Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The New Golden Rule: The Ends Justifies the Means

That's what I'm hearing everywhere from conservatives right now: the ends justifies the means. Not in so many words, of course. But those who do reach for this trump card, pull it out of their sleeves with a smirk, and say something like, "So what will you have to say about George Bush if democracy spreads like wildfire through the Middle East over the next few years?"

And, though some liberals are already caving, I'll likely keep saying the same thing I've been saying: the ends doesn't justify the means. After all, I'm one of those unpopular people who believes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are hideous stains upon our history. Right up there with slaughtering the Native Americans and slavery. World War II had to be fought, certainly, but tens of thousands of innocent Japanese didn't need to be incinerated for us to win. (Watch "The Fog of War" to see this distant reality come alive.)

I've heard this consequentialist sentiment from conservatives in person, but here's a hugely popular digital example. Gerard Baker, writing in the Times, compares critics of the war in Iraq with the leader of the People’s Front of Judea in that Life of Brian sketch:
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” he asks.

“Well, there’s the aqueduct,” somebody says, thoughtfully. “The sanitation,” says another. “Public order,” offers a third. Reg reluctantly acknowledges that there may have been a couple of benefits. But then steadily, and with increasing enthusiasm, his men reel off a litany of the good things the Romans have wrought with their occupation of the Holy Land.

By the time they’re finished they’re not so sure about the whole insurgency idea after all and an exasperated Reg tries to rally them: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

I can’t help but think of that scene as I watch the contortions of the anti-American hordes in Britain, Europe and even in the US itself in response to the remarkable events that are unfolding in the real Middle East today.
I'm sure John Cleese appreciates his classic sketch being used to justify Bush's foreign policy and specifically the war in Iraq. Baker goes on to create his own middling version of the skit to give Bush credit for everything going in the Middle East from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia--via Palestine and Israel, of course--as if none of these things could've taken place without American troops in Baghdad. No surprise, Jonah Goldberg loved it. When a gazillion people (including me) emailed Goldberg to point out how this attitude seemingly embraces the end-justifies-the-means mentality, he called for help from Cornerites, and it came in the form of The Conservative Philosopher, who claims that liberals are more likely to embrace said mentality--without offering an iota of evidence to support his theory. "Most consequentialists are liberals," he proclaims.

Well, even if that were true, from what I'm seeing, that's another dynamic George Bush may have changed. Because I'm seeing a helluva lot of consequentialism on the right, right now. Of course, to be fair, many on the right likely believe the means were right, as well as the ends, which is pretty alarming when you consider the fact that, even by conservative estimates, far more innocent Iraqis have died since the war began than Americans died in 9/11. However, I have heard conservatives as much as admit that the means of getting there were wrong in retrospect (no WMD)--and that's right about when they reach for this ends-justifies-the-means trump card.

So, will folks like me be on the wrong side of history? It remains to be seen. Who knows what sort of blowback we've ignited. And in the unlikely event that it never comes . . . well, I still reserve the right to say Hiroshima was wrong. The same principle applies to the barbaric way we went into Iraq.

No, I agree with Jonathan Freedland, who understands that the situation is complicated now, but doesn't see the need to back down:
Not only did we set our face against a military adventure which seems, even if indirectly, to have triggered a series of potentially welcome side effects; we also stood against the wider world-view that George Bush represented. What should we say now?

First, we ought to admit that the dark cloud of the Iraq war may have carried a silver lining. We can still argue that the war was wrong-headed, illegal, deceitful and too costly of human lives - and that its most important gain, the removal of Saddam, could have been achieved by other means. But we should be big enough to concede that it could yet have at least one good outcome.

Second, we have to say that the call for freedom throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a sound and just one - even if it is a Bush slogan and arguably code for the installation of malleable regimes. Put starkly, we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of opposing democracy in the Middle East simply because Bush and Blair are calling for it. Sometimes your enemy's enemy is not your friend.
Damn straight. Folks like this guy see that as Freedland admitting he was wrong. No, sir, it's called having a nuanced opinion.

No comments: