Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

The Warmakers Are Not Evil. Theyíre Just Misguided ó Really.

Ira Chernus

Are the warmakers in the White House and Pentagon not evil, but merely misguided? Thatís what I said in a column here recently. My usually friendly readers barraged me with emails, ranging from skeptical to downright incensed. How, they asked, could I believe that Bush and company are not evil?

I want to answer the question, and explain why the answer matters.

Bush and company certainly do many, many evil things. To call them misguided is not at all to excuse or mitigate the evil of their actions. But it is immensely important to understand WHY they do these things. if we want to fix our national system, we must first know how it got broken.

Since the late 1930s, the elites at the highest levels of power in the United States have generally agreed that people are happiest when they have three things: a comfortable material life, basic political rights (our First Amendment rights) guaranteed by law, and the freedom to elect the people who govern them.

I imagine nearly everyone can agree with this basic principle of the power elite. Who would dispute that people are better of with these three pillars of happiness than without them? Yes, lots of other things can provide happiness too. But the three pillars are good for everyone.

We donít have adequate documents to know whether todayís warmakers really aim to spread the three pillars of happiness around the world. But where we do have adequate documents ó for the leaders from the Ď30s to the early Ď70s ó the evidence seems quite convincing. They did want to bring everyone the pillars of happiness. They expected to do it by creating stable, American-style, democratic, capitalism, with an ever- expanding middle class, everywhere in the world. Nearly all of them really believed that was the best way to create happiness everywhere. Their belief was probably wrong, but they held it sincerely.

There is plenty of evidence that the fundamental goals of U.S. foreign policy have not changed in the last 30 years. So it is a plausible hypothesis that the Bush administration holds the same basic motivation as its predecessors. Certainly the policies of the Bush administration, like its predecessors, generally do more harm than good. But that does not mean their goal is to do evil. On the contrary, if they are trying to give everyone the three pillars of happiness, which nearly all of us agree are good, then we have to say their ultimate goal is a good one.

So how does a good goal lead to evil policies? It happens because our leaders make a huge number of mistakes. They subscribe to a number of other principles, all doubtful at best. They assume that the U.S. political, economic, and social system is the only one that can give people the pillars of happiness. (Or, in a modified version, itís the one most likely to give all people the pillars.) Therefore everyone in the world would be better off living the American way of life.

They also assume that no one can be assured of living the American way, either here or abroad, unless everyone in the world lives that way. The alternative to a single global system, they say, is to have the world divided into two or more camps. This inevitably leads to conflicts that threaten the American way wherever it exists. Better to have the whole world led, and ruled when necessary, by U.S. power than to have it divided.

Moreover, they assume that global Americanization depends on globalization of the U.S. corporate economy. Whatís good for General Motors is good not only for the USA, but for the whole world. So there can be no conflict between helping corporate interests and helping all humanity.

These are all highly debatable claims. But they have never been open to serious question at the highest levels of power in this nation. They become the root of evil when one more principle is added in: any action is good if it helps create a global system based on the American way. Nothing is intrinsically wrong if done for a good purpose. The end justifies the means.

Once that principle was accepted at the highest levels, during the 1940s, all manner of evil was let loose upon the world. It still is. The "ends justifies means" idea is used to justify dictatorships, repression of human rights, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Policymakers insist that these are short-term evils necessary to spread the pillars of happiness on a long-term basis.

For example, they will tell you that the global system they seek requires U.S. control of Middle East oil. To achieve that control, they say, they need (among other things): permanent U.S. military forces in Iraq; Afghanistan governed, for a while, by a U.S. Ė picked leader in Kabul and war lords everywhere else; democracy suppressed in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; Israel firmly allied with U.S. interests, at whatever cost to the Palestinians; etc. On every point, they will give you elaborate logical arguments (which most of them learned in the nationís best graduate schools) to prove they are right.

In most cases, it turns out, they are wrong. Again, though, they are making bad mistakes to pursue a good goal: material comfort, human rights, and democracy for all. They do evil things because they are misguided, not because their aims are fundamentally evil.

This whole analysis is important to the peace and justice movement for two reasons. Since war is so much on our minds, letís use military metaphors to explain it.

On the level of long-term strategy, victory depends on outsmarting your opponents. To do that, you must understand your opponents better than they understand themselves. That means, first and foremost, knowing what your opponents are up to. You must understand their basic goals and the relation between those goals and the policies they use to achieve them. If you miscalculate your opponentsí strategic objectives, your own strategies will be useless and you will waste a lot of energy. So we must understand Bush and his warmakers accurately.

On the level of tactics, the left alienates a lot of potential allies by demonizing the warmakers. There are plenty of liberals who will listen to critiques of the prevailing policies, if the critics sound like they are within the mainstream discourse. The first rule of mainstream discourse is to believe that we all want fundamentally the same thing: the three pillars of happiness for everyone. Since that belief is the key to communicating with liberals, and since we all probably do want the same thing, why not just say so?

This is not capitulating to the liberals. It is getting a chance to educate them. They need to hear analyses coming from their left. They need to learn why the whole edifice of U.S. foreign policy is leading the world away from the happiness they seek. But they canít hear us on the left unless we find some common ground with them. The principle of the three pillars gives us that common ground, without requiring any compromise on our part. The only price we must pay is to say that, while our leadersí actions are evil, their most basic motives are not. Why is that such a bitter pill for the left to swallow?

I may be wrong about all this, of course. The warmakers certainly do get some power and wealth for themselves (mostly after they leave their government posts). Perhaps personal power and wealth are not merely their bonus for serving the nation, but their true goals. Perhaps power and wealth for the elite of the U.S., or for the nation as a whole, are their true goals, with the pillars of happiness used only as rationalization. Who knows? You canít see inside another personís head, or heart.

I ask only that people who call our leaders evil study all the evidence and make a convincing case, rather than simply assuming they know what is true. It may feel good to call the warmakers evil people. But it is not likely to serve the cause of a just and lasting peace.


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