Thursday, January 20, 2005

Procedure, Tradition and George W. Bush

Today will see the latest installment of a tradition, and the precise rehearsal of a procedure to annoint a new sovereign in the United States. The second inauguration of President Bush will be a sobering but final reminder of the 2004 American Presidential race, which vanished from British headlines almost as swiftly as it came to dominate them. Many American friends have expressed both bemusement and some unease at the passions the recent race aroused amongst Britons (and many others outside the United States), including myself.

In many ways it was the most exciting election I've ever followed, being a child of the 80s who was only really active in watching British elections since 1997, when a new (and New) Labour hegemony has risen, so seemingly impenetrable that in 2001 and 2005 we ask only how many seats Blair will lose, not whether or not he wins. So, perhaps it has been so fascinating because it was so closely fought? That may be an answer in part, but I think there are other reasons it has aroused greater passion and anguish in me, and others like me, than any British elections.

The greatest of these must be the disparity of the candidates, which is as striking as the closeness of the race. Domestic commentators and many British journalists often remarked that Bush and Kerry were fighting on a very small piece of turf, with similar positions. It became the faux-insight of the press here to point that less would change under President John F. Kerry than we might think. And yet whilst their disagreements on Iraq were largely nuanced, the differences they expressed on that issue, and others, seemed fundamental, and were, I still believe.

A great deal of this is one of respect, and it is no mistake that John Kerry made "respected in the world" part of his campaign slogan. I was always surprised he did that, assuming that such a sentiment would play poorly with many in America who, sadly, do not seem to consider the respect of the world community of any value whatsoever. President Bush speaks a great deal on the topic of 'leadership' and leading the world; yet he seems to forget than in order to lead, people need to be convinced they should follow. He is aware of the fact that America does not physically require support to achieve his foreign policy aims. Any support he recieves provides only domestic political and international moral cover to his activities. And yet such overwhelming military might as the United States commands cannot be used without international consent, even for good, if it is to establish precedents that prove unimaginably damaging.

While those of us who opposed military action in Iraq have been proved right, there's little to be triumphant over. I recall conceding to one friend that there might be weapons in Iraq, I couldn't be sure, but that there were still better methods of exposing or removing them. What matters, in leadership, is the precedent established and the perception of fairness and wisdom, as much as results. I don't begrudge President Bush his immense lack of judgement on Iraq, although he should certainly admit there was one, but the breach he made of accepted standards of international behaviour. Arguments about the threat posed by Iraq ot the tyranny of Sadam are not legitimate rebuttals in response to that: I am delighted that Saddam is gone, but the issues aroused by Iraq bring in wider questions that will echo down the decades and centuries. America has taken its actions in the name of spreading freedom and democracy around the world, and yet it has, ironically, sacrificed moral legitimacy in order to pursue its goals. The tragedy of Iraq is not one only based on the suffering of its people in an ill-planned occupation, and petty fights over whether a counter-factual United Nations solution would have been better for them, but regarding future standards of international behaviour.

In acting with arrogance and imperiousness, the United States has foresaken exactly the reputation it needs if it is to inspire hope, democracy and liberty around the world, as I very much wish it would. Even if America believed Iraqis to be better free of Saddam and their own borders safer without him, it was vital that she retained the moral highground she indisputedly had after the Septermber 11th attacks. Instead, she has justified and validated the tiny number of extremists who perpetuated those attacks, and reinforced the opinion of those small sections of the Moslem world that danced for joy when the World Trade Centre fell.

When I admitted that I couldn't be sure Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, I was tacitly conceding something that no professional politician has the luxury of admitting: uncertainty. I backed my position, albeit it now correct, from instinct and judgement, not undeniable empirical proof. Political questions are almost always ones of judgement, but we sometime seem to confuse strength of feeling with an entitlement to agency in acting. President Bush was no doubt certain his actions would be good for Iraq, and he still thinks they were. I cannot prove the mulinational process that could have emerged would have produced better results, although I think it would. What matters, though, is a respect for procedure and the precedent established. Even if Bush's actions in Iraq were the best of a poor array of options, in their effects on Iraqis, they were not legitimate given the principle they established: that might was right, and international consensus bankrupt, when the most powerful nation cared strongly about something. The damage done to the strength of a procedure which curbs the excess of uncivilised quarrelling between nations is immeasurable. A utilitarian argument on Iraq must also consider the precedent set and the damage that will be done in countless future conflicts as a result of the damage to such a tradition. We cannot know whose vision for Iraq would have seen fewer causalties and less destruction for its people, but we can discuss which principle of decision-making will lead, in the long run, to the least worst international process. It is for similar reasons Bush supports democracy: it often produces poor decisions, but tends away from the worst excesses of other forms of government. We support it not because it always produces the result we want, but because we trust it to produce a net improvement over despotism or oligarchy, as you can never guarantee your despot or oligarchs will be Solomons or Saddams.

Today's traditions and procedure, where Bush will swear his oath on a bible, are ones I am sure he, and many Americans, hold dear. The President's ignorance of procedure and disinterest in his effect of tradition have marred his foreign policy: he has worked on short-term presumptions without concern at the effects he would have on future decision-makers. The United States' reputation lies in tatters and international respect for communal resolution of conflicts has been held up as a fig-leaf for Bush's naked arrogance. The procedure by which a civilised community makes its decisions is important, in addition to the effects of that decision itself. As a man apparently so keen on spreading democracy, rather than propping up pro-American dictators (as America did with Saddam Hussein, and it does now with Pervez Musharraf), President Bush should be aware that the legitimacy of the decision-making process matters as much as the decision itself. And the reason that I still burn with dismay at John Kerry's loss is quite simple: I believed he saw America's responsibility for procedure as well as its power to decide.