Blame Game Squared
Our political system suffers from a deficit of recrimination and retribution. It’s not just that the right kind of people can get away with felonies like the torture of captives but that there is no penalty for those who excuse such offenses by bleating about the blame game and how we should avoid it. There is the infraction and the meta-infraction, the denial of justice and then the denial of the need for justice. This sort of thing doesn’t work.
The lack of accountability routinely celebrated by our pundits is especially problematic in relationship to the conduct of foreign policy because the behavior of presidents—I almost wrote princes because I was thinking about Machiavelli—really can’t be dictated in advance by deliberative bodies. Matters of national security really do sometimes require extraordinary decisions that have to be taken in the moment and carried out in secret. Some of these actions are violent and terrible. What separates the tyrannical abuse of power from legitimate executive action is not prior law, which will always be incapable of anticipating specific circumstances, but the willingness of leaders to own their actions after the fact. To be a democratic or simply a decent leader means to be responsible not only for the consequences of a decision, which are often largely a matter of luck, but for its wisdom and moral rightness as determined after the fact by the sovereign community of which one is a member. A democratic or simply decent polity is one that insists that there be no power exempt from subsequent accounting. Obviously we do not inhabit such a polity.
To be less grand and philosophical about it, we’ve had plenty of evidence of the consequence of not playing the blame game. When Holder refused to prosecute the torturers, for example, he effectively legalized torture. The absence of effective responsibility also has the ironic effect of delegitimizing executive power. Bush and Chaney took us to war in Iraq in a stupid and arguably criminal way, but future presidents may have to take us to war when that is the right thing to do. If there is no such thing as wrong action by the prince, there is no such thing as right action either.