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The Manichean President

Tags Media and CultureWar and Foreign Policy

11/09/2007David Gordon

[A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. By Glenn Greenwald. Crown Publishers, 2007. Xiv + 303 pages.]

The key passage in Glenn Greenwald's masterly book appears on page 186:

Iran is a rational state actor, which, like most other countries in the world — including American allies — will eagerly cooperate with the United States when their interests coincide with ours…. To know that a country and its leaders act rationally is to take a huge and critical step toward realizing that that country — no matter how internally repressive it might be — cannot and will not be a threat to the U.S.

Greenwald's argument is a simple one: Because of the overwhelming military might of the United States, no other country can attack us without facing utter destruction. Other countries, wishing rationally to advance their own interests, grasp this fact. Accordingly, they will neither attack us nor threaten us. A rational American foreign policy then to a large extent presents no difficulty. Military measures directed against other countries are unnecessary. Given the manifest costs of these measures, we should not undertake them.

Of course the Bush administration does not see matters this way. How can one account for this clear failure to think rationally? Greenwald contends that the president and his advisors are gripped by a Manichean mentality. Like the ancient Manichees, Bush sees this world as a struggle between absolute good and evil:

The term Manichean refers in its most literal sense to a religion founded in the third century by the Persian prophet Manes … it central precept was that the entire world could be cleanly divided into two opposing spheres — God and Satan in the world of the eternal, and a corresponding battle of Good and Evil playing out on earth … the historical fate of the Manichees is of far less interest than is contemporary reliance on their religion's central moral tenets. In the overwhelming majority of President Bush's significant speeches and interviews throughout his political career — but particularly since the 9/11 attacks — he evinces a dualistic worldview lodged at the core of his belief system. (p. 46)

Here it is important to avoid misunderstanding. Greenwald does not argue as a moral skeptic, denying that any distinction can be drawn between good and evil. Rather, what concerns him is the readiness with which the Bush administration views other countries as so dominated by evil that they cannot be expected to act rationally. 1

Because Bush and his cohorts view themselves as engaged in a total struggle against absolute evil, they endeavor to increase their power to the greatest extent possible. If one faces a totally evil foe, must one not respond with maximum force?

Further, for the Manichean believer, the battle between Good and Evil is paramount. It subordinates all other considerations and never gives way to any conflicting or inconsistent goals. Measures intended to promote Good or undermine Evil are, by definition, necessary and just. (p. 48)

Greenwald points out that, despite the claims of various radio talk-show hosts, Bush is very far from being a conservative. Traditionally, American conservatism has stressed limited government, federalism, and balanced budgets. For our Leader, these are obstacles to the imperative demands of moralism:

President Bush has not only violated every claimed tenet of conservatism when it comes to restraints on federal spending, but he ranks among the most fiscally reckless presidents in modern times…. These massive spending increases are entirely independent of any 9/11 related or defense-based expenditures…. The Bush administration has also repeatedly asserted the prerogatives of federal power in areas traditionally reserved to the states. (pp. 42–3)

Greenwald's point parallels an argument about an earlier period advanced by Murray Rothbard in his The Betrayal of the American Right (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007). The National Review conservatives of the 1950s and '60s abandoned the Old Right's commitment to nonintervention and laissez-faire. To battle the evil of World Communism, a powerful government was essential. Bush has carried an old theme to a new level of intensity.

Bush's conduct of the Iraq war illustrates the Manichean tendency our author describes and laments. Bush presented Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States. In defiance of his treaty obligations, Saddam was engaged in building WMD. These threatened us with destruction, either immediately or in the coming years. Additionally, the hand of Saddam could be discerned behind the 9/11 attacks. Must America await the tyrant's strike? Far better, Bush averred, to preempt the danger with an attack of our own.

Had Bush not been governed by the Manichean pattern, he would have grasped the obvious truth. Iraq was a very weak country, with a minuscule military budget compared with that of the United States; and if this were not enough, Iraq had been further weakened by years of sanctions and bombing raids. Even if Saddam did have WMD, as of course he did not, it would have been suicidal for him to use them to attack us. He, like most other people, possessed the minimal rationality that deters one from committing suicide. Because of Bush's Manichean outlook, he instead saw Saddam as the incarnation of Evil and acted accordingly.

Greenwald must here confront an objection. We now know that there were no WMD in Iraq. But was this not learned only after the invasion? Bush's intelligence sources prior to the attack suggested that Iraq did indeed have these weapons. In fairness to Bush, must he not be judged by what he knew at the time?

The objection ignores a point that has already been mentioned. Even if Saddam did have WMD, they posed no threat to us. Further, voices were not lacking before the invasion to cast doubt on the alarmist claims about Saddam's weapons. Scott Ritter, a leading expert on Iraqi weapons, urged caution.

