George W. Bush gave his farewell address to the nation last night and displayed in full force what is his least endearing quality: his Manichaean view of the world.
The Manichaens wrestled with the fact of evil in the world and posited belief in two Gods, one the Lord of Light and the other the Lord of Darkness, contending for supremacy in the world. The orthodox doctrine explaining evil comes to us from St. Augustine who taught that evil is not created, it is an absence. Cowardice is the absence of courage. Death is the absence of life. Ultimately, evil is actually boring because it only and always points to the good, to the Lord of Light.
In Bush’s case, the world is divided into good or evil and he is the liege lord of goodness. Mind you, no one doubts that Al-Qaeda and Hamas and other radical terrorist organizations are evil. No one doubts that Saddam Hussein was evil. But, no one with a whiff of intellectual seriousness doubts that even a just war entails evil and so heads of state are well advised to be wary in the exercise of their power lest they drift towards committing evil despite having the best of intentions.
"As we address these challenges – and others we cannot foresee tonight – America must maintain our moral clarity," the President said. "I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right." But, this is not a statement of moral clarity. It is a statement of moral absolutism, a failure to perceive that the effort to free the Iraqi people from oppression itself entailed grave evil. Moral clarity is required not only to assess the intrinsic value of different types of regime, where there is little doubt of our moral superiority. It is needed to assess the actions of our morally superior regime, to recognize that just as there is honor among thieves there is wrong-doing by the virtuous.
If you want a statement of moral clarity, this from Winston Churchill is closer to the mark. "Statesmen are not called upon only to settle the easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself." This was how Churchill characterized the failure of the British government to form an alliance with Soviet Russia, despite the horrendous character of its regime, in 1939, after the rape of Austria, the catastrophe of Munich (proof that diplomacy on behalf of peace can also entail more evil than the prosecution of war), the devouring of the rest of non-Sudetan Czechoslovakia, and the gathering storm headed towards Poland and the world. In the event, America and Britain did eventually ally themselves with the second greatest monster of the century, Stalin, to defeat the greatest monster, Hitler. (Or # 2 and # 3 if you consider Mao the worst tyrant of that miserably deadly century.)
The difference in perspective between Churchill and Bush is not in the evil character of the regimes they discerned as enemies. I do not doubt that Hitler would find Osama bin Laden a kindred spirit. But, recalling Augustine, evil is an absence, and the evil from which Bush suffers, and the point of difference between him and Churchill, is learning. Churchill, a restless intellect who wrestled with great ideas in life and on the pages of his many books, sought truth. Bush sought certainty and the comforts it affords. His absence of learning has cost the nation dear. He misunderstands why some of us are uncomfortable when he speaks of good and evil. Our problem is not with the concepts. Our problem is with the man who gives voice to the concepts. He still appears like a boy pretending to be a man.
Last night was the last time Bush addressed the nation from the White House. The first time, as he recalled last night, was on the evening of September 11, 2001. That night, a friend’s five year old was watching the television and turned to her mother and asked, "Why did they give him such a big desk?" Out of the mouths of babes. Bush was, finally, a man too small for the great office entrusted to him.