The Perils of a Righteous President
Faith without doubt leads to moral arrogance
By JOE KLEIN
After his grudging public apology for the behavior of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, George W. Bush attended a ceremony commemorating the National Day of Prayer. His remarks there were, as we have come to expect from this President, a stirring mix of humility and certainty. “God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice,” Bush said. “Our finest moments [as a nation] have come when we have faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens, and for the people of other lands.”
The words are wonderful, but such sentiments are easily corrupted. Faith without doubt leads to moral arrogance, the eternal pratfall of the religiously convinced. We are humble before the Lord, Bush insists. We cannot possibly know His will. And yet, we “know” He’s on the side of justice—and we define what justice is. Indeed, we can toss around words like justice and evil with impunity, send off mighty armies to “serve the cause of justice” in other lands and be so sure of our righteousness that the merest act of penitence—an apology for an atrocity—becomes a presidential crisis. “This is not the America I know,” Bush said of the torturers, as if U.S. soldiers were exempt from the temptations of absolute power that have plagued occupying armies from the beginning of time.
As the nation suffered the disgrace of Abu Ghraib last week, I traveled through Turkey and Jordan—our staunchest Islamic allies in the region—and talked with moderate politicians, businesspeople and military officials. Most found Bush’s moral talk either duplicitous or fatuous. “Liberate Iraq? Rubbish,” said a prominent Jordanian businessman. “You occupy Iraq for the strategic and economic benefits. You are building the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad. Halliburton and Bechtel are running everything, at enormous profits. And then I watch Bush on Al-Arabiya and all I see is his sense of moral superiority. He brings democracy and freedom to the barbarians. But who are the barbarians? Even before the Abu Ghraib pictures, we saw male soldiers searching Iraqi women and humiliating Iraqi men by forcing their heads to the ground.”
The President’s moral convictions are, no doubt, matters of true faith—and the Jordanian businessman is a member of an authoritarian establishment with much to lose if Islamic radicals or, faint chance, democrats take charge. But Bush’s moral certainty almost seemed delusional last week in the vertiginous realities of Iraq. A distressing, uninflected righteousness has defined this Administration from the start, and it hasn’t been limited to the President. Bush’s overheated sense of good vs. evil has been reinforced by the intellectual fantasies of neoconservatives like I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, who serve Bush’s two most powerful advisers, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. It was neoconservatives who provided the philosophical rationale for the President’s gut response to the evildoers of Sept. 11: a grand crusade—yes, a crusade—to establish democracy in Iraq and then, via a benign tumbling of local dominoes, throughout the Middle East. Those who opposed the crusade opposed democracy. Those who opposed the President coddled terrorists (according to recent G.O.P. TV ads). They were not morally serious.
But democracy doesn’t easily lend itself to evangelism; it requires more than faith. It requires a solid, educated middle class and a sophisticated understanding of law, transparency and minority rights. It certainly can’t be imposed by outsiders, not in a fractious region where outsiders are considered infidels. This is not rocket science. It is conventional wisdom among democracy and human-rights activists—and yet the Administration allowed itself to be blinded by righteousness. Why? Because moral pomposity is almost always a camouflage for baser fears and desires. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives share a primal belief in the use of military power to intimidate enemies. If the U.S. didn’t strike back “big time,” it would be perceived as weak. (Crushing the peripheral Taliban and staying focused on rooting out al-Qaeda cells wasn’t “big” enough.) The President may have had some personal motives—doing to Saddam Hussein what his father didn’t; filling out Karl Rove’s prescription of a strong leader; making the world safe for his friends in the energy industry. The neoconservatives had ulterior motives too: almost all were fervent believers in the state of Israel and, as a prominent Turkish official told me last week, “they didn’t want Saddam’s rockets falling on Tel Aviv.” At the very least, they were hoping to intimidate the Palestinians into accepting Ariel Sharon’s vision of a “state” without sovereignty.
Abu Ghraib made a mockery of American idealism. It made all the baser motives—oil, dad, Israel—more believable. And it represents all the moral complexities this President has chosen to ignore—all the perverse consequences of an occupation.