Friday, March 19, 2004

What if Bush lied in order to get us to do the right thing?

A probably fruitless conjecture

So by now everyone in the world except for (a) those on the more dogmatic fringes of the American right and (b) the most uninformed of the illiteratti seem to have realized that the Bush administration orchestrated a concerted campaign of deception in the run-up to Gulf War Episode II: The Phantom Menace. If, by this point, anyone is so benighted as to deny that we were deceived, there’s probably nothing you can say to him to straighten him out; I suggest you not waste your time in attempting to do so. I can say “I don’t see it” until the cows come home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it, and it doesn’t mean that you should waste your breath trying to get me to see it even if it is true that I don't. There is a kind of dialectical law of diminishing returns. There is an irreducible core of dogmatists on any issue, and expending your sincere effort on that dogmatic core is a tragic waste of the human spirit.

Although inclined to be a Kantian, I, like almost everyone else, believe that one is sometimes permitted—and sometimes even obligated—to lie. And occasions for permissible lies seem to arise even more often in affairs of state (politics makes consequentialists of us all…). The question I want to address here is this one:

Was the Bush administration justified in lying to us about Iraq?

That is, about its spectral WMDs, its phantasmal links to al Qaeda, etc. I have to admit, this is the very kind of case in which I myself would be tempted to lie were I the president. Saddam was---is--evil, and not just a little bit. Oh, he is so very, very bad. (Don’t you think that liberals have a tendency to under-appreciate his badness and needed-to-be-removedness?) If it were in my power to take him out, I’d want to do it, and it might even be reasonable to think that I would be obligated to do it. Surely there are some cases in which the president is permitted (even obligated) to lie to us in order to get us to do the right thing. So, was this such a case?

Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s not really any evidence that the administration did undertake the war primarily for moral reasons and lots of evidence that they didn’t. For one thing, the Republican leadership has spent most of the last twenty years telling us that we “can’t be the world’s policeman,” and admonishing us to be “realists” (really: sort of collectivist ethical egoists) about the use of American power—it should only be used to promote that which is in the narrow national interest of the U.S. And, of course, Bush came out against nation-building in an unequivocal way during the campaign. Even the non-“realist” wing of the party (which includes e.g. Reagan, the neo-cons, and, I suppose, Bush) seem to be crypto-realists in that they seem to be willing to promote human rights and democracy only as means to the end of promoting U.S. national interest. (This, I believe, is the main difference between neo-cons and hawkish liberals such as myownself; the hawkish liberal wants us to use American power in the service of the non-instrumental end of promoting human rights around the world).

Furthermore, a war is not just unless (roughly) the agent that initiates it has a reasonable expectation of bringing about a more just state of affairs as a result of it. But the administration didn’t really seem to care that much about what happened in Iraq after the war. At least they didn’t care enough to develop significant and practicable post-war plans. And someone who was genuinely interested in making the world a better place could have risked our blood and expended our treasure in more fruitful and less costly endeavors. Like killing bin Laden, for example. Or rebuilding Afghanistan. Or taking out Charles Taylor.

So they probably didn’t do it for moral reasons…but what if they did? What if all the weapons of mass destruction-related prevarication activities were undertaken to get us to do the right thing and free the Iraqi people from tyranny? Something we would never have agreed to go to war for. (Would we? The realist wing of the right and the pacifist wing of the left would have hit the roof simultaneously, wouldn’t they?)

Well…George and Condi and Donald “Fists of Mass Destruction” Rumsfeld and Wolfy and D-Cheney in his undisclosed location…well, I guess they’d almost be my heroes in that case… If I really believed that they did what they did in order to make the world a better place by freeing the Iraqis from Saddam’s tyranny, then I’d see them in a whole new light.

But they’d still have to go.

Though in some extreme cases presidents are obligated to lie to us in big ways in order to get us to do the right thing, I’m inclined to think that they’re obligated to resign after having done so. This will certainly seem a little strange (and could, needless to say, be wrong), but the case is perhaps analogous to that of civil disobedience. It is common to argue that the person who engages in civil disobedience must be willing to accept the punishment associated with his actions. That’s weird, too, of course, but I’m floating an idea at this point, not attempting to defend it in any kind of detail. The big idea is that there may be some things that a president is obligated to do such that, if he does them he is then obligated to resign his office. I suggest that orchestrating a campaign of lies to get us into a just war is such a thing. Perhaps the principle is: any president who orchestrates a campaign of lies must leave office; perhaps it doesn’t matter why he orchestrates such a campaign. If this is correct, it may be because democratic leaders have a profound duty to be truthful to the citizens, a duty so profound that those who violate it in sufficiently egregious ways must lose their offices, regardless of the excellence of the reasons for their violation.

This is a paradoxical claim, and there’s a good chance it’s wrong, but there it is. Perhaps I’m just so mad at Bush that I’m trying to argue that even if he’s good he’s bad… But I’m provisionally inclined to accept the principle in a fully general way—I’m certainly not suggesting that this is an obligation that binds only Bush. But, anyway, if my suggestion is right, it fills in a piece of the puzzle the completion of which yields the following conclusion:

The administration either believed its own pro-war propaganda or lied to us in order to further the narrow national interest of the U.S. or lied to us to in order to achieve the morally good goal of freeing the Iraqi people. If the first, then they are incompetent and must go. If the second, then they are evil and must go. But if the third, then, though they are good, they still must go.

So they must go.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home