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.

That is the striking "message" of 1930s appeasement: Anti-appeasers attacked the policy on pragmatic grounds. "Defense of the realm" was their battle cry. "Our intelligence sources make clear," they insisted, "that you are under-estimating German weapons capabilities, and misreading German intentions." They were right (if slightly over-pessimistic with respect to German weapons). But they made little headway with the public until March '39, when the Nazis marched into Prague and it was too late--because appeasers were not interested in pragmatic issues; they saw themselves as inhabiting a higher sphere. They cared for moral questions. They stood (they believed) on the moral high ground, which trumped all practical considerations. They stood for righting wrongs inflicted on Germany. They stood for peace.

Likewise today with the administration and its opponents. The Democratic candidates talk nonsense to win primary votes; the occasional left-wing journalist who comes clean about hating the president tells us more than we ever wanted to know about the minds of left-wing journalists. But the real opposition has nothing to do with these sad characters. The real opposition stands on principle, just as Neville Chamberlain did. The essayist A.L. Rowse on Chamberlain: "'War wins nothing, cures nothing, ends nothing,' had been the burden of his song all along." (Rowse adds: "Mere pacifist clichés, ignorant and untrue.")

PEOPLE WHO ARE WRONG but have seized the moral high ground, others who are right but cannot or will not pull them down--that was late-1930s Britain. Appeasers struggled with their opponents and beat them. Churchill spoke eloquently, compellingly; in reading his speeches, the historian Robert Rhodes James wrote in 1993, "one asks oneself again and again, 'Why didn't they listen?'" The standard responses--"because people were lazy and it was easier not to"; "because Churchill had made himself so grossly unpopular that people dismissed him without thinking" (James's answer, in effect)--are no doubt true. But there is more to this story, of direct concern to America today.

The appeasers wanted to right wrongs that had been inflicted on Germany in the Peace of Versailles that ended the First World War. Some held that Britain and the West were tainted by Versailles, lacked moral standing to dictate right and wrong to Germany or anyone else. But above all, they believed in peace. The distinguished anti-appeaser Leo Amery once said of Neville Chamberlain: "He described himself as a man of peace to the inmost of his being, and that he assuredly is."

In the process of underestimating the moral seriousness of appeasement, we tend to underestimate the significance of Christianity to its leading proponents. Christianity's role is one of the least-investigated questions in the whole vast, picked-over flea market of appeasement and the Second World War. (The idea that modern European history might have hinged on the religious beliefs of the main actors strikes many intellectuals as too silly even to dismiss.) In 1961, Rowse published an indispensable small book called "All Souls and Appeasement"--"All Souls" being the heterodox Oxford college where academics mixed with leading statesmen in a relaxed, undergraduate-free environment that (as Rowse describes it) was strikingly like Heaven. He had a chance to watch the leading figures of the day, and he notes the real (not pro forma) Christianity of many: Geoffrey Dawson, the pro-appeasement editor of the Times; Chamberlain, Simon, and Hoare--the prime minister and his two closest cabinet colleagues. Moral questions mattered greatly to Dawson's top assistant, the devoted appeaser Barrington-Ward--"this man with his 'morality' and his 'principle,'" Rowse writes, "would have done less damage if he had been a bad man with more sense." They mattered greatly to Chamberlain's prime-ministerial predecessor and fellow-appeaser Stanley Baldwin--"a good man and a religious man"--who donated 20 percent of his personal fortune as a "thank-offering" to the nation after the First World War, and "deplored the hedonism and selfishness of the post-war mood" (as Robert Rhodes James explained in 1970). Thomas Inskip, who became Chamberlain's coordinator of defense, was better known as a church leader than a defense expert. (He duly raised with Ribbentrop the problem of Nazi persecution of Christians, and was politely flicked off.) Lord Halifax, who became Chamberlain's foreign secretary, was a noted high-churchman.

Appeasement, in short, was the policy of persons who cared about moral and religious questions; who acted not out of laziness or indifference but out of conviction. They sought not the prudent course but the right one.

Churchill and his few supporters could have met these moral arguments head-on, but they chose not to. They could have said: You are wrong in your application of Christian principle. They could have said: Peace is sacred, but not when you pay for it out of other people's suffering. Churchill was vividly aware of these issues but chose to base his campaign on security instead. He sought to bring his opponents to their senses, not (or only rarely) to prick the balloon of their moral presumptions. He talked strategy; they talked morality. Communications were doomed from the start.

