Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Don’t Mess With Tradition

The U.S. Constitution is, surely, a well-known document across the world and, surely, there is a translation of it into Persian. No doubt that the powers-that-be in Iran fully understand what our President’s treaty-making powers are and, also, the extent to which they are hedged in. Those powers are put into this sentence (Article II, Section 2): [The President] “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided that two thirds of the Senators present concur.”

Well, evidently 47 Republican Senators here don’t believe Iran is fully in the picture. They have written an “open letter” to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic,” which begins thus:

It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.

The genius behind this letter is one Tom Cotton (R-AR), a junior senator. Its significance is that it represents an unprecedented action by a nominally conservative group in Congress to engage in foreign affairs directly—which is clearly what this letter (link) is trying to do.

I was still a young man in the Army when I learned (taking college courses on the side from a University of Maryland extension operating in Baumholder, Germany) that political designations can and do lose their meaning over time—thus that “liberal,” once heavily Tory, you might say, can come to mean something way-way to the Whig.

My own bible on what conservative means is Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Early in that book Kirk places six canons of conservative thought. The sixth one states:

Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

Later in the book, Kirk develops the meaning of Providence (properly with a leading cap) to mean respect for tradition which, in his view, is an imperfect but largely reliable structure that captures the higher intentions Providence implies. Now it is clearly a rather “hasty innovation” to produce the impression that Congress is an active participant in treaty negotiations—and that, in treaty negotiations a sovereign entity, like the United States of America, can and should present contrary positions to the negotiating partner, as in speaking out of both sides of the mouth.

A mere 21 years have passed since Russell Kirk died in 1994—and already one is mentally tempted to rewrite the title of his book (looking at today’s conservatives) as The Conservative Mindless. Not Kirk’s fault. Indeed he foresaw that “hasty innovation” can turn into “a devouring conflagration.” And one of those conflagrations, sooner or later, will produce the Man on Horseback chasing the Tom Cottons of this world into hiding—and even that horse is not too far away as the oil runs out.

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