.
From The Claremont Review of Books 17:1, Winter 2016-2017.
One of the certainties of European history is the alternation of unification and dissolution. At the deepest level, this reflects the ever-fluent question of government purview, whether in geographical extent or granular penetration. Even without knowing it, those hostile to nationality are partisans of anarchy, empire, or simply nations on a more intimate scale. There never will be an ideal size or reach of government, but only continual adjustment as the result of necessity, accident, providence, or force.
The European Continent and for a time even the British Isles have been partially unified—by the Romans, Charlemagne, Spain, Austria, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Union. Even if they didn’t get very far, the Mongols, Muslims, and Turks gave it the college try. And then there was the papacy. The Romans were champions of endurance, but Napoleon’s stint was as short as he was, the empire of the Thousand-Year Reich didn’t make it by 995½ years, and the Soviets got only halfway across.
As it evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community into the European Economic Community, and then the Schengenized “E.U. plus,” bureaucracy’s pacific conquest of Europe was different, its weapons the ballot box, rubber stamp, and pen. Furthermore, other than in one civil war, the U.S. had shown that 50 states could unite to great advantage.
Why is it, then, with Jean Monnet’s body hardly cool, that Britain will leave the E.U., Scotland and Wales lust to devolve, Belgium and Italy each strain to break in two, Spain in three, Yugoslavia has shattered, Hungary may either quit or be expelled, Greece is like one’s child who ends up a heroin addict in jail, extremist political movements are partying like it’s 1936, and Marine Le Pen wants France out? Not even fully consummated, the European Union shows sign after sign of impending divorce.
One need not be hostile to the idea of this union to know the essential flaw in its conception, namely the statist assumption that bureaucratic conceit will prevail over geography, history, tradition, and individual attachments, preferences, and loyalties. Greek profligacy and German prudence cannot sleep in the same bed. Good luck to the Frenchman who tells an Englishman how much sugar to put in his tea. Rivers, alpine ranges, marshes, and seas have carved into the landscape physical barriers that for millennia have shaped the economics, histories, and cultures of these disparate nations. Unlike the United States—at its founding English in culture and language, with a pressure-relieving wilderness to the west—Europe as it united was a densely populated, grudge-filled continent with scores of major languages and their dialects. Its peoples had been governed in a hundred different ways, fought countless wars, and inherited dozens of philosophical traditions.
This concoction has always settled into a natural angle of repose only to be periodically disturbed by grand designs. But here is the problem with such grand designs. If government is a machine applied to everything, then everything becomes a machine—“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This is where the Left’s dream of addressing human needs via a universal mechanism always fails, for it takes no account of the soul, the existence of which it denies as it fights a losing war against the untidiness of human nature.
Knowledge of this and more was present at the creation of the E.E.C., but the enormity of the two world wars elevated hope over experience. Nor is the union dead. But, still, the strength and depth of Europe’s long established cultures with their naturally diverging outlooks and interests cannot and should not be subsumed in a universal governance ill-equipped to understand, let alone guide them. To continue subjecting them to a coterie of second stringers in Brussels and Strasbourg is an exercise in imperial sado-masochism.
What can the United States learn from this? Progressive opposition to the embedded separation of powers in tripartite government and the structure of the electoral college, the Senate, and the states themselves, has as its best ally the homogenization of America by mass media, commercial standardization, and headlong administrative expansion. That to forge a ruling coalition progressives are engaged in fractionalizing the population into as many aggrieved groups as possible does not contradict their urge to centralize. For unlike the states, the elements of such a coalition have no enumerated or constitutional powers, and are raised or dismissed at will in the winds of propaganda.
Paradoxically, in the days when an American commonly identified as a Virginian, a New Yorker, a Californian, etc., the national interest was paramount. Now, when the national interest is lost in a sea of identity politics and contrition, attachment to one’s state (pace Texas) has almost vanished. As are all constitutional manifestations of the separation of powers, the states are becoming less and less a brake upon the dangerous ideal of democratic centralism, and as a result we may end up in a sadder condition than even a disintegrating Europe.
Our federalism is always in flux due to changing conditions that favor different levels of governance. Never was it intended to be entirely static, but with its oscillations dampened by a deliberate balance of powers, stresses upon it have been successfully contained. Now—with federal encroachment upon every province of life, overt ideological hostility to American nationhood, and the Balkanization of the population into as many manipulable identities as will (until no longer needed) serve the progressive agenda—the balance of levels of governance, and our felicitous constitutional structure will be so subject to stress and attack that, ironically, the wonderful example partisans of a united Europe sought to imitate may evolve into the kind of bureaucratic tyranny Europe now finds difficult to endure.
Originally published in The Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016.
