How Bush Confuses Virtue and Viciousness





Ms. Hoff is Research Professor, Montana State University, Bozeman. The following article was prepared in connection with a conference sponsored by Historians Against the War in February at the University of Texas, Austin.


I don’t think that leftists or progressives can reclaim religion and morality to argue against the immorality of a pre-emptive war and the existence of U.S. standing armies all over the world. It seems to me this would constitute entering into a word game that we cannot win or have long since lost. Instead, I think that we should chuck the terminology of religion and morality and start to argue for and demand ethical and efficient (competent) behavior on the part of the United States and its leaders. After all, the country prides itself on being competent and efficient, yet the blatant incompetence exhibited by the Bush administration over Katrina has increased suspicions among average Americans that the administration may be incompetently carrying out its operation in Iraq. The mishandling of the Dubai port deal is another example of incompetence. The most tragicomic example of personal competence, of course, came when Vice President Cheney mistook a fellow hunter for a bird.

As progressives we must also claim ethical behavior (and the demand for competency) as truly patriotic and not above the law as moral behavior and incompetency so often are. George W. Bush’s belief in the “unitary executive theory” has led him to violate domestic law with NSA warrantless wiretaps, torture, “black hole” prisons, and to sign secret statements denying he is bound by certain legislation–all because he is Commander-in-Chief in time of war. The arrogant unilateralism of which rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and abrogating the ABM Treaty are but two examples clearly indicate that Bush also thinks he is above formal and customary international law.

Long before Bush endorsed unethical behavior in the name of fighting terrorism after September 11, the United States had adopted the unethical methods of the enemy to win the Cold War. I am not making a moral argument in arguing that the United States sold its soul as it conducted its foreign policy in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II. Morality is largely a personal guide for private behavior and it often involves self-sacrifice. Hence, the term has almost always been misused when applied to any country’s foreign policy, despite numerous books and speeches on the subject promoting U.S. diplomacy in excessively moralistic overtones. Ideally even personal moral choice should not involve blind adherence to values considered absolute because this represents simple compliance or conformity. Instead, personal morality represents a conscious individual choice to believe in values that are relative and to act on them anyway because they are freely chosen.1 The reason that individual or personal moralistic absolutism is both dangerous and inappropriate when applied to the country’s foreign relations is that it “exempts America from self-criticism or from addressing the grievances others have with respect to [U.S.] policies, [and] such [moralistic] sentiments imply a repudiation of dialogue and negotiation.” Moralistic absolutism also leads to non-negotiable demands–the anathema of diplomacy which, even more than politics, is the art of compromise.

From the president on down most segments of American society -- government officials, religious groups, and mainstream media -- have egregiously misused the words moral and morality since September 11. Woodrow Wilson gave new life to this rhetorical device, and it flourished exponentially during the Cold War. Now it has now reached a crescendo level because of the war on terrorism. Regardless of the time period in which it is used, such careless public rhetoric does not recognize that if “there can be no compromise with the forces of evil, there can be no reasonable restraint on the forces of good.”2

The careless yet incessant infusion of moralism into discussions about U.S. foreign policy also disguises the distinct possibility that in the course of carrying out covert and overt Cold War interventions based on an ever-widening perception of threats to its ubiquitous security interests, the United States began to lose its ethical and democratic compass.

I don’t believe that a nation can adopt over time the tactics of the enemy in public or private and walk away ethically unscathed. To pretend that such tactics were not repeatedly and successfully implemented during the Cold War only compounds the conundrum in which the country finds itself now that it has declared a never-ending war against terrorism beginning with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Because the United States all too often assumed the methods of enemy while professing to uphold Wilsonian democratic and humanitarian principles, it no longer seems to recognize any limits on its power as its leaders and media glory in the hitherto taboo topic of empire-building, all the while insisting that it is being forced to take up this imperial burden.3 This represents the worst use of Wilsonian rhetoric to mask naked imperialism.