Back in September 2002, Ritter was telling anyone who would listen that there was no convincing evidence showing Iraq had WMDs … he had built a reputation as a tenacious weapons inspector working for the U.N. It is difficult to imagine someone with stronger credentials and credibility and thus whose views on Iraq's WMD program — or lack thereof — ought to have been seriously considered. (p. 125)

Rather than take account of Ritter's prescient analysis, the warhawks directed against him a campaign of contumely. Saddam incarnates Absolute Evil; must not anyone who downgrades his danger likewise be an agent of the Dark Force? Greenwald points out that other WMD skeptics, such as Howard Dean, were also subjected to defamation; but the critics, not the Crusaders, proved correct.

Besides the skeptics that Greenwald mentions, I should like to call attention to the characteristically insightful remarks of Ron Paul. In a speech to the House of Representatives, October 8, 2002, he pointed out that

according to UNSCOM's chief weapons inspector, 90–95 percent of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and capabilities were destroyed by 1998; those that remained have likely decayed in the last four years and are likely useless. (Ron Paul, A Foreign Policy of Freedom, Foundation for Rational Economics and Education Inc., p. 241.)

When the invasion made clear that Iraq did not have WMD, the linchpin of Bush's case for war collapsed. But though not even he could any longer claim that Iraq threatened us, he did not withdraw. He thus perfectly illustrated Santayana's dictum that fanaticism is redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

Because of his Manichean outlook, Bush sees no need to respond to critics. Indeed, he thinks that God guides him to make the correct decisions.

When Bob Woodward asked Bush if he consulted with his father about whether to invade Iraq, Bush — according to Woodward — responded that he did not, but instead appealed to "a higher father" … According to the president, seeking God's will and acting in accordance with it drives each of his decisions, particularly the most consequential ones. (pp. 60-63)

One recalls a remark that Mises derisively cited from Werner Sombart's A New Social Philosophy: "The Führer gets his orders from God, the Supreme Führer of the universe."

Disaster in Iraq is not enough for our president. Iran has now become the principal avatar of Evil, to be combated by our divinely inspired leader. In viewing Iran in this way, Greenwald contends, the Bush administration frustrated a growing policy of Iranian accommodation to American demands: "That Iran cooperated meaningfully and closely with the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is not in dispute" (p. 185).

Iran was happy to see the end of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and there was every reason to think that the remaining differences between the two countries could be peacefully negotiated. Instead, the administration acted to exacerbate tension. Here the often odd rhetoric of Iranian President Ahmadinejad played into the hands of the self-styled agents of Good. Bush administration spokesmen put the worst possible construction on his ambiguous remarks, ignoring the fact that he is not the dominant figure in the Iranian government.

In its efforts to demonize Iran and other countries as agents of absolute Evil, the Bush administration constantly compares its foreign opponents to Hitler. Suggestions that we negotiate rather than impose our will by force are dismissed as efforts to revive the policy of appeasement pursued in 1938 at the Munich Conference. Greenwald assails this propagandistic substitute for argument:


This sort of cheap equivalence between Hitler and the tyrant du jour is, among other things, rather disorienting. One minute we are told that Hitler is a singular manifestation of unparalleled Evil to which nothing should ever be compared … the next minute, though, there are nothing but Hitler spawns running around everywhere, and we need wage war against each of them in order to avoid suffering the fate of 1938 Czechoslovakia and Neville Chamberlain. (p. 169). 2

Greenwald's book is filled with insightful remarks, but I shall end with one that is particularly important. In its struggle against evil, the president has claimed the power to seize even American citizens, such as the hapless José Padilla, as enemy combatants. Persons in this category may be held for years without trial and subject to brutal military interrogation designed to break their will. If we are engaged in a war against evil, are not drastic measures needed to cope with our enemies?

Against this view, Greenwald offers a brilliant rejoinder:

But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based on a very different calculus — that is, that many things matter besides protecting ourselves against threats, and consequently, we are willing to accept risks, even potentially fatal ones, in order to secure those other values. From its founding, America has rejected the worldview of prioritizing physical safety above all else, as such a mentality leads to an impoverished and empty civic life. (p.233)

Further, there is little reason to think that Bush's draconian measures have in fact increased our safety.

Those who read Greenwald's book together with Podhoretz's World War IV will see two very different ways of looking at foreign policy. The contrast between rational analysis and bombastic propaganda could not be sharper.

  • 1. A possible objection to Greenwald's thesis is that if he is right about Bush's policy, does this not show that at least one nation, our own, does not act rationally? But if one, why not others? How, then, can Greenwald be so sure that Bush's antagonists will act rationally? But this objection fails. Bush's policies, however bad, do not threaten the United States with complete destruction; and the avoidance of destruction is the only requirement of rationality that Greenwald needs for his argument.
  • 2. I venture to add to Greenwald's remarks that the standard view of the Munich Conference is a gross oversimplification. Those in search of a more accurate view might begin with Kurt Glaser, Czecho-Slovakia: A Critical History (Caxton, 1961); Wenzel Jaksch, Europe's Road to Potsdam (Praeger, 1963); and Joseph Kirschbaum, Slovakia: Nation at the Crossroads of Central Europe (Robert Speller, 1960).

Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.