Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Moral Certainty: You raise an important objection to the moral certainty argument, Razor. (I'll address the North Korea issue separately, since I, unlike Bush, would put NK in a category apart from Iran or Iraq.) You're correct to note that when a politician starts to talk about "doing the right thing," it's prudent to turn on the floodlights. But moral certainty is different from political drivel. For one thing, the UN was agreed that Saddam Hussein was, at minimum, a threat to the region. Whether he had WMDs is a fine subject for debate -- and an open question, to say the least. But we knew that he'd possessed and used them in the past, and that he had violated the letter and spirit of the resolutions that provided for a cease-fire in the '91 war. This kind of moral certainty was syllogistic, rather than religious. We had required Saddam to provide a full accounting of his weapons as a condition of suspending hostilities, and after 12 years he had not done so. He was well aware that the burden of proof was on him to document his compliance in a way that satisfied the UN, and he had not done so. In addition, the evidence is there that he ran a brutal regime of oppression at home and aggression abroad, including continued, overt support of terrorism -- which, according to the Bush doctrine, made him an outright enemy. I understand being suspicious of politicians, but the evidence, with or without WMDs, is enough to make me certain that we did the right thing.

The moral certainty of muscular liberalism is established and respected. The first Bush, that old liberal, used it to justify Desert Storm, Somalia, and Panama. Clinton used it in Bosnia and later in Kosovo (without, ahem, the UN's backing). FDR invoked it in World War 2; Truman in Korea; Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam. There was moral certainty that ethnic Albanians would be better off without Milosevic forcing repatriation at the point of a gun. There was certainty that, whatever the merits of the socialist system, the Chicoms were not massing troops at Korea's door to go deliver universal health care by force. For liberals to get suspicious about moral certainty at this point is akin to Al Gore's sudden allergy to the electoral college system after Florida, having defended it a few months before when suggestions cropped up that he might lose the popular vote yet win an electoral majority.

In addition, every other modern public policy of any merit is sold to us as a moral imperitive. Affirmative action is necessary, it is said, morally owed to the descendants of slaves. We have a moral responsibility to take care of our environment. Social security is a moral obligation to our elders. If you want to suggest taking this kind of reasoning out of the policy debate, I'm fine with that, because cost-benefit analysis will, on balance, favor a more libertarian position. Sure, it puts a price on your grandmother's old, grey head (no free drugs for you, Grammy; we've got a deficit!), but in cost-benefit analysis, everything has a price.

In the end, I think we can agree that while I may be morally certain that invading Iraq was a good thing, in fact the right thing, you may not. Fair enough. If 70% of the country fell in your camp, I've no doubt we'd still be pestering Kofi Annan for that second resolution we gave up on back in February. Fact is, 70% thought we should smoke Saddam and bring democracy to Iraq, and they belived it for several and sundry reasons, from WMD (the right's case, mainly) to moral certainty (the leftish hawks' case, oddly enough).

As we've discussed before, there are differing comfort levels with what's come to be known as the neocon worldview, particularly as regards Iraq. I think it was pretty clear, to those who were paying attention, that the administrations initial scattershot approach to Iraq (when the press said the reasons kept changing) was a search for a hook on which to hang the operation. WMD worked. But the real reason for doing Iraq first was because it could work as a first step in remaking the Middle East; it had the feasibility factor in its favor. Yes, I think Iraq was a link in the loose terror network we face, and at least indirectly helping those who wish us dead or in retreat from the world stage. But so is Saudia Arabis; so is Iran; so are elements in Pakistan. We'll get to them. (Pervez Musharraf is mighty cooperative these days because, no matter how much the administration denies it, he suspects there might be a "list" after all.) The neocons see the threats on the horizon and have put forth a bold, Wilsonian plan to defuse the conflict by way of liberty, economic prosperity, and the rule of law. Others, right and left, wish to create a new sort of "Fortress America," a neo-isolationist worldview wherein nobody will hate us or attack us if we don't f*ck with them. But you and I both know that some people need f*cking with.

I also don't dispute that there will be people along the way who wish to hijack both sides of the debate to further their own ends. Gross examples of this: on the right, the Jerry Falwells of the world who want us believing that September 11 was God's wrath on us for tolerating gays, apparently hoping to make gay-bashing a patriotic demonstration; on the left, those who say that Republicans have just been itching for a good ol' war to enrich their defense-industry chums. We need to be on guard against both kinds.

As I wrote the other day, moral certainty isn't all that foreign a concept. We can all recognize the moral imperative of stopping the Nazis. Isn't it, to this day, hard to believe that Hitler had British and American apologists, even if they were simply blind or isolationist, and not complicit? The world came around, but in 1936 it was by no means foreordained. We need to shorten the "come around" time.

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