Instead, national ethics consists of public rules and cultural standards governing the conduct of countries and is usually embodied in custom, law, and policy. At the global level ethics now consists of customary and formal international law as propounded by UN resolutions and covenants, the World Court, various war crimes tribunals and, most recently embodied in the International Criminal Court which the United State has refused to join. At the domestic level in the United States and many other Western nations it consists of common law jurisprudence, which Blackstone called “the principal and most perfect branch of ethics.” For nations which purport to honor the rule of law and classical Enlightenment definitions of civilization this means there are recognized fair and equitable ways for countries to conduct themselves at home and abroad.

If the left would begin to advocate ethical behavior such an argument would put us back in the realm of international law and cooperation and place the focus on evaluating the results of the this second invasion of Iraq and previous wars in a way that morality and religion cannot. It would also allow us to re-evaluate and explain to average Americans past unethical behavior on the part of the United States (by which we won the Cold War) in the hope that we will not repeat such behavior. Instead of trying to take back morality and religion (and the flag according to a new book by Todd Gitlin), I think that we should talk about ethics and efficiency to counter the way in which Bush and his neo-con advisers have confounded virtue with viciousness and lack of veracity to cover their incompetence -- a feat unparalleled in the history of U.S. diplomacy.

1. Liah Greenfeld, “Is Nationalism Legitimate?” in Jocelyne Couture, et al., eds., Rethinking Nationalism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 22 (Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 1998), pp. 102-103; and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Necessary Amorality of Foreign Affairs,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1971, 72-77. It should be pointed out, however, that Schlesinger did not take this amoral stance on foreign affairs until Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam war from JFK and LBJ–a war that Schlesinger had supported under the two Democratic presidents. In this article, Schlesinger quoted and agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr from Moral Man and Immoral Society when the latter wrote: “. . .unselfishness must remain the criterion of the highest morality.” Then going on to quote both Hugh Cecil and Alexander Hamilton: “. . . [unselfishness] is inappropriate to the action of a state. No one has the right to be unselfish with other people’s interests . . . .The rule of morality . . . is not precisely the same between nations as between individuals. The duty of making its own welfare the guide of its action is much stronger upon the former than upon the latter. Existing millions and for the most part future generations, are concerned in the present measures of a government; while the consequences of the private action of an individual ordinarily terminate with himself, or are circumscribed with a narrow compass.”(p. 72) However, Alan Wolfe has pointed out that if a citizenry are ill-informed or misled by politicians, their private moral freedom can embrace moral authoritarianism as reflected in the current belief among many Americans that forgiveness can coexist with support for the death penalty and that life after birth need not be honored as much as life before birth or the afterlife. See Wolfe, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, 160-66.

2. Richard Falk, “The New Bush Doctrine,” The Nation, July 15, 2002, pp. 10-11 (quotations).

3. Matthew Rothchild, “Empire’s Apologists,” The Progressive, March 2003, pp. 35-36; and Lewis H. Lapham, NOTEBOOK: “Light in the window,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2003, pp 7-9 [criticizing Michael Ignatieff’s advocating less timidity and more use of power on the part of the United States if is to be a successful imperial power in “The Burden [of] The American Empire (Get Used to It)],” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003, pp. 22-27; Niall Ferguson, “2011,” The New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2001, pp 74-79; and Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small War and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), pp. xiii-xx, 336-52.


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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Whereas the USA is presently in a position , in purely military terms, to impose its will on the world it is evident from Iraq and Afghanistan, for now, and, possibly Venezuela and Bolivia in the near future, that it can not do so in a sustained manner that would reap any lasting benefits.
That is the American paradox: the limitations on brute, absolute ,material military power.
On the other hand and for many objective, mainly economical and technological and some humanitarian, reasons the USA is undoubtedly qualified to be the Preeminent world power.

Preeminence, however, demands genuine universal acceptance by the rest of the world community.

How to be Preeminent without being predominant is the American dilemma!

