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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2002 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

Playing by the rules? |
The debate on the Iraq war resolution and the controversy over the replacement of Sen. Robert Torricelli on the New Jersey ballot presented an interesting contrast. Many of the same people who said that the words of New Jersey law should be brushed aside, as they were by the New Jersey Supreme Court, were saying a week later that the United States should be bound by every jot and title of international law. Rules don't apply at home, but the United States should be restricted by rules abroad.

The New Jersey battle was fought, briefly, with the same heat as the 36-day Florida controversy in 2000 because the political interests of Republicans and Democrats led them to make arguments congruent with their fundamen- tal dispositions. Obey the rules, the Republicans argued. It's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game. The New Jersey law said that there could be no changes on the ballots after 51 days before the election, and that should be that.

The rules should be put aside, Democrats argued, to give voters a fair choice of candidates. The New Jersey court, in line with its bipartisan tradition of ignoring the rules to accommodate insider hacks of both major political parties, ruled for the Democrats, and the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps because there was less at stake here than in Florida, declined to intervene. Results trump rules.

In the debate on Iraq, many of the Democrats opposing the resolution sought by the Bush administration made a very different argument. The United States, they said, should be constrained by international law. The fact that international law does not cover all cases did not faze them.

The central provision of the opposition resolutions, sponsored by Democrats Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, was that the president should not be authorized to take military action to enforce previous resolutions of the United Nations Security Council until the Security Council authorizes it. In practice, this would mean that the United States could be blocked from acting by the veto of France, Russia, or China-not an altogether appealing argument to make to many Americans. In theory, it means that the United States could not act until it meets the requirements of a set of rules. Rules trump results.

Rules of the game. The arguments against both liberal positions are strong. Allowing rules to be ignored inside a nation-state can lead to chaos and unequal treatment. Already, the governor of Hawaii asked its state courts to allow the replacement of the name of a dead candidate for Congress despite the letter of Hawaii law. Requiring one's own nation-state to be bound by the far more incomplete set of rules of international law can prevent the United States from acting in its vital national interest. Machiavelli taught that the rules that promote morality in a well-ordered domestic society cannot be counted on to promote the vital interests of the state in the chaos of the international arena.

The interesting question here is why so many liberals who are ready to slough off rules within our society are so insistent on the observance of rules by the United States abroad. The answer goes back to the era of the Vietnam War. Those who opposed the war-and most were far more active when the Republican Nixon administration was de-escalating than when the Democratic Johnson administration was escalating-believe civil disobedience was justified and that the United States should have been constrained by principles of international law. Disobeying rules domestically was good; disobeying rules internationally was bad.

This is a fundamentally adolescent attitude. Teenagers are always ready to criticize their parents and teachers for the slightest violation of the rules. But they feel morally entitled to disobey the rules whenever they can get away with it. Though they don't like to admit it, they live comfortably under the umbrella of a well-ordered society that protects them and guarantees their safety. They can afford the luxury of disobeying the rules while insisting on their strict observance by their elders.

The cost of disobeying rules like the New Jersey election law is probably not too high: a marginal gain for one side in a few political campaigns. The cost of tying down the United States by requiring it to be bound by wispy international rules or the vote of the Security Council would have been much higher. We who thought we were safe under the umbrella of the United States learned otherwise on September 11. This is not the time to indulge an adolescent mistrust of our own country.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone