If the rightwing had actual cheerleaders, they would be chanting, “What do we want? Moral clarity! When do we want it? Now.” In recent weeks, “moral clarity” has become the buzz-phrase for conservatives upset with President Bush’s less-than-wholehearted effort to pressure Ariel Sharon and to revive talks between Israelis and the Palestinians.
A quick tour: Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, says Bush has “lost moral clarity on terror.” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Robert Kagan complain Bush’s Middle East policy “wasn’t exactly moral clarity.” Thomas Hendriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes, “George W. Bush has witnessed the moral clarity of his post-September 11 vision confounded by the deepening crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.” Arch-hawk and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu huffs that Bush had shown a lack of “moral clarity” in the Middle East crisis. Senator Joseph Lieberman, joining this choir, grouses that Bush’s call for an end to Israeli military action in the West Bank “muddled our moral clarity” in the war against terrorism. And author and self-proclaimed virtue-czar William Bennett asserts, “We cannot stand between them [the Israelis and the Palestinians] without losing the moral clarity of Mr. Bush’s earlier message.” By the way, Bennett has a new book out: Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.
This moral clarity thing has really caught on. When a reporter asked a demonstrator at a pro-Israel rally in Washington what he wanted, the fellow said, “We hope President Bush will show the same moral clarity [on the Middle East] that he has shown in the fight against al Qaeda.” At a pro-Palestinian rally, a counter-protester backing Israel said he was “supporting President Bush’s war on terrorism and the moral clarity he brings.”
To be clear about it, moral clarity has come to mean, let Sharon do whatever he wants on the West Bank. After all, the argument goes, if Bush could portray his post-9/11 war in black-and-white terms (you’re with us or you’re agin’ us; we blast away at terrorists and anyone who harbors or winks at them wherever and whenever we find them), then why cannot Sharon do the same? And why should Bush have anything to do with Palestinians–including Yasser Arafat–who can be linked to terrorism or who have not done enough to prevent terrorism? The MC police, who crave a full-force Israeli offensive, have been trying to appeal to Bush by shoving his Bush Doctrine in his face (“look–see, see?– you said this”) and by cloaking their strategic aim with a noble term. Who’s for moral cloudiness?
But moral clarity are weasel words when used in this fashion. They negate nuance. They suggest there is a simple and straightforward solution to a difficult foreign policy challenge (blow away the so-called Palestinian terrorist infrastructure without regard to the damage done to civilians or the prospects for negotiations). When Bush finally decided to get involved–way too late–he gazed at the Middle East and saw a conflict not defined by either/or. Not white hats and black hats, as with his war on terrorism. And that has driven the MC crowd bonkers.
It could be that the MCers are having some impact. After Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from his not-very-successful trip to the Middle East–and after Sharon had defied Bush’s call for an immediate withdrawal–Bush pronounced Sharon a “man of peace.” Not even pro-Sharon hawks in Israel would say that of the person who was found indirectly responsible for massacres at refugee camps in the 1980s and whose troops recently stormed through the Jenin refugee camp, killing civilians. Sharon is supported in Israel precisely because he is a man of war–and many Israelis desire such a leader at this point in time. Sure, it’s possible that Sharon might prefer peace (on his terms) over war. But what moral clarity comes from calling a militarist a “man of peace”?
Another interesting twist on moral clarity came when deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke at that pro-Israel rally at the Capitol. For most of the event, speakers from across the political spectrum–Netanyahu, Bennett, Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Gephardt, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney–voiced support for Israel and its current government. Many were trying to MC the Bushies into dropping their somewhat more-balanced view. Wolfowitz, the hawk’s hawk in the Bush Administration, was not there to pressure his own boss. He expressed the administration’s solidarity with Israel. But he dared to tell the crowd that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well” as Israelis and that “we deplore the deliberate killing of innocents, and I believe in my heart that the majority of Palestinians do so as well.” The crowd booed; demonstrators shouted, “No double standard! No double standard!” When Wolfowitz spoke of a Palestinian state, the crowd jeered. He got the bum’s rush.
Where is moral clarity when it comes to recognizing suffering on the Palestinian side–even when it is depicted in the gentle terms used by Wolfowitz? Afterward, there were no howls from the right (or from Democrats) that Wolfowitz was mistreated, that he was MC-PCed. If a government official had been booed off the stage by Arab-Americans at a pro-Palestinian rally (if one would even attend), you can bet that the cable TV shoutfests would be all over that story. And why was it that only a hawk–not a liberal Democrat or a labor leader–referred to Palestinians in human terms, who expressed compassion for innocents killed on the Palestinian side? (I won’t get carried away here, for Wolfowitz, who hungers for war on Iraq, has not publicly expressed such sentiments concerning civilians killed or maimed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan.)
Moral clarity, as Bush has learned recently, is easier preached than practiced. When Colin Powell appeared on Meet the Press on April 21, he refused to call Sharon a “man of peace,” he declined to criticize Sharon’s slow and partial withdrawal, and he said that the Bush Administration would not consider taking ex-President Jimmy Carter’s advice and consider cutting off aid to Israel. But at the same time, he noted that “in order to help the people in Jenin,” Washington was sending the refugee camp 800 family-sized tents for “people who have lost their homes,” water purification equipment, several thousand disease prevention kits, and ordnance demolition teams.
I waited for Tim Russert to ask the obvious question: What’s wrong with this picture: the United States supplies Israel with weaponry needed for its offensive on the West Bank, it threatens no cutback in such assistance when Israel uses these military supplies for an operation the Bush Administration deems wrong, and then Washington spends more taxpayer dollars to help the people harmed by the Israeli attack? Isn’t this odd? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the United States to do all it could to prevent the violence at the git-go? Russert never got around to this query. But, indirectly, an absurd point was made: the United States ends up paying, in part, for the destruction and the cleanup. Not much clarity there. But would the MC gang have the United States do nothing after the Israeli assault on Jenin? After all, in the MC view (per the Bush Doctrine), these Palestinians are living side-by-side with terrorists–their sons, cousins, nieces, etc.– and, in many cases, supporting them.
Moral clarity, as hurled by conservatives and Democratic hawks, is an attractive-sounding but disingenuous concept. It is an attempt to bully the president, to deny complexities, and to turn the Middle East conflict into a comic-book face-off that offers only one policy option: all-out war.