Would it have made any difference had he done otherwise? Based his campaign not on Britain's safety but on her disinterested duty? A parliament unmoved by alleged military danger would scarcely have acted on behalf of some rabble of foreign Jews. But a change in attitude might conceivably have been possible--some modification to the self-satisfied moral complacency that made appeasers so unreachable. "Only with the greatest difficulty could one get a word in," Rowse writes, "and then, of course, no notice was taken." At any rate we do know that Churchill's tactics failed. No one listened to him. Once the war began, he spoke the language of duty, honor, and Judeo-Christian morality better than anyone had since Lincoln. He had always known how to do it. April 1925, unveiling a memorial to the Royal Naval Division: "They only saw the light shining on the clear path to duty. They only saw their duty to resist oppression, to protect the weak, to vindicate the profound but unwritten Law of Nations, to testify to truth and justice and mercy among men. They never asked the question 'What shall we gain?' They only asked the question, 'Where lies the right?'" We hear the Bible beneath his words, bearing them up like an ocean-swell beneath a battleship. "Man, it has been told you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

Churchill understood acutely the conflict between the appeasers' thoughts on Christianity and his own view of statesmanship. "The Sermon on the Mount," he writes in "The Gathering Storm," "is the last word in Christian ethics. . . . Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities." Under certain conditions, a statesman must be willing to wage war. Such decisions make for "tormenting dilemmas"--but there is one helpful guide to action. "This guide is called honour. It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics." (Elsewhere in the same book, he identifies himself wistfully with the "majesty of Britain as under Lord Beaconsfield," otherwise known as Benjamin Disraeli--whose ideas on honor and majesty certainly owed something to Jewish as opposed to Christian thinking.)

In sum: We misunderstand 1930s appeasers when we miss the fact that they cared about moral issues first and foremost. And we misunderstand Europe today when we let historians convince us that the Euro-American rift is pure power politics--that Europe has come to disdain military power because she no longer has any, that she is merely making an (ideological) virtue of necessity. Englishmen rallied for peace in 1938 just as enthusiastically as modern Europeans did in the run-up to Iraq. Yet in 1938 Britain was a great power (or thought she was), America's military equal if not superior. She had no need to make the best of a bad military situation. But Englishmen cheered their heads off when Chamberlain returned from Munich repeating Disraeli's proud claim to have brought home "peace with honor" from Germany. They did not cheer because they were determined to make the best of military impotence; they cheered on principle, for peace.

WE CAN'T KNOW what would or might have been in the 1930s. We do know what ought to be today. The president ought to speak the language of justice and mercy, duty and honor. Americans have always cared about those things more than anything else. The world at large cares about them too.

The president needs to attack his opponents head-on, on principle. Peace is good, but if you have to buy it by turning your backs on suffering--at least don't be proud of the fact. We're proud that we didn't. Yes, our intervention served a practical purpose too, but let's start with Morality 101. In Iraq we expected to find hard evidence of cruelty, terror, and mass murder, and we did find it, and we told you so. (And the best reason to say so is not to win over opponents but to buck up supporters.)

Likewise on the U.N. Should we compromise our principles in order to appease France, or should we raise the embarrassing question of why France wields a veto to begin with? Why does France have a permanent Security Council seat whereas India (say) does not? If the administration can't (for "diplomatic" reasons) tell the truth officially, let it explain unofficially, because the world no longer remembers--France was beaten, occupied, humiliated; the United States and Britain gave her a place at their sides as World War II ended, gave her an occupation zone in Germany (carved out of their own zones), gave her "big power" status at the emerging United Nations Organization--to stand her back on her feet; as an act of goodness and friendship. (Another thought Churchill had, in the last months of the war: If you were looking for a "Fourth Power" to add to the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, Canada had "more right than France" to the honor. "It is not French blood that is being shed to any extent in any quarter of the globe.")

For half a century France has repaid us the way recipients of highly public charity usually repay their benefactors. Who can blame her?--but why maintain the "great power" charade? France is a big fan of multiculturalism, n'est-ce pas? So how about a little multiculturalism in the permanent membership of the Security Council? Compare India's population with France's. For that matter why should France have the seat and not (say) Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, Turkey, the Philippines? Thailand has more people than France. Italy has almost as many--give Italy a chance! Israel is a more formidable military power (unofficially). We are only talking fairness here, right and wrong.

This is no time to wheedle or temporize. The administration's job is to make certain that, any time anyone anywhere ponders what we have not found (so far) in postwar Iraq, the very next thought is about what we have found. The program is simple: congressional hearings on the dictatorship we overthrew. Worldwide discussion of the Security Council and its permanent membership. And: first things first. In Iraq, the mass murder has stopped. We stopped it. The rest is a moral footnote.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.