The Washington Times

Many American commentators, myself included, have praised George W. Bush for the “moral clarity” of his vision of the long-term struggle against terrorism. More recently, however, analysis of the administration has focused on the ways in which reality first impinges and then imposes itself, obliterating along the way the reassurance the false and artificial “moral clarity” was providing.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Bush administration’s uncertain and confusing response to it, is Exhibit A in the case that reality bites. The complexity of mounting an effective operation against Iraq is another. And the very different policy directions the administration apparently has in mind for the other two “axis of evil” nations, Iran and North Korea, seem to some to render dubious the entire notion of such an axis. “Moral clarity,” viewed from the angle of some of the administration’s critics, is a false clarity imposed to no good effect on a messy world. Inevitably, the desire for moral clarity must yield to a greater sophistication about the workings of the world.

Now, with all due respect to the critics, many of whom are quite thoughtful (though some of whom are just venting reflexive partisanship or ideological hostility): In finding the president’s “moral clarity” to be on the wane as he grapples with harsh reality, their analysis gets into serious trouble by mixing up three different questions: how things are; what we want; and what to do. Those on the march about the administration’s supposedly waning clarity are looking at questions one and three. They see a world rudely imposing itself in unexpected ways on the United States, with the result that policy-making is often caught by surprise, diverted onto an agenda it did not seek and accordingly displaying signs of uncertainty and disarray.

But the essence of moral clarity is actually questions one and two, the vision founded on a sense of how things are and what we want. First, then: What is the nature of the conflict? I think the Bush administration has been nothing if not steadfast in identifying the problem as a global threat from terrorists with global reach and states that support them. The terrorists’ interests are entirely inimical to those of the United States. They cannot, in short, be satisfied – possibly at all, short of the destruction of the United States, and certainly not on terms the United States can accept (withdrawal from the Middle East, drastic changes in how Americans live their lives, etc.).

In addition, some states are seeking to acquire nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and the means to deliver them. The problem is not weapons of mass destruction as such; it is their acquisition by states that will not be deterred from using them, either covertly on their own account or by providing them to non-state actors, terrorist organizations, for use. State violence has a return address and can in many cases be deterred by making the costs of resorting to it too high. Violence by non-state actors has no certain return address, and deterrence therefore doesn’t work.

That, I think, is how the administration sees things. Next comes what we want, and the answer here is to end (or in any case minimize) these threats by uncovering and destroying terrorist networks and by making it extremely costly for states supporting them, up to the point of “regime change” if necessary. Note, also, what we do not want: an accommodation. There is no possibility of appeasement, no line behind which we can retreat, no set of policy measures we can adopt in exchange for promises of our own safety or in the expectation that by appeasing, retreating and retrenching we will make ourselves safer. Put at its bluntest, we want to eliminate a potential existential threat to the United States long before it becomes an actual existential threat.

Now, what to do? Here, there is indeed messiness. How does the Middle East peace process fit into the picture, and to what extent does its breakdown complicate other important efforts, such as moving against Iraq? What is the most effective way to move against Iraq? Was the lesson of Afghanistan that U.S. precision munitions are capable of extraordinary things, or that our forces on the ground were inadequate to our objective of rooting out members of al Qaeda?

But implementation is always messy. The final phase of the Cold War, in which Ronald Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union and of U.S. objectives was a case study in “moral clarity,” was nonetheless marked by a number of practical uncertainties and reversals – a proof of the failure of his vision to his partisan opponents, and a source of recurring anxiety even to his most ardent supporters.

The issue with regard to “moral clarity” is whether the inevitable messiness causes a change of mind on the first two questions, how things are and what we want. In Mr. Reagan’s case, it didn’t, and I see no evidence that such a thing has been happening in the Bush administration.