A Question of Consistency

I have a very close friend who, rather than label himself a conservative, prefers to say that he identifies with conservative positions. I too refuse to accept a label, but, unlike my friend, I identify more with the progressive outlook. By refusing to cede our values to a doctrine we gladly retain our independence in the true spirit of democracy, but that isn’t to say that we don’t hold our opposing views rather vigorously either. Indeed we are very passionate about our opinions and are excited to express them but, more importantly, we are also excited to hear them countered.

Trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions, we tend to stay on our high horse and pledge our allegiance to critical thinking. Instead of arguing at each other we are fascinated by the responses and we are open to persuasion which often makes for an enlightening experience.

And I use the words ‘fascinating’ and ‘enlightening’ not as exaggerations but because I have always been encouraged to shudder at the mere mention of the right wing bogeyman and to regard the right as unenlightened. It is a sad state of affairs that we are still quicker to demonize and stereotype the opposition than we are to engage them in debate. However, it is very easy to act like a dog when you are treated like a dog, and even easier when both political parties actively seek to foster the animosity.

Far too often avowed progressives espouse the patronizing stance that maybe someday those poor conservatives shall see the light and be as altruistic as us. This is both an offense to intelligent Republicans and a total distortion of the left. We need only look to the current collision course set by the Democratic nomination process to see that there are battles as intense and full of animosity between gender and race as there are between the left and right.

However, while the left has informally nurtured these beliefs through its own sub-cultures the right has been far more professional and effective in diminishing the quality of political discourse by funding think tanks to advance its agenda and frame issues. The aggressive movement within the far-right of the Republican party to paint the left as educated elites, and by extension, slyly portray the true republican as patriotic and proudly uneducated (epitomized in popular culture by the 911 inspired Alan Jackson hit “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, that contained the immortal lines “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure if I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran.”), has been especially disastrous.

By pushing this position as aggressively as they have the right has achieved two important outcomes.

On a superficial level the far-right’s efforts has severely dumbed down the political debate in this country, dissolving nuance from an issue and thereby making polarization easier. But more consequential is that further polarization of right and left has created a political arena where arguments cannot be debated like for like. It is less an uneven playing field and more that one team is playing on a diamond and four bases and the other a 90 yard field marked by 10 yard increments. Just think of the positions taken by left and right on immigration.

More often than not we hear simple statements of ideology disguised as a response whereas what we all need to be doing is actually responding to the argument. But the divide is so wide and entrenched that is often too difficult to even listen to what the other has to say. So when George Lakoff tells progressives that they have to frame the debate to advance a progressive agenda because that is what the right has been doing for years he is wrong. The reason why progressives have not been successful in advancing their values is not because it is deficient in putting its agenda across effectively, it is that they have not responded to the argument adequately.

My friend and I are acutely aware of this stalemate, as are many Americans. We see that for every Rush Limbaugh there is an Amy Goodman and so we are determined to take advantage of our friendship and mine as much from each other during the brief and infrequent visits we have together as we can.

The last time we spoke, which was just over a month ago, curiously we came to an almost complete agreement on a the thorniest of thorny issues, Iraq. And though we came to our conclusions via our respective conservative and progressive values our position was anchored in the idea of consistency.

We very rarely talk about the reasons for waging war in Iraq, but our conclusion as to how to proceed is solidly agreed: we act according to what the Iraqis require and not current political trends. That is, we commit to what we promised and stay in Iraq until our presence would cease to maintain security for Iraqi civilians, or stability has been achieved and can be maintained by the Iraqi government. Neither of these have been met thus far.

Lets make no bones about it, Iraq is a quagmire. This past week saw its fifth anniversary, the tally of American military dead reach 4000, and Moktada al Sadr’s previously dormant Mahdi army rise violently in reaction to provocation from the government and then fill the void left behind by the British in Basra. And that really isn’t to begin touching the surface of the quagmire. These are simply indications and manifestations of a very complex situation. There are numerous elements that are impacting Iraq and the debate on Iraq, from the dubious reasons that first precipitated the war and the ensuing incompetence with which it was waged to historical sectarian enmity and competing influences in form of Iran, Shiite militiamen and al Qaeda. All this makes for discerning what Iraqis want a very difficult task, but the disarmingly simple question being asked in current national debate might actually help guide us i.e should we stay or should we go?

If we consider American interests only, it is possible that it might make sense to leave. But if we also consider Iraqi interests we need to ask an additional question: which course of action would be most detrimental to the Iraqi people?

Pulling out immediately would be disastrous for Iraq and its hope for stability. If there is one thing that al Sadr’s militia demonstrated last week it was that a void left by the British could be easily filled and so too it would likely follow for the US. Although al Sadr was carelessly provoked by the Maliki government (who, it appears, was attempting to win political capital ahead of elections), the backlash from al Sadr’s army blatantly illustrated the problems that would face Iraq nationally if we suddenly exited. Any aspirations for democracy would quickly vanish.

By leaving Iraq and dismissing the political and security needs of its citizens we invite sectarian gangs to fill the vacuum and fight it out for dominance. At best al Sadr wins and fashions a government in the theocratic model of Iran and at worst we have another Somalia: a lawless society corralled by the barrel of a gun.

It is true that in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq we would have to continue the hemorrhaging of the federal budget and more importantly risk American lives, but in a society that has come to remove ourselves from the consequences of our actions it might be time to start making some sacrifices.

My friend feels that this is consistent with the very American maxim of personal responsibility.

My opinion is one that follows quite naturally from my initial disgust and protestation to the war. Essentially, I don’t believe we should make the same mistake twice i.e. take an irresponsible course of action guided by political agenda that would ultimately result in large-scale suffering. A democratic president who would arrogantly remove forces from Iraq to acquiesce to anti-war sentiment, although not as destructive in its scale, would be as equally irresponsible as Bush’s ideological driven war.

Given the current situation in Iraq, where the surge has undoubtedly helped curb violence, thus providing room for political progress, (although Iraqi law-makers have been remiss to take up the opportunity), it is clear that we owe Iraqis – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike – our support in helping to forge more space for dialogue. And this is where the common ground of personal responsibility comes into play. We are ultimately responsible for the future stability and security of Iraq. We cannot pry ourselves away from the Bush administration’s disastrous policies by prying ourselves from Iraq.

By doing so this should offend both left and right respectively, that is, if we are to be consistent in our values.

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~ by oddlyamerican on March 30, 2008.

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