Thursday, March 25, 2004

Liberal hawks and the Bush administration: Some basic thoughts

Take the following situation: we agree with what our leaders are doing, but for very different reasons from their reasons. What are we to do?

A moralist says: “Saddam Hussein is an evil man and his rule over Iraq is harmful to Iraqis. It is a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Getting rid of Hussein is a positive end, which justifies war as the only means through which to achieve it. I support this war, because the ends justify the means. I understand that the Bush administration is not going after Saddam Hussein for that reason, and indeed, I feel that Bush’s reasons for going after Hussein are very immoral, ugly reasons, and that the administration’s larger goals for American foreign policy are ones that I wholeheartedly reject. Nonetheless, I support this war.”

We have here a variation on the old “ends justifies the means” question. The variation is this. What happens when “the ends justify the means” is used in a situation in which the person doing the moral deliberation is not the actor, and in fact violently disagrees with the goals and ideals of the person who is the actor? My argument is that the result is is a very dangerous way of reasoning. It is misleading and potentially very harmful.

Let us call give our moralist a name. He is called “Liberal Hawk.” (Think “Dances with Wolves.”) Liberal Hawk may disagree with Bush on just about everything else, but he agrees with him that the war is a good idea.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that Liberal Hawk and his many ideological brothers and sisters constitute a critical element of support for the president’s invasion of Iraq. They allow Bush to say, truthfully, that he is pursuing a war that is generally popular and approved of (the war becomes much more popular than Bush himself). These people provide moral justifications for the war, and those justifications themselves both make the war more likely and provide political cover for the president in his decision to take the country to war.

OK. There’s the situation. Not so far-fetched. Let’s think about it for a minute.

The goals (ends) of Liberal Hawk are not the same as those of the Bush administration. Bush’s goals are (stipulated to be) immoral ones. So our situation is not one in which the (good) end is justifying the (bad) means. No matter what (good) results may come from it, those results are not the goal of the person doing the actual acting in the situation (George Bush and his administration, not Liberal Hawk -- and not you, and not me). The good results are, at best, a byproduct. So what we really have is: the semi-intended byproduct of the action justifies the means.

Subject for careful contemplation: can evil means ever justify a good semi-intended byproduct?

Beyond this quandary, we have a second problem. Let us think about the further consequences of the war in Iraq. It is not as if Bush would get rid of Saddam Hussein, and that would be the end of it. Bush’s actual goals were (stipulated to be) not good goals to be pursuing, but immoral, ugly goals. Those goals, and the ideals that underlie them, continue to be in force even after Hussein is gone. The further results in the region, to the extent that Bush has the power to produce results, will be in accord with his immoral goals and ideals. So we do not have a simple situation with one (bad) means, and one (good) end. We have an evil means, a good byproduct, and a host of (largely bad) results that are more or less directly intended (by Bush, though not by Liberal Hawk).

The attack on Iraq gets America into the region. The moral legitimation offered by Liberal Hawk and his ilk provides moral cover for the president in launching his war. The war, in turn, provides the Bush administration with tremendous additional leverage in the region. By supporting Bush’s initial war, Liberal Hawk is also supporting -- in advance -- everything the administration does after that.

Many Liberal Hawks will object to this assertion. They will say: I supported the war, but I do not support the way Bush has acted since Hussein was toppled. But that response is bogus, because it does not take account of very basic political realities.

Most fundamentally, Bush is no longer asking for support. Bush needed Liberal Hawk’s support at one time, and at one time only: before he went to war. At that point, if enough people had said no, we don’t want the war, then we would not have had this war. (Yes, it would have had to have been a huge number of people, because the millions who demonstrated, in this country and around the world, were clearly not enough.) It was possible to stop this war before it began. But Liberal Hawk did not try to stop the war; Liberal Hawk supported it.

By contrast, there have been no moments -- zero -- since the beginning of the war when Bush seriously had to worry about whether or not his actions had popular support in the United States. He can do what he wants. There have been no political referenda on his conduct of the war, and there are unlikely to be any, anytime soon. Such critical moments in wartime are always very rare, especially near the beginning of a war.

