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Moral Clarity and the United States

Just how clear is U.S. President George W. Bush’s "moral clarity?”

January 3, 2003

Just how clear is U.S. President George W. Bush's "moral clarity?"

In a West Point speech in which he commissioned young second lieutenants into history's legion, President Bush unveiled his new doctrine of "pre-emption," the idea that America could — and would — strike first.

To be sure, there was an important logic in what he said: "We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties — and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."

That's not an unreasonable sentiment. Indeed, international law already allows for such self-defense.
Yet, President Bush was out to do more than remind the world that he would defend America. He was restating his "moral clarity" in almost defiant terms: "Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree.

"Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time — and in every place," he concluded.

Every time — and in every place? A few questions leap to mind.

For instance, does everyone in America, let alone the world, agree with Mr. Bush's definition of "moral truth"? The President cited two examples of the universal moral truth he was espousing. But even these examples might provoke debate.

"Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong," he pronounced. Few would disagree with that statement, said exactly that way.

And yet, terror wars and civil wars rage today in a dozen countries and regions. And unfortunately, those on all sides of the conflict always manage to come up with some sort of reasoning to defend their deeds.

And the United States has blood on its hands, too. Civilians killed in U.S. air strikes, for example, are never "targeted." They are always merely "collateral damage." This distinction wore thin in Vietnam — and it is now wearing thin in Afghanistan.

The other example of moral truth that President Bush cited is equally problematic: "Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong."

Sure. But what does that imply? If violence against women were to become the metric for U.S. military action, then a whole new hierarchy of evil-doing countries might have to be created — starting with, say, Africa.

And perhaps the United States would find itself on the wrong end of such calculating in some folk's minds. After all, what seems morally clear to some in Bush's own Republican Party — blocking family planning programs in foreign countries — appears rather differently to people abroad.

They might assume that the United States has a clear moral duty to support such efforts in order to improve the lives of children and families in poor countries.

One could go on and on. But let it suffice to recollect for a moment the wisdom of Immanuel Kant who, more than any other philosopher, epitomizes the ideals of universal right.

Yet, even he saw its limitations. If the statesmen of the world achieved universal peace, he lamented, the philosophers would still find things to fight about.

In light of that wise statement, no wonder so few other world leaders talk about "moral clarity." They realize that their own "moral clarity" often is but a "double standard" — in the eyes of their next door neighbor.

Worse, they realize it often is used as a rhetorical device to cover up ambiguity — and doubts over the right course of action.

For those reasons, other leaders and their countries have learned that it is not only undiplomatic and impolitic, but also counter-productive to make sweeping moral statements about the rest of the world.

As Voltaire put it, the fewer dogmas, the fewer disputes. But President Bush is clearly undaunted. He is using his presidency to establish more dogmas.

And even more significantly, the American people are different, too, in their receptivity to such dogmatic rhetoric — and in its eagerness to try to remake the world.

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