Fools and Consistency

“A foolishng consistency,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Ralph Waldo Emerson [this should teach me not to blog on the road, but probably won't] famously wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” All too often abbreviated to leave out the first two words (which of course imply that much consistency is not at all foolish), the insight captures something deeply true and more than a little unsettling about the evolution of the common law. The common law does change to fit the times and to fit new circumstances. The price of this capacity to mutate is indeed some occasional illogic and some inconsistency with precedent. When things are going well, we at least manage to treat like cases alike for the moment, remaining fully conscious that our ideas of what is “like” and “different” are things we lawyers both construct and soak up from the legal and social cultures we inhabit. And we fight about which sorts of consistency are wise, and which are foolish.

I was thinking about Holmes's Emerson's aphorism this morning as I read the news about Washington and Iraq. It seems we need to reverse the aphorism to capture something more than a little true and deeply unsettling about the course of United States foreign policy. I don't mean the Bush doctrine of US supremacy and unilateralism, which is certainly consistent and arguably foolish. Rather, I mean the Bush policy towards the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. Having said loudly and often that the US must stay the course, not cut and run, etc. etc., the Administration now shows disturbing signs of what the Brits call 'wobble'.

Item: The administration has already announced planned troop reductions at a time when violence is increasing, not decreasing.

Item: The administration has announced that Iraqi's being recruited for policing duties will be given abbreviated training and rushed into service.

Item: Amidst reports that the hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council is corrupt, slow and dysfunctional, the administration has announced that it wishes to transfer responsibility to it more quickly than originally planned.

Item: The CIA reports the US is losing the hearts and minds of (a good chunk of) the Iraqi populace.

Item: Bush poll numbers are slipping at home, especially about the conduct of the war/'peace'.

We thus face the potential that the velociraptor tendency in the foreign policy establishment will take the inconsistent position of declaring victory and running, or at least running down the US/'coalition' presence, while the opposition, and more liberal, strategists stick to the 'we broke it, we bought it' view that whatever the merits of the original intervention (if any), it would be wrong to create an anarchistic political vacuum.

The political problem this creates, of course, is that it sets up an election in which the Democrats can be portrayed, however subliminally, as wearing the millstone of wishing to perpetuate an unpopular occupation, while the Republicans claim they are the party of extrication and victory.

On the one hand, it's amazing to even imagine that Bush could start a war, abandon it, and then blame Democrtats for opposing it (“McGovernitnes!”) and not supporting his means of ending it. On the other hand, the Dem's willingness to be 'tough' on 'winning the peace' may just maybe serve to deflect the McGovernite aspersion.

And, of course, any such Bush strategy puts big hostages to fortune, for if things were to go really badly in Iraq, someone might notice, even after most troops are out and the casualties are down. In particular, a cut and run strategy would be especially vulnerable to a return of Saddam Hussein…which can only put more pressure on those special commando units that have been tasked with finding him.

I do not think that an unwillingness to cut and run is a foolish consistency. But it's not obvious that even if Holmes's Emerson's aphorism speaks to the common law, in this day of sound-bite debate it has as much to say to national politics.

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2 Responses to Fools and Consistency

  1. jt says:

    Uh, I think that should be ‘foolish’ rather than ‘fooling,’ and I’ve always attributed it to Ralph Waldo Emerson. For example,

  2. vachon says:

    According to a link on Drudge ( It’s a whole lot more than wobble. That pesky interim governing council isn’t moving fast enough so we can get our butts out of there in time for the election. The breathtaking mendacity that has followed this administration around since the beginning is the only consistency I see.

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