About that moral clarity

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.]


3 thoughts on “About that moral clarity”

  1. “we have a president who remains immune to criticism”

    Jacob, this statement lacks “clarity”. Do you mean that Bush suffers no ill effects from the criticism he receives (which he certainly does)? Or do you mean that he is unwilling to change his foreign policy when it is criticized (which isn’t necessarily a character flaw)?

    “who cannot answer difficult questions and does not care that he cannot”

    I would agree that Bush is not skilled at conveying his foreign policy verbally the same way Cheney or Rumsfeld can. But that doesn’t mean his agenda is unclear. You yourself explained it in one sentence.

    “who wants the country to believe that the mandate given him by 9/11 has not yet expired.”

    What President wouldn’t want their constituents to believe in his policies? All of the polling data still shows American support for the intervention in Iraq. If his mandate has expired, he will be voted out of office in a month.

    “He has set himself a task in the Middle East that he is incapable of seeing through.”

    What evidence do you have of this? The fact that there is violence in Iraq is nothing new. It has been going on in that region for decades. What is new is the democratic transformation taking place in that country. All of the important deadlines in the transformation process have been met, and there is no reason to think it will not continue to move forward. Regional elections are already beginning to take place in certain parts of the country.

    Finally, you make the assertion that as a leader, moral clarity might be necessary to conceive a foreign policy, but it is not enough to see it through. In other words, even if Bush knows what to do, he is far too stupid to make it happen.

    Assuming you agree with the administration’s foreign policy (which you may not), how would you argue that it is being implemented improperly? Do you know something or see something that the National Security Council or the military do not? Do we need more French or Belgian troops to help us? Should we be calling air strikes on Iraqi villages known to harbor terrorists?

    It is very easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize people who are responsible for implementation of policy and achievement of objectives (just look at any Senator).

    You can debate the policies themselves. But questioning their implementation is dubious.

  2. 1) Joel, yes, by immune to criticism I meant that he is unwilling to turn a critical eye on his own policies. (In fairness to the administration, I would not say the same of Rumsfeld.)

    2) The new agenda can be stated fairly clearly, but this was not the same rationale that was promoted going into the war. It changed midcourse and that doesn’t seem to bother Bush. More importantly, he seems incapable of deeply engaging with the problem and manages only to repeat the same broad statements over and over again.

    3) Internationally, his mandate clearly has expired. I expect that it will at home, too, as his constant use of 9/11 as a shield against criticicm wears thin. You’re right, though, “wants” was bad, unclear wording.

    4) It’s parts of the country where elections aren’t going to happen, where the government has no control, and where militants rule the day that worry me. The legitimacy that the January elections will have for the Iraqi people is very much in doubt. I’ll be very happy if I’m wrong about that, but it looks grim.

    5) You’re right that I’m in a poor position to criticize the implementation. Perhaps a smarter, subtler leader could do better. Perhaps he couldn’t, in which case the policy should have never been followed in the first place (perhaps a smarter leader would have recognized that, too).

    You know that I was hesitantly pro-war during the build up and initial occupation. Watching the situation in Iraq deteriorate and many allies leave has made me regret this, especially with Bush in charge (not to mention the failure to turn up threatening WMD).

    Thanks for keeping me honest and calling me on some of the BS, which it is too easy for bloggers to provide.

  3. It’s difficult for me or any other 22 year old recent college grad to decide if a war could be run better.

    Also, don’t short change moral clarity. All of the management and leadership skills in the world can’t make up for a lack of guiding principles. Values and “moral clarity” are the keystone to forming national policy objectives. After that comes things like grand strategy, military strategy, and battlefield strategy (this is all coming from what I am learning at Officer Training School, but it makes sense to me). As long as Bush knows where he is going, he can lean heavily on more capable experts to get him there (Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, etc). His job is only to ensure that progress is being made towards the objectives he has set.

    I can’t really understand the libertarian position with regards to terrorism. They certainly do not want to see the creation of a “Fortress America”, a high-security, low freedom police state. At the same time, they are skeptical about agressive tactics for going after terrorists (like attempting to remove the facists regimes that perpetually breed them). They seem to be content with waiting around until we are attacked and then targetting the groups that did it after the fact. But after the fact could mean a WMD taking out a million Americans. As long as the oppressive regimes remain, these groups will continue to exist in various conceptions.

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