Commentary Magazine

Condoleeza Rice, Political Science, and Honor

AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

It’s hard to believe, but the American Political Science Association (APSA) is honoring a figure who defended a war most political scientists consider immoral and disastrous. I don’t know much about it, but I think I read somewhere that this same person once opposed the war. He reversed himself and even became an all-in cheerleader for it, possibly just to escape from the political wilderness. How dare the APSA honor him?

I refer, of course, not to Condoleezza Rice, this year’s recipient of the Hubert H. Humphrey Award. Rather, I refer to Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey, who went from supporting withdrawal from Vietnam in 1965 to defending the Vietnam War as “a necessary fight against Communism that provided jobs, hope and prosperity to suffering Vietnamese” just one year later. Michael Brenes, who is at work on a book on Humphrey, noted that Humphrey’s own advisers believe their man came around on the war because it was “his only way back into his boss’s good graces.”

Over 130 political scientists, some of them prominent, signed a letter protesting the decision to honor Rice. I don’t begrudge political scientists their right to raise the question of who does and does not deserve to be honored. When students at Princeton questioned how Princeton honors Woodrow Wilson, some conservatives welcomed revisiting what they consider his unmerited good reputation. Any sensible person asked to decide whether Condoleeza Rice deserves an award for “notable public service” would consider whether she has served honorably and well.

Defenders of the Iraq War do not deny that its prosecution included big miscalculations. Many defenders of the war on terror concede that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are torture. A person who did not think about these things in adjudicating a question of honor might be accused of being frivolous about serious things.

The committee who chose Rice reportedly said that, of course, they considered Rice’s work as National Security Adviser from 2001-2005. But they also considered that “her action and that of her fellow members of the administration was taken in the heat of war, with incomplete information, and with urgent responses needed.” They argue that, to the extent she made mistakes, they are “overmatched by her other services to the country, especially [concerning] the reunification of Germany while serving in the first Bush administration and her promotion of policies of development aid under the second.” The committee also pointed out, as I noted at the outset, that the man after whom the award is named is not without blemish. The protesters have no complaint about honoring him.

If we take honor seriously, we should be judicious about dispensing honors. So, one need not accept the committee’s decision. It is possible to argue that some things, including torture, are indefensible. At the same time, if there is a duty to be judicious about the question of honor, there should be no special dispensation awarded.

During the Wilson controversy, political scientist Corey Robin proposed that Princeton rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy after W.E.B. DuBois., a renowned social scientist and a co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P. Yet, as Robin knew but chose not to discuss, DuBois hung on to his support for Josef Stalin after Stalin’s crimes were evident and after most on the left had abandoned him. I wrote that, if we want to take honor seriously we must not “substitute for one set of criteria for honoring public figures, perhaps not very thoughtful, another, about equally thoughtless, set of criteria.”

I doubt that very many of the signatories of the protest letter have examined Rice’s record as closely as the committee did. Some of them presumably read about her record somewhere, as I did about Humphrey’s. Their denunciation of “the deliberate and systematic lies that were told to the American public to encourage their support for the invasion of Iraq,” as well as their dismissal of the committee’s recognition of the circumstances under which decision makers operate, suggest that they subscribe to a bumper sticker “Bush lied. People died” view of the war. Moreover, they dismiss all discussions of Humphrey’s own record as “what-about-ism.”

But they’re wrong. The protesters do not just demand the rescinding of Condoleezza Rice’s award. They themselves concede that they are asserting a general principle to guide future committees and “screen out those who have participated in policies that have had the consequence of the systematic violation of the human rights of others.” To ask whether Humphrey and others, like George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton could survive such a screen is not “what-about-ism.” It’s a test of the principle.

Those who declare that such a test is beside the point run the risk of seeming to be motivated by zealotry, rather than by thoughtfulness about honor.

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