By all means, take Mosul, and continue on until ISIS is no more.
But ISIS, also known as Islamic State, is and has been the wrong focus. Were it not holding hostage the scattered populations it controls in urban areas, a properly directed military coalition of two or three Western powers, or the United States alone, could roll it up in a week. Even as things are, and despite the chaos and cross-loyalties in the present theater of war, with competent diplomacy and military force ISIS could be crushed in a matter of months. The key is NATO’s activation under Article 5 in behalf of alliance member Turkey, which, if only technically, has nonetheless come sufficiently under attack to do so.
With air support from American and French carriers in the Mediterranean, the U.S. Air Force at Incirlik and Gulf bases, and the Turkish, Saudi, and Gulf States air forces, in very short order Turkish divisions from the north could link up with Saudi, Jordanian and an Egyptian expeditionary force from the south, stiffened by American, British, and other NATO units where needed, to cut Syria in half. With Kurds and Iraqis closing from the east, this would simultaneously surround ISIS and confine the Syrian regime in a truncated enclave shielded by its Russian patrons.
The primary purpose of such action, however, would not be to defeat ISIS. Though at the moment ISIS is undeniably the most publicity-rich and barbaric of the jihadist movements, in relation to its structure and resources its ambition to unify the Islamic world has — as in the case of bin Laden, Nasser, and the Mahdi of the Sudan — doomed it from the start. While much has been made of its links to other jihadists in Africa and elsewhere, these alliances have little practical effect, being little more than the distant salutes from one group of psychotics to another. That ISIS has survived for years is less a testament to it than an indictment of the quaking West.
Much more befitting of the power and history of the U.S. and its allies would be to sever and destroy the toxic, threatening bridge that Iran has built from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, with, astoundingly, the patronage of the president of the United States. Anchored by soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, an integrated politico-religious-military front including Shiite-directed Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will emerge in the near future if current trajectories remain undisturbed.
This entity will have a population almost half that of the United States; the immense oil wealth of Iran and Iraq; ports on the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean; nuclear weapons; ICBMs; and, until it will no longer need Russia, for which it has no brief, the mischievous and destructive cooperation of Vladimir Putin.
If, under the discipline of an Iran drunk with its successful bamboozling of the West, this power turns its eyes south to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East will be entirely transformed. When Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, so will Saudi Arabia. The Shiite population of the Gulf States will be emboldened. Egypt will have to choose appeasement or standing with its Sunni co-religionists. How these elements would sort themselves out cannot be known in advance, but keep in mind that the cultures and governments of the Islamic world are hardly shy about violence and war.
The particular irony here is that during the Cold War the U.S. and Britain created the toothless and ineffective Central Treaty Organization (Cento), known, until 1959 when Iraq dropped out, as the Baghdad Pact. Cento was created to throw the same east-west bar across the Middle East (then including Pakistan) that Iran is in the latter stages of securing. The purpose was to block Soviet expansion southward toward warm-water ports. Despite the efforts of Eisenhower and Dulles, Cento quickly became an alliance just in name.
President Obama has succeeded where they could not, in building that structure — for Iran. For the leading state sponsor of terrorism. For a fanatical nation that in 10 years or less will possess nuclear warheads and ICBMs. For a nation that captures and humiliates our citizens, diplomats and sailors, that supplied the focused charges that killed our soldiers in Iraq, and that chants “Death to America” at the opening of its parliament.
Iran need not fulfill any part of the nuclear agreement it has not even signed and that in the view of our State Department is not legally binding. Even if it were, who knows how the Farsi text might be interpreted? Yet, despite Iran’s violations of United Nations resolutions and its ongoing depredations across the Middle East, we honor and exceed our “obligations,” and shower the Iranians with money, ransom, access, encouragement, and protection. Only the genius of Barack Obama and the cunning of John Kerry (in his presence the Iranians understandably smiled with joy) were capable of achieving this while simultaneously bringing about the reintroduction of Russia into the region, in force — a feat that over 42 years and 10 administrations, Republican and Democrat, no one else was able to accomplish.
Before World War I, the U.S. was focused on Pancho Villa, and sent a much heralded expedition that failed to catch him. But even as he was fading away, he captured the American imagination. All the while, Germany was rising, and because we were unable to see how this would play out, and because some saw Germany as our natural ally, we were blind to it.
Now we are blinded to Iran in favor of ISIS — in its horror and sensationalism the matador’s red cape that distracts from the truly mortal threat, the sword. We know that the Iranians are skillfully using this dynamic. The question is, given Mr. Obama’s seemingly inexplicable yet indefatigable sponsorship of Iran, and his slow-motion approach to ISIS, is he using it as well?
Posted August 25, 2016
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2016.