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Beyond Good and Evil | The Nation

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Beyond Good and Evil

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So now it's official. If a foreign government does not offer its people "the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty," an eternal value that all people everywhere espouse, we can "take action." If we deem a nation a threat to our safety, we can even "take action" "pre-emptively," on the basis of a possibility that it may harm us in the future. We do this to preserve "a balance of power that favors human freedom"--although "our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States"--strong enough, in other words, to preserve an imbalance of power. This is the Bush doctrine, as revealed in National Security Strategy of the United States (NSSUS), a thirty-three-page Administration document submitted to Congress and released on September 20. It's a sort of long-winded version of Ann Coulter's famous suggestion about the 9/11 terrorists, that we "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Have it your way, Francis Fukuyama. Let's say that there is only one happy way to organize society, that, as the NSSUS claims, "People everywhere want to say what they think; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children--male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor." Let's even say that "the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages." Are we going to invade Saudi Arabia, where speech is anything but free, voting unheard of, Christianity illegal and converting a Muslim a crime? Or northern Nigeria, where militant Muslims have installed Sharia law and propose to stone women who have sex outside marriage? And what about China--who elected Jiang Zemin? And do the slaves of Sudan and Mauretania, the indentured and child laborers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh--millions of people--enjoy "the benefits of their labor"?

These are not rhetorical or frivolous questions. If the US government wants to promote humane and democratic values, there's no lack of peaceful ways to do so--we could start by pouring on the billions needed to make Afghanistan a livable country again. But what the Bush doctrine is really about is whipping up moral fervor for war against Iraq and who knows where else. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's desk bears a plaque imprinted with a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt: "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." Never mind that the war party in the Administration consists almost entirely of men who avoided military service--Bush took a sheltered position with the Texas National Guard; Cheney didn't enlist, citing "other priorities"; Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle were both at the University of Chicago. It's interesting, too, that it's the military men--Colin Powell, Anthony Zinni, Wesley Clark, Norman Schwarzkopf--the ones who've played that particular sport before, who have wanted to go slow and think about consequences. What wusses!

Saddam Hussein is a murderous, seemingly insane dictator, who tortures and kills, perhaps even children in front of their parents as Paul Wolfowitz claims, perhaps even for fun as a woman who says she was his mistress told ABC News. But there are others--the government of Myanmar for example--who are as bad. Saddam gassed "his own people," actually Kurds, who would prefer not to be his people, and who can blame them? But Hafez Assad of Syria killed as many as 20,000 people when he shelled Hama, and Sudan's Omar el-Bashir has killed, displaced and enslaved tens of thousands in the south. Iraq may be developing weapons of mass destruction, perhaps even a nuclear bomb--but Pakistan and India already have nuclear weapons aimed at each other, and nobody's talking about overthrowing their governments. As for Al Qaeda and terrorism and the world that will never be the same, Osama bin Laden seems to have functioned a bit like the loss leader in a bait-and-switch scheme that gets you into the grocery store, only to find yourself manipulated into buying something else. Saddam Hussein, so far as we know, had nothing to do with 9/11, barring one possible meeting between Mohamed Atta and Ahmed Al-Ani, an Iraqi agent, in Prague. There were no Iraqis among the 9/11 attackers: All but one hailed from our delightful allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Nor is Iraq, one of the more secular states in the Muslim world, a promoter of the Wahhabi strain of Islamic fundamentalism; it's Saudi Arabia that exports that particular brand of "worship" around the globe. Indeed, Osama bin Laden regards Saddam Hussein as an infidel.

None of this is to excuse or wave away or minimize or justify the wrongdoings and the dangers of Saddam Hussein, although I'm sure Andrew Sullivan will read it that way. But that Saddam is evil does not mean invading Iraq is good. Nor does it explain why the Bush Administration is in such a huge, unilateral hurry. What's the rush? One of the functions of the Bush doctrine's language of moral absolutism is to discredit other moral concerns. Multilateralism can be dismissed as multiculturalism: Why should we care what the French and Germans think in their soft, snooty welfare states? To query the premises--do we know that Saddam wants to attack the United States? or does he want to defend himself from us?--can be tarred as pussyfooting. To raise common-sense concerns--do we want to occupy Iraq for years? what if Iraq attacks Israel and Israel retaliates? will we produce more terrorism by enraging the Muslim world?--can be portrayed as cowardly, feminine, "sissified," as right-wing columnist Walter Williams put it on townhall.com.

You can't have a debate in a black-and-white world--maybe that's the real aim of the Bush doctrine.

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I am very sad to learn that Christopher Hitchens has given up his column, which for so many years has been one of the defining features of the magazine. He is a brilliant writer, and I will miss him.

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