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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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.