Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bush's Moral Responisibility for Torture and War

Preliminary Notes on Torture

I would like to congratulate Senator John McCain on his victory over the Bush Administration over the issue of torture. Today, the Bush Administration said that it would accept McCain’s amendment to ban cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners.

Yet, I want to point out that the events leading up to today strongly suggest that the Bush Administration was forced into accepting limits that it did not want. In other words, I see no reason to believe that this limitation actually reflects the values of this Administration. Acting on its own values, I suspect that this Administration would have done nothing to oppose torture.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, however, not only cannot understand the difference between good and evil, he seems less practical than Bush when it comes to being coerced into doing good that he would not do willingly. He has demanded assurances that the United States will continue to get the same high level of effective intelligence as it gets under current procedures.

I have covered the issue of torture in earlier blog entries. The main point, which Hunter seems to miss, is that a safer world requires more than good intelligence. That which we say we are permitted to do to others, we say that others are permitted to do to American citizens abroad. Telling the world that it is permissible to torture Americans, as we hold that it is permissible to torture others, on a mere suspicion of potential wrongdoing, is not making the world safer for anybody.

Today’s Topic: President Bush’s War Excuse

In a recent interview with Brian Williams, President Bush said that it was his decision to invade Iraq, he made the decision based on faulty intelligence, and that it was the right thing to do. In making these claims, Bush is still acting like an alcoholic in denial. Rather than taking responsibility for his own actions, he continues to shift the responsibility on to others (e.g., "faulty intelligence") and to insist, in effect, that anybody in his position would have done the same thing.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that a huge number of people were actually in the same position he was, and they did not to the same thing. In fact, they protested that his actions were unjustified and a violation of international law.

Excusing Mistakes

Specifically, Bush is still claiming that he was not the only one who believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Everybody else believed it as well. From this, he concludes that he was justified in having this belief.

However, there are several fundamental problems with this way of thinking -- other than the fact that Bush is misrepresenting the truth when he says that others saw the same evidence as he did.

(1) Many of these other people believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because he and his administration were saying that they did. Bush can only make his point if he can show that others reached an independent conclusion, based on their own research and their own evidence. Without this, Bush's defense amounts to nothing other than shouting, "Yes, I know I said that, but you believed me!" The only lesson that legitimacy follows from this is that it is foolish to believe him.

(2) Even if others believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, only a handful of them agreed that it was important to attack. The rest pretty much said, "Well, yes, I suspect he does have these weapons. However, I have no proof. Without proof, it would be wrong to go to war. Even if we had evidence of weapons, we need some reason to believe that he is an imminent threat. We have none of that. Therefore, war was not justified."

When Bush showed them his evidence, these countries shook their heads and said, "Is that all you've got?" There were weapons inspectors in Iraq, working, who were coming up empty. In light of this, the rest of the world stuck to the moral principle that it would be wrong to attack without good reason -- without good evidence. The rest of the world still said, "We see no justification for an attack. To attack, under these circumstances, would be wrong."

Yet, Bush pushed on with his plans to attack Iraq.

The Cost of War

Bush's defense is still that the mistakes leading up to the war were not his fault. He can only make this claim if he can show that anybody else of good character would have done the same thing. He can claim that others also believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

However, he has to combine this with the fact that virtually none of them felt that the evidence was solid enough to go to war. The vast majority of the world held to the moral principle that war was a serious decision that required more than hunches and feelings, and Bush did not have the evidence he needed.

Why does war require actual evidence? The reason is that, the more we lower our standards for going to war, the more likely wars will become. Civilized people in civilized nations want the bar for going to war to be raised high enough that there are no wars except when they are absolutely necessary. The extraordinary destruction of war requires extraordinary proof that they cannot be avoided.

Bush did not have the extraordinary proof that wars require. However, he has forced the world to pay extraordinary costs. Bush's war in Iraq has cost over 2,100 American lives, 30,000 Iraqi lives by Bush's own estimate, and 200 billion dollars. Over 15,000 Americans, and an untold number of Iraqis, have been maimed.

These are the costs so far, and clearly do not tell us what the total costs of the war will be.

Before you destroy between $200 billion and $500 billion that could have otherwise gone to schools, hospitals, and scientific research; before you cut short over 30,000 lives and maim countless others, you owe it to those who will be made worse off to have extraordinary proof. Bush did not have extraordinary proof. He is, therefore, morally culpable for this loss.

Making the World Safe

Another argument that Bush is making is that he has made the world safer.

The problem with lowering the bar for war -- the problem with making wars easier to "justify" and setting a precedent for going to war on the slight pretext of mere suspicion, is that it makes wars easier. This makes wars more likely. This makes the world decidedly less safe.

This is the same argument that I have applied to the issue of torture above. When the Bush Administration lowered the bar against going to war – saying that the mere suspicion that another country might be planning something, a suspicion grounded on faulty intelligence where the appearance of danger represented more “wishful thinking” than “thoughtful analysis”, makes war more likely.

The way to prevent war is to have a high moral standard against war. Bush is telling the world to adopt a lower standard, and that cannot be good for the world.

I repeat, the extraordinary destruction of war requires extraordinary justification. Bush did not have the level of justification that is required to justify war. The degree to which we lower the bar for justifying war, to that degree we may expect to suffer War should not be fought on a whim and a prayer.

This is Bush’s moral failing. His moral compass on the issue of a just war is as faulty as his compass on the issue of the treatment of prisoners. This is what will determine the shape of the world in the future, more than what happens in Iraq, unless the world decides to condemn the culture of easy war and torture that the Bush Administration endorses.

McCain gained one important moral victory in that battle today. There are other important moral victories still to be won.

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