America does not have much time to resolve that dilemma for its present unrivalled and unchallenged military superiority will not last for ever; Russia will soon reemerge and China will soon assert its presence on the international scene!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"Now pay attention. You obviously need assistance, but I'm only going to write this down one more time."
Wow the Professor is really angry!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Willis
Possibly more people die, drowning, trying to enter the EU which means nothing neither here nor there except that both of you have better employment opportunities than some of your neighbours.
Who is the "you" and why do you think that "we" are lost?


John Allan Wilson - 3/22/2006

Dude, take a decaf expresso next time you sit down at the keyboard. And try to keep the sarcasm down.


Lorraine Paul - 3/21/2006

Mr Willis, I would like to refer you to the sad events which occurred off the coast of Australia. Many people died trying to reach our shores. Even ore sadly those who did reach them were denied sanctuary by our mongrel government. They have been sidelined to 'detention centres' (read concentration camps) until their case is heard. Strangely, this can take years!!

I, and it appears those also not born in the US, am fed up with the ethnocentric assumptions of superiority expressed by those born in the US. Does this only apply to the white supremacists or is it endemic to all ethnicities of your sad country?


Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2006

America did not "win" in Cold war.
The world lost a counterbalance to
its now unchecked and agressive
zeal for world dominance.
The right "screed" has recently basically acknowledged its own Big Lie they spread for decades before about the imminent and deadly threat posed by the greatest curse of all times - Evil Empire, by arguing that today's threat of Islmaic terrorism is much more dangerous and lethal. Servient Mid-Eastern regimes established (after killing directly or by proxy hundreds of thousands of innocent folks and the ones who resisted the US agression andbloody occupation of their countries), they will find (actually create) a new deadly, mythically evil enemy to scare American ignorant and religiously duped majority to loyally support the Pan-Americana strategy of the multinational corporations and subservient to them politicans and mass-media.


Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2006

When an unborn jerks his hand inside mom's womb towards heavy-weight box world champion, the best the latter can do is to defend himself by knocking out the mother.


Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2006

The "screed" is not anti-American, but just anti-Heuislerian, i.e. against corporate dictate in the US
internal and foreign policy!


Rob Willis - 3/17/2006

Cite your sources. Who and how many die trying to reach the "EU" (which, by the way, is suddenly awake to the concept that they have been asleep for far too long)?

And the "you" is "you". I have no idea what "we" you might claim membership to, I don't think in groupisms, except for those who want a free future for the earth, and those who don't.

Which one are "you"?

You have no argument other than theory. I have observable and confirmable reality. Historian, remember?

R. Willis


Rob Willis - 3/17/2006

Mr. Baker-
We are already, and will remain so. Why?

Name another country in the world that holds such fundamental promise and opportunity that people are willing to die trying to get in.

You are lost.

R. Willis


Bill Heuisler - 3/17/2006

Mr. Charles,
Now pay attention. You obviously need assistance, but I'm only going to write this down one more time.
Hoff says something that is clearly her opinion and not supported with facts. Your demand that I prove the opposite is clownish and illustrates confusion or inexperience. How does one prove the opposite of an opinion?

Illustrating ignorance is easier.

Pre-emption is defensive. Defending yourself is almost never illegal.
"Immoral" is the purview of priests, not righteous historians, and Hoff would certainly object if the word were turned against her.

Had you any experience in debate, or with our language, you might know that the term "immoral" is quite subjective. Were you not so deeply imbedded in Leftist dogma, you might remember there were 2 Congressional Authorizations for Use of Military Force against terror and against Iraq. Even the eminent Doctor Hoff might just dimly recall that the resumption of the Iraq war in 2003 was opposed by only around two dozen Representatives and Senators.

