Tomorrow, the world will collectively celebrate the end of our 43rd president’s term.
As much as people enjoy deriding him, President George W. Bush has left us with some things worth remembering. While Americans have taken great pleasure in maintaining the moral high ground against our departing executive—his policies of coercive interrogation (some people would call this torture), the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror—these Americans have concluded that things can be accomplished through compromise and peace. This is often true, but often not.
Political Theorist Hans Morgenthau believes that the forces of human nature often prevent happy scenarios, despite best intentions. In his book, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, he writes, “this being a world of opposing interests and of conflict among them, moral principles can never be fully realized but must at best be approximated through the ever temporary balancing of interests.” For Morgenthau, the most reasonable policies in politics are ones that aim at the “realization of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute good,” because idealism leads to intractable conflicts that ignore the reality of the world.
Morgenthau and Bush would certainly disagree on many things, but Bush has been responsible for reminding us all of Morgenthau’s caution on pursuing moral causes. He has reminded us that Americans have never understood how political choices are made. People don’t recognize that with every decision, someone always wins and someone always loses. Politics is the art of distributing power and choosing who gets what in a world that is limited in both.
Power is a zero-sum resource, and in every choice we make and every law and secret agreement, some people come out ahead. If we shift toward alternative energy sources, then we’ll end up paying more; some people can afford such a shift and some can’t. If we have lax security at airports, then we’ll have a higher chance of a terrorist attack; the victims of 9/11 would have preferred higher security, but they lost that choice.
In an abstract sense, past presidents have never acknowledged this dilemma of winners and losers. Free trade is a perfect example: Americans benefit overwhelmingly from free trade, yet people with manufacturing jobs lose out. Most elected officials attempt to more or less balance the two, often rhetorically tilting to one side or the other, but always keeping in mind the losers. Barack Obama is pro-free trade, but wants protections for those who lose out.
Bush has never given in to the society-sized ideal that all things can be achieved, together. He has chosen sides, and left the reality of the situation bare. He has never pretended that everyone can be sated, nor has he attempted to. For that, he has been universally derided.
In The Prince, Machiavelli had some advice to rulers on the principle of doing evil in order to do good. “A ruler,” he writes, “should imitate both the fox and the lion.” In this allegory, Machiavelli explains that “a prudent ruler cannot keep his word, nor should he, when such fidelity would damage him, and when the reasons that made him promise are no longer relevant… because [men] are treacherous and would not keep their promises to you.”
I do not believe Bush has Machiavellian schemes in mind, but his policy of torture exemplifies his understanding of Machiavelli’s principle of doing evil in order to do good. In the debate about torture, the Bush administration has outlined several types of coercive interrogation—among them waterboarding—that are legal and permissible. None of these methods of interrogation are particularly violent. The administration has never consented to nail removing, electrocuting, organ cutting, or any other morally outrageous act. Then again, waterboarding isn’t a light punishment: the technique simulates drowning by having a person lay slightly downward, putting a wet towel over their face, and slowly pouring water onto the towel. If you’d prefer a more graphic description, look for Christopher Hitchen’s demonstration online.
In the debate about torture, the public is justifiably outraged about techniques like waterboarding, but people don’t grasp the essential reality of the situation or Morgenthau’s realization of the lesser evil. A well-known example is the ticking time bomb scenario. In this hypothetical situation, a terrorist plants a nuclear bomb somewhere in New York City. The terrorist is in your custody, and the bomb is set to detonate at any time. For almost every American, and certainly almost every New Yorker, any method of torture or interrogation is acceptable in this scenario. Even methods beyond waterboarding would appear justified.
Yet the public continues its moral outrage against Bush’s policies of coercive interrogation. Michael Walzer, a liberal political theorist, has argued for what he calls the dirty hands argument. In this argument, such a scenario involving a nuclear bomb in Manhattan would create a moral paradox. The public and politicians know that torture is morally outrageous, yet in this instance it appears permissible. What do political leaders do? Walzer would argue that they break the rule and torture anyway because it is the correct thing to do, but that they are morally guilty anyway. In other words, politicians should maintain a policy of non-torture but, when it is necessary to torture to, do so if they can admit their moral guilt.
Walzer’s position seems odd, yet the alternative is to agree with Bush and insist that some methods of coercive interrogation be left open to use. Walzer attempts to satisfy our moral appetite and appeals to the public’s renunciation of torture. Of course, the public is never responsible for bombs that go off in New York City.
Bush has never attempted to pander to our moral opprobrium, and he never pretended that leaders can achieve the outcomes everyone would like to see. In doing so, he has reminded us that the public sees everything from a moral high chair, inevitably disdainful of the decisions our leaders make. This in itself reveals not the inability of our executive (though this still may be the case), but the unwillingness of ourselves to share in the burden of choice.
We refuse to share the responsibility of decision-making. Because of that, it’s very easy to disparage the choices of President Bush. But in his legacy, he has also revealed the flawed nature of our own moral pipe dream.