The President of Good and Evil
reviewed by Dennis Altman
The Age, May 1, 2004
Since their Puritan origins in the 17th century, American politicians have tended to speak in the language of divinely given morality. George W. Bush is not unique in his frequent references to the language of good and evil, just as he is not the first US politician to mangle the language.
Yet among recent presidents, perhaps only Ronald Reagan combined such moral certainty with such a lack of appreciation of the complexity of the greater world. In retrospect, one is struck by how lucky Reagan was: his instincts in dealing with the Soviets allowed him to appear in part responsible for their collapse, thus ending the Cold War. Bush is currently dealing with a far more intractable political enemy.
Like Reagan, Bush thinks in terms of "good" and "evil": indeed, the phrase "axis of evil" is a clear echo of Reagan's references to "the evil empire". Like Reagan, Bush believes in an apocalyptic view of the world whereby the goodness of the US is as self-evident to him as is its evil to the followers of al-Qaeda. There is no evidence to suggest that Bush has ever recognised the parallels between the way he and his enemies construct their images of the world.
This book is divided into two sections. In the first, Peter Singer examines the ethical basis - and contradictions - for a set of policies ranging from tax cuts, supported by Bush, to stem-cell research, which he bitterly opposes. Here Singer is at his best, cutting through the confusion that surrounds such issues to clarify the inconsistencies and confused thinking that these policies represent.
The enthusiasm of President Bush for the death penalty, and his equal enthusiasm, in other circumstances, for the "sanctity of life", is fertile ground for a first-class philosophical critique. Both are positions upheld by much of the religious right, who, like Bush, seem untroubled by any moral contradiction. Unlike many of his other critics, Singer does not merely condemn Bush, and points to his apparently genuine concern with the global AIDS pandemic as one case where he seems guided by ethical principles.
The second part of the book deals with Bush's foreign policy. Here a triumphalist rhetoric of freedom and democracy combines with an unapologetic emphasis on defending US interests ahead of any others, and a strong belief in using force to resolve problems. There is no evidence, says Singer, that George Bush ever pondered the ethical restraints of a just war before launching attacks on the Taliban and, more dramatically, upon Iraq.
As one might expect, Singer demolishes the case made for going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and does so by careful examination of Bush's own words and actions. By focusing on the ethical questions raised by a president who had not supported intervention to prevent genocide a few years earlier in Rwanda, but who now argued in moral terms for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Singer insists that we judge Bush on his own terms.
Not surprisingly, Singer finds Bush lacking in any consistent moral principles, depending to a considerable degree on his instinctive reactions. These appear to be guided by a mixture of religious and political principles, often contradictory, with little in the way of reflection to distinguish between them. "In the president of the most powerful nation on earth," writes Singer, "self-righteousness and hypocrisy are dangerous vices."
Another critic of George Bush might have pointed to the historical continuities in his view of the world, drawing on such examples as president McKinley's justification for colonising the Philippines, Woodrow Wilson's support for racism at home while extolling "self-determination" in Europe or John F. Kennedy's willingness to support dictators in Latin America while condemning Castro.
Bush, like Reagan, is more likely to see the world in apocalyptic terms than most of his predecessors, but the lack of any historical perspective in this book (Reagan is barely mentioned) seems odd.
It is difficult to know the extent to which Bush knowingly uses his rhetoric to disguise his real intentions, and how far he is persuaded - and persuades himself - that his actions are dictated by consistent moral positions. Singer poses this question at the end of his book, acknowledging that the large-scale deceptions and inconsistencies surrounding justification for the war on Iraq make it possible that Bush is being manipulated in the interests of an agenda rather different to that of his public language.
In taking Bush's rhetoric seriously, Singer reminds us that politicians act out of conviction as much as out of expediency, persuading themselves that what is convenient is also moral. In this they are no different to the rest of us, and one might ask how fair is it to demand consistency. All of us, in our everyday lives, live with contradictions and hypocrisy, and indeed social life would be almost impossible without some degree of inconsistency.
One might argue that Bush opens himself to this sort of critique more than most because of his frequent use of moral language and his insistence that his policies are guided by basic principles. Yet what is most troubling about Bush is not his inconsistencies, but the consequences of these inconsistencies. One might seek to distinguish between those inconsistencies dictated by political realities - all presidents are circumscribed by domestic pressures - and those that suggest a pattern of deception in favour of particular interests.
The well-documented links between the Bush family and particular energy and construction corporations, and the way these corporations have benefited directly from both domestic and foreign policies of this administration is an example of the latter.
So too is the unwillingness to support international institutions such as the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court. In the latter cases, as in his opposition to international family-planning programs, Bush's policies reflect the priorities of the US religious right, perhaps his most significant electoral base.
As Singer argues, there is reason to worry that the US president is influenced by people whose view of the world is dictated by religious fundamentalism.