Ignorance of our form of government and of recent history is inexcusable on a history site. Inanities become farcical when mouthed by a so-called historian and then turn comical when defended by one of her naive fans.
Bill Heuisler


Charles Edward Heisler - 3/16/2006

Every time I reread and try to figure out your article I come up with a real head scratcher of a statement, ie.:"It would also allow us to re-evaluate and explain to average Americans past unethical behavior on the part of the United States (by which we won the Cold War) in the hope that we will not repeat such behavior"
Do you really think average Americans that lived thru the Cold War with all the real threat of a nuclear nightmare would respond to your argument that the War was won by unethical behavior--even assuming you could support the unethical claim?
I don't. Even if you could show this extraordinary convoluted reasoning to be deciferable by average Americans, I suspect they would, as I certainly do, think the end justified the means since so many people are now living in democratic countries that were formerly under the autocratic thumb of our Cold War enemies, that the likelihood of a mutually assured destruction has disappeared from the earth as two super powers no longer are facing off 24/7, fingers on the trigger.
I absolutely cannot imagine what you hope to gain with your progressive morality if this is the lesson you want to teach America unless it is a confused "WHAT?"!
Tell you what, why don't you run by me where the progressive morality was in the mid 70's while millions of Cambodians were being slaughtered and American progressives were standing around congratulating each other for having stopped the "Hawk War Mongers" of America in their quest to free the people of Southeast Asia. Since the progressives have been silent on their abandonment of Cambodia for thirty years it is time that they now step forward and explain to us that still are stunned by the genocide why that outcome was as equally moral as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. I need this lesson as it is something that the Progressive Left has left undone for so very long.


Douglas M. Charles - 3/16/2006

I'm still waiting, Master Heuisler, to hear you explain "the difference between pre-emptive and defensive - and that sometimes the two are the same."

Dr. Hoff writes that Bush's pre-emption was immoral. So show us how it was not (presumably).


Bill Heuisler - 3/16/2006

Mr. Charles,
My apologies for keeping you waiting for enlightenment, although you must admit your ignorance of English is really not my fault.

Pre-emption is striking first to avert a threat. When confronted with an armed threat law abiding citizens are within their rights to defend themselves, and do not have to wait to be shot before taking action. Get it? Defense doesn't require passivity

The 9/11 terrorist attack is not mentioned and the date is mentioned in passing in her third paragraph as a parameter for political rhetoric not as the single most galvanizing event in our history. And on HNN...

She suggests no response to terror at all and suggests the US won the Cold War by unethical means. Facts?

Your turn. Show me the historical or factual references Hoff uses in support of her claims of immoral acts by the US and then please tell me exactly what she means by our unethical winning of the Cold War.

Hoff wrote the article and used references from The Nation and the Progressive - like Mickey getting a reference from Minnie. But that still doesn't change the fact that she - and you - apparently think unsupported Left Wing opinions are valuable enough for a history site.
Bill Heuisler


Bill Heuisler - 3/16/2006

Mr. Charles,
My apologies for keeping you waiting for enlightenment, although you must admit your ignorance of English is really not my fault.

Pre-emption is striking first to avert a threat. When confronted with an armed threat law abiding citizens are within their rights to defend themselves, and do not have to wait to be shot before taking action. Get it? Defense doesn't require passivity

The 9/11 terrorist attack is not mentioned and the date is mentioned in passing in her third paragraph as a parameter for political rhetoric not as the single most galvanizing event in our history. And on HNN...

She suggests no response to terror at all and suggests the US won the Cold War by unethical means. Facts?

Your turn. Show me the historical or factual references Hoff uses in support of her claims of immoral acts by the US and then please tell me exactly what she means by our unethical winning of the Cold War.

Hoff wrote the article and used references from The Nation and the Progressive - like Mickey getting a reference from Minnie. But that still doesn't change the fact that she - and you - apparently think unsupported Left Wing opinions are valuable enough for a history site.
Bill Heuisler


Douglas M. Charles - 3/16/2006


Well? I'm waiting, Master Heuisler, to hear you explain "the difference between pre-emptive and defensive - and that sometimes the two are the same." Please enlighten us.

