New Book Examines Bush's Ethics
Peter Singer interviewed by Tony Jones
ABC, April 23, 2004

TONY JONES: Now to the philosopher who's taken on the ethics of the president. The September 11 attacks transformed George W Bush from the candidate who in a presidential debate with Al Gore spoke against "nation building" and in favour of "a humble" foreign policy. "If we're an arrogant nation they'll resent us," he said, "If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us". Contrast that to the President who spoke of the axis of evil as if it were an American hit list of rogue nations. Or the nation-builder who invaded Iraq with the stated intention of creating a shining new democracy in the Middle East. Now, Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer has undertaken in his new book, The President of Good and Evil, to examine the ethics of the president who maintains that, above all "America is a good nation, genuinely good" Dr Singer joins us now from New York. Peter Singer, is President Bush's America genuinely good as he maintains or at least in its intentions?

DR PETER SINGER: Well I don't think it's as simple as that. I think that whereas President Bush likes to see things in black and white terms, there's a lot of shades of grey. And it's not enough really for the President or those around him to have good intentions, to say they want to produce a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. You have to be realistic and look at the costs of what you're doing both for Iraq and for the entire global security system. So I think that it's a very mixed picture really. I'm not saying America is all bad, but certainly not all good either.

TONY JONES: It's obviously impossible in the short time we have to talk about the whole scope of your book which covers ethics right across the spectrum of George W. Bush but I want to concentrate on the war in Iraq and the ethics and policies that underpin the President's decision to go to war. Starting with Iraq, was there or can you make still a strong ethical case for the war in Iraq?

DR PETER SINGER: I don't think that you can make a strong ethical case for the decision to go to war a year ago. Now of course that leaves us with a dilemma about what we should do now. If you look at the decisions that were made, clearly the right decision would have been to allow the United Nations inspection force to continue their inspections as those European nations like France and Germany wanted. They were reviled at the time. They were abused. You remember American legislators changed the name French fries on the menu to freedom fries, there were so upset with the French, but really the French were right. Inspections should have been allowed to continue and they probably would have eventually concluded that Saddam did not have those weapons of mass destruction and the authority of the United Nations in that way would have been enhanced rather than being undermined as it was by the fact that the United States, Britain and Australia, of course, ended up fighting the views of the Security Council.

TONY JONES: You do recognise there can be a clear ethical case for humanitarian intervention. Can such a case be made for removing an evil dictator like Saddam Hussein in your opinion?

DR PETER SINGER: Well, I think a case can be made for removing brutal dictators for humanitarian intervention but I would say only in two circumstances. Firstly, either with United Nations approval, so we know that is not just a country going to war because it has some of its own interests in the area as, of course, in the case with Iraq, the United States did have interests in ensuring an alternative oil supply to that of Saudi Arabia. Or, there's such an immediate emergency that one cannot get United Nations support and someone has to intervene to stop an unfolding genocide as, for example, should have happened in Rwanda. But in the case of Iraq in 2003, neither of those was the case. There was no UN support for removing Saddam and there was not an unfolding genocide. In fact, I think it's pretty clear that more civilians have been killed in Iraq in the last 12 months since the war began than were killed by Saddam in the 12 months before the war began. There was no real emergency, Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, he had undoubtedly killed large numbers of people in the late '80s and up to the mid '90s but in the years immediately preceding the war, while he'd murdered opponents and may have tortured some people and I'm not in any way excusing that, I don't think there was an unfolding emergency that justified intervention without United Nations support.

TONY JONES: Let me ask you this then. Do ethical principles, the one's you're putting forward anyway, do they have some sort of time limit put on them? Because as you've stated there were terrible human rights abuses, in fact hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites were killed right up to the mid '90s by the same person removed eight years later?

DR PETER SINGER: Yes they were. I think if one had intervened at that time when hundreds of thousands of people were being killed I would have defended that. But if what we're talking about is simply punishing someone for past crimes, while that's good thing and we should bring people to justice, I don't think you unleash a war which by reasonable conservative present estimates has killed somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 civilians in order to bring one tyrant or even a tyrant plus his 100 closest henchmen to bring them to justice. We wouldn't do that if these were Australian or American civilians, if someone were hiding out in a suburb of Sydney we would not drop bombs on a restaurant where they might be as the Americans did drop bombs on a restaurant in Baghdad in an attempt to kill Saddam and his sons, because we would have too much respect for the lives of Australian civilians who would be killed when doing that but American did not have that respect for the lives of Iraqi civilians.

TONY JONES: You've concluded, if you like, weighing it up - a sort of utilitarian argument - that the benefits are outweighed by the costs of this war?

DR PETER SINGER: That's right. I do judge actions by their consequences but you have to take into into account the consequences for the people of Iraq especially for the civilians. But I wouldn't ignore the cost to Iraqi soldiers, many of whom may have been drafted and under a dictatorship had little choice but to serve in Saddam's army. I would also take into account the costs for the authority of the United Nations. I think if we want to build a more peaceful world and a more equitable world, we need to strengthen the only institution we have that allows all the nations of the world to participate. I think that what happened in the buildup to the war where Bush first went to the United Nations to get a resolution, they gave him what he wanted, Saddam agreed to let the inspectors in and then Bush said, "That's not enough, even though the inspectors are there I still want to attack." I think that that gravely undermined the authority of the United Nations and some members of the Bush Administration, like Richard Pearle, made no secret that they wanted to do that. They wanted to sideline the United Nations. They didn't like it. I think that that's an important negative consequence of this war as well as the thousands of casualties that have resulted from it.

