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How Bush Confuses Virtue and Viciousness

I don’t think that leftists or progressives can reclaim religion and morality to argue against the immorality of a pre-emptive war and the existence of U.S. standing armies all over the world. It seems to me this would constitute entering into a word game that we cannot win or have long since lost. Instead, I think that we should chuck the terminology of religion and morality and start to argue for and demand ethical and efficient (competent) behavior on the part of the United States and its leaders. After all, the country prides itself on being competent and efficient, yet the blatant incompetence exhibited by the Bush administration over Katrina has increased suspicions among average Americans that the administration may be incompetently carrying out its operation in Iraq. The mishandling of the Dubai port deal is another example of incompetence. The most tragicomic example of personal competence, of course, came when Vice President Cheney mistook a fellow hunter for a bird.

As progressives we must also claim ethical behavior (and the demand for competency) as truly patriotic and not above the law as moral behavior and incompetency so often are. George W. Bush’s belief in the “unitary executive theory” has led him to violate domestic law with NSA warrantless wiretaps, torture, “black hole” prisons, and to sign secret statements denying he is bound by certain legislation–all because he is Commander-in-Chief in time of war. The arrogant unilateralism of which rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and abrogating the ABM Treaty are but two examples clearly indicate that Bush also thinks he is above formal and customary international law.

Long before Bush endorsed unethical behavior in the name of fighting terrorism after September 11, the United States had adopted the unethical methods of the enemy to win the Cold War. I am not making a moral argument in arguing that the United States sold its soul as it conducted its foreign policy in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II. Morality is largely a personal guide for private behavior and it often involves self-sacrifice. Hence, the term has almost always been misused when applied to any country’s foreign policy, despite numerous books and speeches on the subject promoting U.S. diplomacy in excessively moralistic overtones. Ideally even personal moral choice should not involve blind adherence to values considered absolute because this represents simple compliance or conformity. Instead, personal morality represents a conscious individual choice to believe in values that are relative and to act on them anyway because they are freely chosen.1 The reason that individual or personal moralistic absolutism is both dangerous and inappropriate when applied to the country’s foreign relations is that it “exempts America from self-criticism or from addressing the grievances others have with respect to [U.S.] policies, [and] such [moralistic] sentiments imply a repudiation of dialogue and negotiation.” Moralistic absolutism also leads to non-negotiable demands–the anathema of diplomacy which, even more than politics, is the art of compromise.

From the president on down most segments of American society -- government officials, religious groups, and mainstream media -- have egregiously misused the words moral and morality since September 11. Woodrow Wilson gave new life to this rhetorical device, and it flourished exponentially during the Cold War. Now it has now reached a crescendo level because of the war on terrorism. Regardless of the time period in which it is used, such careless public rhetoric does not recognize that if “there can be no compromise with the forces of evil, there can be no reasonable restraint on the forces of good.”2

The careless yet incessant infusion of moralism into discussions about U.S. foreign policy also disguises the distinct possibility that in the course of carrying out covert and overt Cold War interventions based on an ever-widening perception of threats to its ubiquitous security interests, the United States began to lose its ethical and democratic compass.

I don’t believe that a nation can adopt over time the tactics of the enemy in public or private and walk away ethically unscathed. To pretend that such tactics were not repeatedly and successfully implemented during the Cold War only compounds the conundrum in which the country finds itself now that it has declared a never-ending war against terrorism beginning with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Because the United States all too often assumed the methods of enemy while professing to uphold Wilsonian democratic and humanitarian principles, it no longer seems to recognize any limits on its power as its leaders and media glory in the hitherto taboo topic of empire-building, all the while insisting that it is being forced to take up this imperial burden.3 This represents the worst use of Wilsonian rhetoric to mask naked imperialism.

Instead, national ethics consists of public rules and cultural standards governing the conduct of countries and is usually embodied in custom, law, and policy. At the global level ethics now consists of customary and formal international law as propounded by UN resolutions and covenants, the World Court, various war crimes tribunals and, most recently embodied in the International Criminal Court which the United State has refused to join. At the domestic level in the United States and many other Western nations it consists of common law jurisprudence, which Blackstone called “the principal and most perfect branch of ethics.” For nations which purport to honor the rule of law and classical Enlightenment definitions of civilization this means there are recognized fair and equitable ways for countries to conduct themselves at home and abroad.

If the left would begin to advocate ethical behavior such an argument would put us back in the realm of international law and cooperation and place the focus on evaluating the results of the this second invasion of Iraq and previous wars in a way that morality and religion cannot. It would also allow us to re-evaluate and explain to average Americans past unethical behavior on the part of the United States (by which we won the Cold War) in the hope that we will not repeat such behavior. Instead of trying to take back morality and religion (and the flag according to a new book by Todd Gitlin), I think that we should talk about ethics and efficiency to counter the way in which Bush and his neo-con advisers have confounded virtue with viciousness and lack of veracity to cover their incompetence -- a feat unparalleled in the history of U.S. diplomacy.

1. Liah Greenfeld, “Is Nationalism Legitimate?” in Jocelyne Couture, et al., eds., Rethinking Nationalism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 22 (Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 1998), pp. 102-103; and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Necessary Amorality of Foreign Affairs,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1971, 72-77. It should be pointed out, however, that Schlesinger did not take this amoral stance on foreign affairs until Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam war from JFK and LBJ–a war that Schlesinger had supported under the two Democratic presidents. In this article, Schlesinger quoted and agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr from Moral Man and Immoral Society when the latter wrote: “. . .unselfishness must remain the criterion of the highest morality.” Then going on to quote both Hugh Cecil and Alexander Hamilton: “. . . [unselfishness] is inappropriate to the action of a state. No one has the right to be unselfish with other people’s interests . . . .The rule of morality . . . is not precisely the same between nations as between individuals. The duty of making its own welfare the guide of its action is much stronger upon the former than upon the latter. Existing millions and for the most part future generations, are concerned in the present measures of a government; while the consequences of the private action of an individual ordinarily terminate with himself, or are circumscribed with a narrow compass.”(p. 72) However, Alan Wolfe has pointed out that if a citizenry are ill-informed or misled by politicians, their private moral freedom can embrace moral authoritarianism as reflected in the current belief among many Americans that forgiveness can coexist with support for the death penalty and that life after birth need not be honored as much as life before birth or the afterlife. See Wolfe, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, 160-66.

2. Richard Falk, “The New Bush Doctrine,” The Nation, July 15, 2002, pp. 10-11 (quotations).

3. Matthew Rothchild, “Empire’s Apologists,” The Progressive, March 2003, pp. 35-36; and Lewis H. Lapham, NOTEBOOK: “Light in the window,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2003, pp 7-9 [criticizing Michael Ignatieff’s advocating less timidity and more use of power on the part of the United States if is to be a successful imperial power in “The Burden [of] The American Empire (Get Used to It)],” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003, pp. 22-27; Niall Ferguson, “2011,” The New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2001, pp 74-79; and Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small War and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), pp. xiii-xx, 336-52.