This is for two reasons. (a) Once the war has begun, sentiment always swings toward patriotism, supporting the troops, and so forth -- giving any president a huge outpouring of support, far more than he needs. (b) Even when support wanes for the war, there is only rarely a clear, obvious moment when those who oppose the war can try to turn their opposition into political reality. In the day-to-day conduct of the war, no president needs the support of the people to do what he wants to do. The people will not rise up on Day 186 of the war and say “No more war! 185 days was enough, but stop now!”

This is an important angle from which to look at the Democrats who made an issue of spending the $87 billion for the war. As Wesley Clark and other pointed out, voting against the $87 billion was a way for the Democrats to try to say “I don’t like the way this war is being waged. I think we need to have a plan. I don’t trust our current leaders or their plan.”

Let me say, first, that I sympathize with that point of view. The aftermath of the war has in many ways not gone well. It would have been wonderful to take a time-out to assess things and try to figure out how to make them go better. It would be great to make the President responsible to Congress, or the American people, for his actual day-to-day handling of the war. And refusing to fund the war would have done that!

But holding up the $87 billion -- even talking about it -- is a terrible political move, as it looks a whole lot like undermining the troops. Hell, maybe it is undermining the troops. It’s a ludicrously ineffective way to try to bring the administration to account. But note this: there is no good way to bring the administration to account. There almost never is. Even as a U.S. Senator or Representative, you are only guaranteed one real moment when your support for or opposition to a war really matters: at the beginning.

An additional difficulty confronts Liberal Hawks who decide, halfway through, that they no longer support the war. Before the war, being against the war was intellectually straightforward. We could simply say “No, let us not go to war.” Now, those who are against the continuation of the war have to say what we would do instead. And (let’s admit it, all liberals, both hawks and doves) we can’t answer that question, because there are no good options. Once the war began, we were in this thing, and there is no easy way out.

Does this surprise anybody? Has there ever been a war that one could get out of easily? (Imagine a situation in any war, ever, where even a full 100% of the population came to believe that the war was a bad thing to be involved in. Getting out would still be difficult.)

Again, my claim is that it is a bogus response to say “I supported the war, but I do not support the way the war has been waged.” That is not an option you get. You get two choices: support the whole war, or none of it. If you choose to support the war -- a choice you make at the beginning -- you need to make damn sure that you believe in the person who is going to have responsibility for prosecuting the war. You need to trust them, and you need to agree with their ideals and goals.

And this is why, to return to my initial point, we need to be very careful about using “the ends justify the means” in a situation where our goals are not the same as the administration’s goals.

This administration’s goals never were basically positive, or even basically OK. The administration was not in this thing to depose a tyrant for the sake of the freedom of a people -- as is obvious, or they would have chosen a different tyrant. (Various nasty African dictators, for instance, could have been removed with much fewer American casualties, much less hostility to America in the world, and entirely without the war being cast all over the world as USA-vs.-Islam, with attendant very bad results.) The administration was not in this thing to fight terrorism -- as is obvious, or they would have finished going after Osama bin Laden first. They were clearly not in it to eliminate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, as they had to work hard to convince even themselves that Saddam had any to start with. All the “good” reasons -- all the reasons that moralists might have used to justify the war -- are bogus.

Given that the administration’s actual goals were not (morally) good ones, it was the duty of moral people not to delude themselves. We should not have tried to convince ourselves that because we could think of good reasons for going after Saddam Hussein, therefore we should support an administration that was going after Saddam Hussein, no matter its reasons for doing so. Deposing Hussein was not the end of the story. The rest of the story is still being enacted, and the main actors in the story are people we should have known not to trust.

This is my proposal, in a nutshell. In situations of war, it is our duty to insist that our leaders do the right thing, for the right reasons. If their reasons, goals, and ideals are bad ones, then we should not support their actions, even if one of the effects of their actions will be something that we support. Even if -- for instance, getting rid of Hussein -- we support it very much indeed.

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