Democratic Presidential Nominee Barak Obama has announced recently that he will visit several countries in Europe and the Middle East and that, in doing so, he may ‘refine’ his policy with respect to Iraq.
Some people are upset that he is leaving the option open for a change in policy – that he may decide to continue the war in Iraq rather than end it. There are people on the left who fear that they might not have the anti-war candidate they wanted. And there are people on the right who are anxious to find reasons to accuse Obama of the political crime of flip-floppery.
Obama, for his part, is in damage-control mode. He is arguing that he has said nothing to indicate a shift in position – that working out the details in how he is going to carry out his stated objectives is not the same as changing those objectives. Deciding how to get the ball through the goal posts is not the same as moving the goal posts.
For my part, I think that Obama should be free to move the goal posts. He should be free to act on whatever new information he acquires and to choose the best course of action based on available information. This would include the option of another Iraqi ‘surge’ or the option of attacking Iran if the evidence suggests that these are legitimate options.
Having said this, I argue that there are important moral limits on the legitimacy of attacking another country. The presumption should be against launching an attack. It is only with the accumulation of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that attacking is necessary that it becomes legitimate to attack. Because people have a tendency to see what they want to see and to manipulate the public accordingly, that presentation of evidence should be made to an impartial third party. I do not believe that these moral requirements for an attack on Iran are near to being met. Yet, this is different from saying that they cannot be met.
It is, I think, a moral failing on the part of the political left that they think they have enough information to determine the right strategy and to confine Presidents to what they think is the best option. It is a sign of extreme arrogance – a foolish arrogance that says that important decisions can be made by people who know almost nothing about the facts of the matter.
I would hope that, if any of these anti-war advocates on the political left were to visit with European leaders and visit the middle east, that they, too, might have the courage to 'revise' their plans in the light of better evidence. It would be a moral crime to insist, “We will pursue this policy that I have decided upon regardless of what the evidence tells us.”
That type of thinking – the thinking that attacking Iraq is a good idea regardless of what the evidence actually said – is what got us into this mess.
I am not saying that these people on the political left are mistaken. I am saying that I do not know if they are right or wrong – and neither do they. Yet, they act as if they do and, what is worse, insist that no amount of evidence or closer understanding of the issues, no amount of personal contact with the people involved, no amount of top-secret military intelligence – can contain anything that could convince Obama that they are mistaken. Whatever evidence and understanding Obama may acquire, he must not revise his plan so as to continue the war or attack Iraq.
What I am looking for in a Presidential candidate is not somebody who will pander to the demands of the ignorant. I want somebody who states that he understands the principles involved and has the intelligence and moral character to actually act in accordance with those principles.
Most importantly, what I am looking for in a fellow citizen is somebody who recognizes the limitations of his own knowledge, and who does not pretend to greater wisdom and intelligence than he actually has.
What I am looking for in a fellow citizen is a realization that evidence matters, and that any belief, no matter how firmly held, can be shaken and brought down with sufficient evidence.
What I am looking for in a fellow citizen is an admission that somebody who has looked at an issue up close and actually had long conversations with the people involved might actually have an informed opinion that is better grounded than that of the liberal who knows only what he has read on the internet and seen on the evening news.
Generally speaking, flipflopping should not be considered a moral or political wrong.
Having said this, I want to add that I am not so naïve that I do not recognize the flipping of flops to be the sign of a moral and political wrong. When a candidate changes his position on a political issue – particularly when the candidate changes from an unpopular to a popular position – we have reason to ask whether the change was motivated by a consideration of the evidence, or whether it was grounded on political expedience.
It is certainly legitimate to use the changing of an opinion as a sign that the candidate is being dishonest, just as it is legitimate to use the look in a person’s eye as a sign that he is trying to be deceptive. However, we must distinguish between the signification and the thing signified. The crime is not to be found in the way that a person looks around, but in the fact that he is lying. Similarly, in politics, the crime should not be the fact that a candidate has shifted his position, but his reasons for doing so.
To the degree that we make the flipping of flops a political crime, to that degree our elected offices will become the property of people who never change their opinions. This type of standard makes stubbornness in the face of evidence a political virtue – and that is precisely the opposite of the type of person we have reason to want to see in public office. It is decidedly not in our mutual interest to promote such a standard.
What we should be promoting is a standard where we ask and expect candidates to provide us with reasons for their change of opinion, and to evaluate those reasons according to whether they make sense or, instead, suggest that the candidate is allowing himself to be persuaded by political convenience.
We should also be leaving it open for a candidate to say, "Hey, I'm trying to be your representative in government. I do not agree with you on this issue. However, I recognize your right to demand that your representative actually represent you in Congress. So, while I disagree with you on this issue, I will represent your wishes in Congress." This way, candidates will not have to lie to be elected, and we can start to grow a more honest crop of politicians.
As far as I am concerned, I like Obama's recent statements on Iraq. I like the idea that a candidate will make decisions based on evidence, and that the evidence might cause him to change his mind. I find that comforting.