The phony moral gravity of Bush's State of the Union.

Policy made plain.
Jan. 29 2003 4:48 PM

Morally Unserious

The second half of President Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday night, about Iraq, was a model of moral seriousness, as it should be from a leader taking his nation into war. Bush was brutally eloquent about the cause and—special points for this—about the inevitable cost. It may seem petty to pick apart the text. But logical consistency and intellectual honesty are also tests of moral seriousness. It is not enough for the words to be eloquent or even deeply sincere. If they are just crafted for the moment and haven't been thought through, the pretense of moral seriousness becomes an insult.

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In his most vivid passage, Bush listed practices of Saddam Hussein such as destroying whole villages with chemical weapons and torturing children in front of their parents. "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning," he said, telling "the brave and oppressed people of Iraq" that "the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation."

This is a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq. It would have been a fine reason two decades ago, which is when Saddam destroyed those villages and the United States looked the other way because our bone of contention back then was with Iran. It would be a fine reason to topple other governments around the world that torture their own citizens and do other despicable things. Is the Bush administration prepared to enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force everywhere? And what happens if Saddam decides to meet all our demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then free to torture children and pour acid on innocent citizens without fear of the United States?

If Saddam's human-rights practices morally require the United States to act, why are we waiting for Hans Blix? Or if the danger that Saddam will develop and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States justifies removing him in our own long-term self-defense, what does torturing children have to do with it? Bush was careful not to say explicitly that Iraq's internal human-rights situation alone justifies going to war—though he was just as careful to imply that it does. But Bush has said clearly and often that Saddam's external threat does justify a war all by itself. So, human-rights abuses are neither necessary nor sufficient as a reason for war, in Bush's view, to the extent it can be parsed. Logically, they don't matter. That makes the talk about the torture of children merely decorative, not serious.

And tell us again why we're about to invade Iraq but we're "working with the countries of the region" to pinion North Korea, which is further along the nuclear trail and can't even be bothered to lie about it. Bush's "axis of evil" coinage last year and recent flagrant North Korean nose-thumbing made it almost impossible for Bush to avoid addressing this logical conundrum. His solution was artful but mysterious: "Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula, and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq." He seems to be saying here that the United States should have invaded and conquered North Korea years ago. But as Bush sets it out, the "lesson" of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions. That doesn't sound so terrible, frankly. Regional discussions can be grim, no doubt, but they're more fun than a war. So, what exactly is this lesson the Korean experience is supposed to offer?

There are actually plenty of differences between the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the one in the Middle East, and good reasons why you might decide to bring Iraq to a crisis and steer North Korea away from one. But all these reasons cut against the Manichean notion of an absolute war against an absolute evil called terrorism. Bush is getting terrific credit for the purity and determination of his views on this subject. But either his own views are dangerously simplistic or he is purposely, though eloquently, misleading the citizenry.

Proclaiming the case for war as the second half of a speech that devoted its first 30 minutes to tax cuts and tort reform also makes the call to arms seem morally unserious. Why are we talking about cars that run on hydrogen at all if the survival of civilization is at stake over the next few months? Bush declared that the best thing to do with government money is to give it back to the taxpayers, and then put on his "compassionate conservative" hat and proposed billions in government spending on the environment and on AIDS in Africa and on a program to train mentors for children of prisoners and on and on. The dollars don't exist to either give back or spend, of course, let alone both, so we'll be borrowing them if Bush has his way, a point he didn't dwell upon.

This orgiastic display of democracy's great weakness—a refusal to acknowledge that more of something means less of something else—undermined the moral seriousness of the call to arms and sacrifice that followed. Sneering at the folly of tax cuts spread over several years instead of right away, Bush failed to note that those gradual tax cuts were part of his own previous tax bill. Bragging that he would hold the increase in domestic discretionary spending to 4 percent a year, Bush probably didn't stop to wonder what that figure was under his tax-and-spend Democrat predecessor. Short answer: lower. These are venial sins in everyday politics, but Bush was striving for something higher. He had the right words for it. But words alone aren't enough.

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