TONY JONES: I'll come to that in more detail shortly because I want to look at what underpinned that dislike of the United Nations coming from some parts of the Bush camp if you like. One of the interesting tests that you apply to the question of regime change is what would if you substituted another country in this equation for the United States, if for example Russia had decided to engage in an effort for regime change in Iraq, what would America have said about that?

DR PETER SINGER: Well, exactly. That's a very good point. America would have been very concerned that this was in some way a kind of geopolitical grab for Iraq's oil reserves that would place Russia at an advantage because by having a hold over Iraq's oil - that would make the United States still more dependent on Saudi Arabia, who are obviously very dubious ally because of the Islamic militancy there, and I think the United States would have looked very negatively at that. So, the United States should really be putting itself in the position of other countries and saying, "Well, how will they look at us if we do this?" For that reason there has been a lot of suspicion and it's reinforced by the fact that we have documents going back from before September 11, in fact even before Bush was elected President, in which many present members of the Bush Administration, people like Wolfowitz and Cheney and Rumsfeld's chief of staff, all said that the United States should overthrow Saddam Hussein and they mentioned the importance of the oil supplies as being part of America's national interest. So we know that a lot of people in the US Administration do actually think that there is an important national interest component in what happened.

TONY JONES: Let's step a little deeper into philosophy. You cite the classic work of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes here, his book 'The Leviathan'. Tell us why that's relevant.

DR PETER SINGER: Well, that's relevant to the doctrine of pre-emption, that George W Bush has put forward. And also his statement that America plans to retain unchallenged military supremacy. In Hobbes's view of the world, you need to have a policeman, a sovereign, who will basically keep the peace in the world as a whole. But the problem with the doctrine of pre-emption is if nations say, "well, I have the right to strike against you if I deem you as a threat," then, of course, other nations will also say, "well, look if you're threatening us we may have the right to a pre-emptive strike against you." As Thomas Hobbes points out, this is likely to produce a war of all against all and then the sovereign, the leviathan, is supposed to step in and keep the peace. The United States is really appointing itself as the leviathan and they're saying, "we are going to be the ones who keep the peace". But, of course, the United States is self-appointed to this role. They represent less than 5 per cent of the world's population and they're really claiming the right to determine these matters for the rest of the world. Now, that's, obviously, not democratic, it's not in keeping with the founding ideals of the fathers of the United States. It's also contrary to their view that you need to have checks and balances to power, that absolute power is likely to corrupt. And as I was saying, it's sidelining the only body that possibly could have a authority in a more democratic way, and that's the United Nations. I'm not saying the United Nations is a perfect body or that it's democratic at this stage but rather than see the United States appoint itself as the leviathan, as the global policeman, I would like to see the United States and other nations work to reform and strengthen the United Nations so that it can become - play that role that the United States has appointed itself to play.

TONY JONES: It was Thomas Hobbes that concluded if men do not hand over power to a state, to a leviathan as you've put it, their lives will be nasty, brutish and short. The interesting thing here is that the neo-conservative thinker William Kristol took up Hobbes's argument. His idea, though, of America as the leviathan was to make it a beacon for world peace. In effect to replace the United Nations. You've set out some of what's wrong with that but why was that such a compelling argument for the neo-conservatives and why did it resonate with George Bush in the end?

DR PETER SINGER: I think it really helps, you know, if you live in America to experience this. That's what I've noticed over the five years since I've come here from Australia. You get to see the view that many Americans have of America, that it's just such a wonderful nation, that it was, like, the first democracy, people sometimes almost think it has invented democracy which of course it didn't. And that has this mission in the world to promote democracy. I think that people like William Kristol and also other people in the Bush Administration, Paul Wolfowitz for example, had this vision that democracy was such an obvious good that if they went into Iraq their troops would be greeted with flowers and everyone would say, "Oh at last, great, we can set up a democracy and it will be easy to do." I think they must all be very puzzled and I hope very humbled at the fact that a year after they succeeded in toppling Saddam there is, you know, something that's really close to a civil war and the Americans, instead of being treated as liberators, are being seen as an army of occupation. But it's because of that illusion about how wonderful America is I think that they were able to deceive themselves into thinking that this was going to be an easy thing to do.

TONY JONES: It seems that William Kristol, at least, is starting to to have a sense of disillusionment. When we spoke to him last time that appeared evident. But let me take you down another track to do with the Bush doctrine. The doctrine grew out of September 11, it grew out of his quite real fear that terrorists would get their hands on nuclear weapons and in the end you couldn't trust the United Nations to be a force to do anything about that. That he was doing the right and the ethical thing by the interest of his citizens?

DR PETER SINGER: Yes. I think that was the argument that he was using. But, of course, it now turns out that you can't trust the United States in terms of its intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. That Saddam clearly had no nuclear weapons, didn't have a program that was anywhere near developing nuclear weapons and, you know, even didn't have the vast arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. It's the credibility of the United States that's been thrown into doubt here and I think the United Nations has actually held up well as a decision-making process and as I say, I think it would have been much better if attempts were made to make the United Nations more effective. I don't think that that's at all impossible. It only requires the good will of the nations that currently exercise the veto powers in the Security Council which, of course, includes the United States and Britain, to really make dramatic changes that could turn the United Nations into a highly effective body and one that would not be seen as just pursuing the interests of one superpower.

TONY JONES: Peter Singer we've only just touched the tip of the iceberg of the ideas you set out in the book but we thank you nonetheless for taking the time to come and talk to us tonight.

DR PETER SINGER: Thank you. It's been good talking to you.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'New Book Examines Bush's Ethics', interview with Tony Jones