Also, explain to us how "She ignores 9/11 and . . . ignores history while giving the US no response to terror except abject surrender."

You make these statements, let them hang out there, and offer nothing to back them up. Well?


Bill Heuisler - 3/16/2006

The article begins, "I don’t think that leftists or progressives can reclaim religion and morality to argue against the immorality of a pre-emptive war and the existence of U.S. standing armies all over the world. It seems to me this would constitute entering into a word game that we cannot win..." and fails at both grammar and colloquy.

"This," Mr. Becker, refers to what?

All those amputated assumptions look back on an ahistoric fairyland where leftists once proclaimed religion and morality; where the resumption of hostilities against a threatening dictator had become somehow immoral.
Kosovo nibbles. Evidence complains of wanton and excessive neglect. Fantasy may soothe the progressive brow, but not one Hoff argument, fact or statistic is offered in evidence of a political rant.

To allow her fecklessness to suffer a dignified death would affront even the appearance of dialectic. Also her comingling morality and ethics in a history context is neither scholarly nor intelligent.

Watching an adult attempt to reclaim the salad days of her anti-war youth without realizing she's out of her depth and trying too hard, is sad.
But watching an educator contort and writhe quasi-pedantically in badly reasoned jargon is simply pitiable.
Bill Heuisler


Carl Becker - 3/15/2006

Okay Charles, but many with a lengthy life haven’t heard squat and it’s not much of an argument when both sides can’t provide evidence - so why make that statement to begin with.

Interesting you’ve used the word "watch" The Grapes of Wrath instead of "read". Maybe the intellectual distinction of a working stiff.


Charles Edward Heisler - 3/15/2006

No Carl, "it" only "implies" that I haven't heard any "working stiff" denigration from academics or rich men in my rather lengthy life--nothing more.
This whole nobility of the "working stiff" is, I think, a rather tired conceit that devolves from watching "The Grapes of Wrath" too many times but, what the hey, Carl, if you have counter evidence, I am intellectually prepared to be proven wrong!


Carl Becker - 3/15/2006

"I have never heard an academic or a rich man refer to working stiffs as stupid or worthless." Oh Charles, don't you realize this implies you have heard what ALL rich men and ALL working stiffs have ever said? A ridiculous statement and a true reflection on the validity everything else said.


Carl Becker - 3/15/2006

singing so nicely to each other here is cute and what else can one say - so why argue? You are right because you say so. Thank goodness all you right-wingers are all so smart and so deep. Where would this country be today without your keen insight into the human condition, your clarifying wisdom, high moral standards, and your compassion and intelligence that has brought all Americans together and brought peace to the world? You can rest assured and pat yourself on the back some more - you will be remembered for generations and you will become legends. Keep up the good work ‘cause those Leftys are needin’ a lesson in everything else under the sun. No one can run America as intelligently as you people can. Yes, "Thank goodness people like you and me see through the facade" , unlike the rest of those fools. Why, they’re not even human any more to us.


Bill Heuisler - 3/15/2006

Mr. Charles,
Thank you for your obviously heartfelt compliment. Isn't it amazing how some Leftists just don't understand the English language?

Thank goodness people like you and me see through the facade of so-called scholarship to the bleak, angry ideologue who would rather smear a conservative President than defend the system and country that has given her wealth and prosperity.

Thanks again. Let's do lunch.
Bill Heuisler


Jason KEuter - 3/15/2006

Most posted articles don't have footnotes and references, but this one does, thus giving it a pseudo-scientific veneer -sort of like saying "Dr." Zinn and then proceeding on a tirade denouncing elitist rule.

As for the plea for competence, this is not the forte of leftists. Recall the crisis the Bolsheviks faced after killing off one too many bourgeois and their ressurection of bourgeois experts, who, it turned out, were not immiserating anybody but simply making things function. This lasted long enough to shore up the regime, which, once ensconsed in power, then liquidated the bourgeois and proceeded with an expert administration of a vicious regime.

