01/01/2008 11:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maxims of Peace and War

"The thing we ask ourselves these days is, 'What will the Americans do next?'" This was said in 2004 by a London editor of wide experience; how strange for an American to hear! For, though gently spoken, the words suggested the horror of a Colossus; a feeling evidently shared by allies who knew the United States as a friend in friendlier days.

The Americans. As one might have said, "The Romans," "The Germans." The sentence also served as an unpleasant reminder that the people in a democracy are felt to bear some responsibility for acts their leaders perform in their name.

Kant, in his essay "Perpetual Peace," lays out the maxims of cynical despotism and misjudged realism by which the leaders of great powers and colossi have generally accommodated their hunger for power to the need for an explanation. The maxims are: (1) Fac et excusa. (2) Si fecisti, nega. (3) Divide et impera. Roughly translated: (1) Act now, justify later. (2) If you committed the crime, deny it. (3) Divide and conquer.

Of how many acts of the present administration can it be said that they were guided by one or another of these bad maxims? The invasion of Iraq; the policies of domestic surveillance of millions of citizens, and the torture of unnamed prisoners; the subdivision of Iraq itself into containable warring units based on ethnic and religious loyalty. "They gave us a constitution that set us at each other's throats" -- this sentiment, among Iraqis, has been widely reported by foreign journalists like Patrick Cockburn, and by some Americans; yet it has scarcely penetrated the public understanding of what we are doing in Iraq.

The imperial gamble of Cheney and Bush is that the jolts and shocks of domestic attack, foreign wars, and anti-constitutional government founded on perpetual emergency, will "change the DNA of the American people." (The revealing phrase is General Michael V. Hayden's; he said that he prayed against its happening -- but, oddly, the thought had entered his mind.)

As we enter the final year of the first government of what is intended to be a new regime for America, let us hope this will be the last such year of the last such government. Opposition to the permanent war, on behalf of republican ideals and constitutional principle, has come from certain court decisions, from parts of the intelligence community, and from the large remnant of empirical prudence that still pervades the armed forces. Resistance from the political opposition, and from the press and the mass media, has been less consistent, less coherent, less articulate, less audible. Nobody could have predicted any of this; and in the surprise is encouragement as well as a warning.

If America is to rejoin the world of nations, the help will have to come from institutions outside the executive. From our representatives, but, when they falter, from ordinary people doing the work of conscience against the continued assaults of arbitrary power. That work has barely begun:

Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong.