The Magazine

Bush's Rhetoric Deficit

From the October 6, 2003 issue: In making the case for the war, he downplays his strongest argument: America's duty.

Oct 6, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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ON IRAQ the administration likes to talk interest, not duty. "We did ourselves and the world a favor." But interest is always arguable; duty can be absolutely clear. Torture, mass murder, and hellish tyranny make for the clearest case possible. Yet too often the administration has sounded hesitant and defensive on Iraq. It has a compelling, open-and-shut moral case but prefers to make pragmatic arguments about global terrorism and Arab politics. Of course security is important, but mass murder is even more important. In Iraq the torture is over, the gale of blood is finished; we put an end to them. What else matters next to a truth like that?

On September 23 the president gave a measured, stately speech at the U.N.--which decidedly did not begin: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have shut down the terror, the torture, and the murder in Iraq." (The speech was well underway before the Saddamite terror got a passing mention, and then one full paragraph of its own.) The president began by recalling 9/11--but don't we owe it to the world and ourselves to couple that story to an account of how we answered the deed of terror by two of liberation, thereby converting a maniac monologue into one of the more moving, astounding dialogues in human history?

"All over Europe people are saying to America, 'We told you so!'"--thus a smugly serious European journalist on American TV. You would think any American in earshot would have been hard to hold down--"How dare you, cowards?" No, Iraq is no picnic to pacify and rebuild, yes some of us did romanticize the Iraqis beforehand, no we have not found WMDs. But we have found torture cells, execution sites, mass graves; and the moral significance of those swamps all the rest. Wasn't that the whole point of the 20th century?

Evidently Senator Edward Kennedy missed the 20th century. Somehow Europe, too, must have been otherwise engaged; mass murder never seems to count for much when Europe is toting up the score. It's so (how should we say?) abstract. Or something.

Was our intervention pragmatically right, was it essential in self-defense? Yes; but reasonable people can differ. Was it morally right? No one can dispute that. No one who has ever had the faintest brush with moral reality can fail to answer yes. (The very first story in the Bible after the end of Paradise: "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the earth!") With the discovery of those torture cells and mass graves, the moral question was closed forever: We were right to fight. Europe should be reeling, backpedaling, apologizing. "We told you so!" is our line.

Yes, the question has its nuances. Have we always intervened, will we always, to overthrow a murderous dictator? No; but in this post-Cold-War era the boundary-lines are new--no nation has ever dominated the world militarily as we do today; it will take us time to get our bearings and understand our new responsibilities. Didn't we have pragmatic, selfish reasons to act in Iraq? Of course we had. Isn't self-defense itself a moral imperative? Absolutely. But these side issues fade to nothing in the sunlight of a new reality: A bloody tyrant is overthrown. That fact dominates all others.

The president is at a decision-point: temporize, or move proudly straight ahead? For now, "temporize" is fatal advice. The administration must stand on its achievements, not its anxieties. Start with the moral issue. The same holds for the U.N.: Why does the administration sound defensive when it ought to stand on the moral heights? If it were any kind of morally serious organization, the U.N. would have carried a vote of gratitude to the Coalition the day Saddam fell. How come the Security Council is so "Eurocentric," anyway? Counting Russia as 50 percent European, half of all vetoes belong to Europe. Why? And where are congressional hearings when we need them?--hearings on the deposed Saddam regime. Let Iraqis speak; let the world listen.

But after all, conservatives have a long history (going back to Vietnam) of ceding the moral high ground to their opponents without a fight--and thereby of participating in the cardinal error of modern political thought: the neglect of spiritual, moral, and religious things.

However little they matter to experts, moral and religious issues matter far more than political or economic ones to the vast majority of mankind. (Marx was exactly wrong, but conservatives can't seem to face up to it.) Granted, this administration has raised moral issues effectively on occasion. But now is the time to raise them relentlessly. The president has a record to defend and be proud of, on behalf of the whole nation. Disinterested care for mankind is always (for the best of reasons) the highest card in the deck. If you've got it, play it.