Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Sorkin Doctrine

A month ago - which in blogoland is close to forever - Ezra Klein wrote a column about how good it was that the West Wing was over. Notwithstanding Sorkin et al's problems in actually calling Republicans evil, I think there are a few things that are worth gleaning from the works of Aaron Sorkin.

Start with the 1995 film The American President. One of the oft-repeated phrases in the film comes from the Chief of Staff, played by future President Martin Sheen: "We fight the fights we can win."

The phrase was used exclusively to refer to domestic politics in the film, but it's nonetheless a simple statement of when to use military force if you ever needed one. Don't commit the American military unless you're victory is assured. Commit the necessary resources for victory, because if you don't defeat is likely. Don't go starting fights - or threatening to - unless you can back up your words with muscle. A simple realist statement of international power.

(Later in the movie, the axiom is ammended to "We fight the fights that need fighting!". God knows what the Reublicans would make of that, but it does emphasize that there are national interests that even superpowers can't negotiate on.)

In an early episode of the West Wing (Sorkin's other work) an American military aircraft is shot down by Syria, and the President wants blood. He mocks the idea of a proportional response at first, saying:
Bartlet: I ask again, what is the virtue of the Proportional Response?

Admiral Fitzwallace: It isn't virtuous, Mr. President. It's all there is, sir.

Bartlet: It's not all there is.

Admiral Fitzwallace: Just what else is there?

Bartlet: The disproportional response. Let the word ring forth, from this time and this place, gentlemen, you kill an American, any American, we don't come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!
You can hear Richard Cohen, can't you?

Of course, the debate doesn't end there. The military doesn't want to start bombing Damascus any more than the rest of the West Wing, and the President gets in to a loud argument with his chief of staff:
Bartlet: I'm talking about two hundred and eighty-six American marines in Beirut, I'm talking about Somalia, I'm talking about Nairobi-

Leo: And you think ratcheting up the body count's gonna act as a deterrent?

Bartlet: You're damn right I-

Leo: Oh, then you are just as stupid as these guys who think capital punishment is going to be a deterrant for drug kingpins. As if drug kingpins didn't live their day to day lives under the possibility of execution, and their executions are a lot less dainty than ours and tend to take place without the bother and expense of due process. So, my friend, if you want to start using American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that. We're the only superpower left. You can conquer the world, like Charlemagne! But you better be prepared to kill everyone. And you better start with me, because I will raise up an army against you and I will beat you!
The President, chastened, eventually accepts the "proportional response" even though it's horrible.

The lessons for the use of military power are obvious. America has to accept a huge limitation on its power - nuking Damascus over an attack, no matter how personally offensive it is to the President, isn't an option. Israel - if it were being governed rationally at the moment - would need to accept similar limitations. The kidnapping of two soldiers is not, not, not an excuse to start bombing Beirut, as much as Israel would wish it to be. The occasional rocket attack on Galilee - yes, even if it kills people - needs to be weighed against the deaths that are caused by overreaction.

So: Fight the fights you can win, and accept proportionality in military affairs. It's not great - in fact, it sucks - but it's all there is. The Sorkin Doctrine.

Re-learning these lessons over and over is getting tiresome. Maybe dressing them up with TV shows and movies will help.

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