I believe there are plenty of yankee doodle dandy conservatives working every day to pay taxes to support the universities and professorial chairs that make all this rhetoric against being yankee doodle dandy possible. Hence, radical leftism might best be thought of as an ideology of aristocratic disdain for the laboring classes who make it all happen but don't share the world view of those they hold on their shoulders.


Douglas M. Charles - 3/15/2006

"...is more to the point, Mr. Thomas.
This "scholar" cannot discern the difference between pre-emptive and defensive - and that sometimes the two are the same. She ignores 9/11 and, as you implied, ignores history while giving the US no response to terror except abject surrender."

Oh please do "enlighten" us. The "depth" of your analysis and position is striking.


Charles Edward Heisler - 3/15/2006

Oh Barry, all this with record low unemployment rates, a growing economy, masses enjoying middle class incomes and lifestyles.
This "to the barricades" speech is a tad old fashioned don't you think?
The only people who denigrate "working stiffs" are, in my experience, the "working stiffs" who somehow can't seem to accept their choice of employment.
I have never heard an academic or a rich man refer to working stiffs as stupid or worthless.


Barry James Sullivan - 3/15/2006

Both parties have been two sides of the same coin for as long as I can remember. While they stole the working American's wages or simply gave them away they also managed to burden those workers and their children with an unworkable debt.
Record home foreclosures, broken families and lost jobs are the legacy of both parties. Meanwhile we are forced sit to through the same tiring sermons from the same ugly people year in and out. What good does it do an honest man if your tactics succeed and new crime families assume power.
You should come down and listen to the working stiffs. They're really not all that bad or stupid, just a bit too trusting.


Bill Heuisler - 3/14/2006

...is more to the point, Mr. Thomas.
This "scholar" cannot discern the difference between pre-emptive and defensive - and that sometimes the two are the same. She ignores 9/11 and, as you implied, ignores history while giving the US no response to terror except abject surrender.

On a broader note to HNN:
This anti-American screed has become so common on campus that one wonders how so much unoriginal and abstruse thought can pose as the product of learned minds. Do these people read their own stuff? Do you? Or are you all too dull-witted and comfortable to recognize the surreal lack of historical scholarship? On HNN the recurrance of this spoiled pablum is dispiriting.
Bill Heuisler


Rob Willis - 3/14/2006

...is about compromise? I have always seen the art as one of polite but direct communication of the thoughts, aims, and goals of neighboring nations.

I would love to read the author's formula of diplomacy and compromise with nations who have stated loudly that their intention is to wipe entire regions off of the map of the world. Where do we start that dialog?

I, for one, am unwilling to trade my moral code for the sake of compromise.

R. Willis
Who has never read a more mechanical, wisdom-less screed in many years.


Frederick Thomas - 3/14/2006


...is surely an oxymoron.

"Progressives" in this country were responsible for US involvement in 2 world wars which the public wanted no part of, plus two large secondary wars, and several minor debacles such as Somalia and Haiti, all based upon misleading the American public. Progressives killed in the process about 900,000 American soldiers, while making the world safe for democracies, Stalin, and Hitler.

In the course of these adventures over a hundred million died in total, constitutions were overthrown, and progressives such as the author were butchered by their brother progressives, in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Progressiveism is a lot more dangerous to the health that smoking.

The author refuses to acknowledge the lack of any substance in her position.
She just goes on and on like the Energizer Bunny, beating her drum endlessly while no one listens.


Charles Edward Heisler - 3/14/2006

As progressives we must also claim ethical behavior (and the demand for competency) as truly patriotic and not above the law as moral behavior and incompetency so often are.

And now, eight years after a complete lapse of "ethical behavior" by the "progressives" of this country in the fiasco of the Clinton scandals the Left wants to reclaim the moral ground from a President and Political party that is, at least, protecting Americans from terroism? Really?

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