President Bush and his supporters never tire of praising his moral clarity, his willingness to call evil by its name. This is in stark contrast to Kerry, whose positions one can only charitably call “nuanced.” Bush, so the theory goes, must therefore be the only one of the two candidates who can steer a steady course through the Middle East and win the war against the terrorists.
Does this theory hold water? In the weeks and months following 9/11, his moral clarity was all well and good. A band of very bad men killed several thousand Americans and it was his job to track the bastards down and dispense some Texas style justice. No one was going to begrudge the U. S. its right to strike back at those responsible for those attacks.
Three years later, the task has shifted focus. The War on Terror is no longer about combating known terrorists, or even about preventing terrorists from getting WMD from certain countries believed to possess them. Now its about transforming the Middle East by invading and rebuilding not one, but two of its nations at the same time. Iraq, especially, is hoped to become the shining city on the hill that will win over the hearts and minds of the Arab world.
Now, regardless of whether one thinks that this is a sound approach to policy in the Middle East, consider what leadership qualities a president would need to make it succeed. Intelligence, diplomatic skills, knowledge of history and culture, openness to criticism, and an appreciation for subtlety and nuance all come to my mind. None of these are attributes that are commonly attributed to George W. Bush.
Moral clarity doesn’t even make my list. I think it is detrimental when it is meant to denote the way Bush views the world. Robert Wright has an excellent op-ed in Foreign Policy on how the president’s moral clarity provides him with a dangerous self-assurance and disregard for pesky details. Wright imagines a president with a more responsible conception of evil:
This idea of evil as something at work in all of us makes for a perspective very different than the one that seems to guide the president. It could lead you to ask, If we’re all born with this seed of badness, why does it bear more fruit in some people than others? And this question could lead you to analyze evildoers in their native environments, and thus distinguish between the causes of terrorism in one place and in another.
This conception of evil could also lead to a bracing self-scrutiny. It could make you vigilant for signs that your own moral calculus had been warped by your personal, political, or ideological agenda. If, say, you had started a war that killed more than 10,000 people, you might be pricked by the occasional doubt about your judgment or motivation—rather than suffused in the assurance that, as God’s chosen servant, you are free from blame.
In short, with this conception of evil, the world doesn’t look like a Lord of the Rings trailer, in which all the bad guys report to the same headquarters and, for the sake of easy identification, are hideously ugly. It is a more ambiguous world, a world in which evil lurks somewhere in everyone, and enlightened policy is commensurately subtle.
Instead we have a president who remains immune to criticism, who cannot answer difficult questions and does not care that he cannot, and who wants the country to believe that the mandate given him by 9/11 has not yet expired. He has set himself a task in the Middle East that he is incapable of seeing through. In short, he has grossly “misoverestimated” himself and there is no way in Hell he deserves to be reelected for it. Four more years of his kind of moral clarity is not what U. S. foreign policy needs right now.
[The Robert Wright link comes from Justin Logan’s most recent anti-Bush post, which is also worth your attention.]