When morality falls by the wayside

Russell Baker

April 10, 1991|By Russell Baker

THE MORAL argument for intervening against Saddam Hussein's slaughter of rebelling Kurds and Shiites was never answered by the Bush people. They didn't have to answer it really. They had the popularity polls on their side.

In politics, government and diplomacy as practiced nowadays, morality can be invoked when it suits a case and ignored when it is inconvenient, but the need for strong popularity polls is absolutely vital.

Stalin is said to have laughed away the question of Vatican authority in world affairs by asking how many divisions the pope had. George Bush could have dismissed the moralists with much the same reply. With his great polls, he had the divisions; he didn't have to justify the morality of letting Kurds and Shiites die.

The mood music out of Washington during this somewhat ignoble episode is reminiscent of old Europe's diplomatic cynicism. One imagines diplomatic gunslingers silently congratulating themselves on their ruthlessness while speaking words like "realpolitik" and "geopolitical."

When "geopolitical" is on Washington tongues, look out; it usually means another batch of the earth's wretched will soon be introduced to even greater depths of misery.

I heard "geopolitical" spoken twice last week by the kind of Washington reporters who appear on TV panel shows that purport to make everything perfectly clear. Such reporters soak up the sound and feel of Washington so thoroughly that they often seem to be as official, and depressing, as the Congressional Record, the latest White House press release and the Senate cloakroom gossip.

If they are saying "geopolitical," it is because heavy government people are saying "geopolitical."

Still, the moralists were an embarrassment, and not just because they threatened to spoil the gala postwar mood. Rising above morality may have been awkward for the president, for instance, since no one had played the moralizer more earnestly when he was selling war to the public last winter.

He had led the campaign that painted Saddam Hussein as the embodiment of diabolical evil. Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, he was "the Butcher of Baghdad," he was evil itself, and evil had to be destroyed.

It won't do for the president to protest that destroying Saddam Hussein was never an official war aim. In selling the war, he encouraged the public to infer that it was. When old-time religion was needed to win public sentiment for war, the president preached it, all the time fostering the illusion that war would get rid of old Satan.

And what have we now? Old Satan doesn't look half as bad as he did last winter. Yes, it would be nice if another military man -- somebody sort of like Saddam Hussein, only kinder, gentler -- would shoot or export old Satan. But if that's not in the cards -- well, come on now! Would you really rather have Kurds or Shiites running Iraq?

Of course you wouldn't, unless you are incredibly naive about geopolitical realities. So goes the present defense of the indefensible: Enough of this moralizing! Reducing Iraq to childish simplicities was good for America when war was being sold. Now we must realize that it is a cruel and complicated world. We must resist the temptation to wallow in moral sentimentality. We must be realistic, etc., etc.

The most awkward question for Mr. Bush flows from the Hitler analogy which the president himself once articulated: By letting Saddam-Hitler proceed unhindered in his killing of Kurds and Shiites, wasn't George Bush recapitulating the failure of Allied leaders in World War II to try very hard to save Hitler's victims from the Holocaust?

On the other hand, however, the question of military intervention raised memories of that more recent horror when military intervention in another nation's civil wars mired a succession of presidents in Vietnam.

So the Bush people faced a truly dreadful dilemma. With his devastating war, ostensibly for the high moral purpose of expunging evil in Baghdad, the president had roused Iraq's discontented peoples to rise against Saddam Hussein. When it turned out that Satan had not been hopelessly crippled after all, the president's choice was to let them die or for him to wade into another potential Vietnam.

Thus war's victory leaves us a shame to be forgotten fast. Fortunately, the Bush polls are excellent. Forgetting proceeds nicely.

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