During his controversial presidency George W. Bush has faced a variety of issues that could be addressed from an ethical standpoint, from the environmental concerns of the Kyoto protocol to the conflict in Iraq. But is Bush acting morally or pragmatically in what he believes to be US interests? John Gray and Peter Singer lock horns over what really makes the world's most powerful leader tick.
The catastrophe that is unfolding in Iraq is a predictable result of the capture by neoconservative ideologues of a crucial component of US foreign policy in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. For Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, the first Gulf War was a botched job because it left Saddam Hussein in power. What was needed in the Middle East was a policy of "creative destruction", in which Saddam's regime would be toppled along with those in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. All these regimes were to be replaced by market-based democracies, turning the Middle East into a region friendly to western - that is, American - values and interests.
This grandiose neoconservative scheme for remaking the Middle East has never been accepted by the American foreign policy establishment.
In the State Department, the Pentagon and apparently the CIA it was viewed with incredulity and alarm. As the recent letter protesting George W.
Bush's policies from 50 American diplomats has confirmed, the consensus was that promoting regime change in the Middle East would be hugely destabilising. This sober and realistic view continued to govern US policy even after Bush became president.
It was only the events of September 11 2001 that permitted the shift in policy the neocons had been urging for so long. By deceiving the American public into believing that the attacks were somehow linked to Saddam, they were able to sidestep opposition in American institutions and launch a ruinous war, the upshot of which could only be humiliating defeat for the US and a worldwide boost for terrorism.
There can be no doubt that Bush must bear some responsibility for this disaster. As president he had to be persuaded of the need for an attack on Iraq, and as commander in chief of America's armed forces it was he who finally gave the order for war. But it is a mistake to think that Bush's decision was based on his personal world-view or values. More than most presidents, Bush has relied heavily on the advice of others in the administration. Among these, it was not only Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defence, but also Dick Cheney the vice-president, who argued strongly for war.
Unlike Wolfowitz, whose push for war was part of a neo-Wilsonian project of remaking the Middle East in an American image, Cheney saw the attack on Iraq in geopolitical terms. In his view, the US needed to diversify its energy supplies so that it was less dependent on Saudi Arabia. In order to do so it needed to secure another large source of cheap conventional oil.
Only Iraq could meet that need.
Whether or not Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, they were never more than a pretext for war. Iraq was invaded and occupied to secure its oil supplies for the US and to project American-style democracy throughout the Middle East.
It was this mix of ill-advised realpolitik and Wilsonian hubris that triggered the assault on Iraq, not Bush's world-view or his personal ethical outlook. His Christian fundamentalist beliefs may have made him receptive to the idea of a crusade against Islamic terrorism, but, like most politicians, he thinks strategically rather than morally.
In the wake of the attacks on Washington and New York, his view of the strategic options available to him was shaped by the neoconservatives who were at that time ascendant in his administration. They persuaded him that war was necessary. Now that their strategy has mired the US in an intractable Chechen-style guerrilla war, Bush is seeking a hasty exit from Iraq. It will not be easy. Pulling out will leave the country in anarchy.
More to the point, as far as Bush is concerned, it will leave Iraq's oil in limbo. Even so, it is clear that Bush will do all he can to cut and run.
The war is hurting him badly in the polls, and the imperatives of re-election take priority over everything else. The crucial factor in launching the war in Iraq was not any attribute of Bush, but the pivotal position of neocons ideologues in Washington in the aftermath of September 11.
It is not to Bush's personal morality but to the peculiar ideology of American neoconservatism - despite its name, a rightist version of the Trotskyite idea of permanent revolution - that we should look when trying to make sense of the historic error that was made when the US launched its fateful attack on Iraq. Whatever his faults, Bush is only an extra in this unfinished drama.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His book Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern is published by Faber and Faber, £7.99.
John Gray and Peter Singer will debate "The ethics of George W. Bush: good, bad or irrelevant?" at the National Portrait Gallery on May 20 at 7pm.
"Embalm a modern artist and give beauty a chance", the last Controversial Thesis debate, will be held at the National Portrait Gallery on June 17 at 7pm. Donald Kuspit will propose and Norman Rosenthal will oppose. For tickets, call 0207 306 0055 ext 216.
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