Okay, Tony Blair, let’s talk about morality. It’s not easy, since when the U.K. leader speaks about the morality of war on Iraq, he mostly means saying the word a lot: “The moral choice in relation to this is a moral choice that has to weigh up the moral consequences;” “whatever our faults, Britain is a very moral nation;” “There is a moral dimension to this question.” Etc.

Also, talking about the morality of this war, this week, makes me feel foolish for two reasons: the Kurds, and the Turks. Kurds are about to be betrayed again by the United States, as they have been often. Patrick Cockburn writes in The Independent that “Kurdish leaders are enraged by an American plan to occupy Iraq but largely retain the government in Baghdad.” This “undercuts the argument . . . that war is justified by the evil nature of the regime.” Meanwhile, the haggling with Turkey over how much it will get for letting U.S. troops attack from there plus a licence to invade northern (i.e. Kurdish) Iraq also tends to “undercut” the moral claim. Nevertheless . . .

Let me start by suggesting there are two broad approaches to morality. One bases itself on a set of values that it wishes to implant in the world. It’s obsessed with building something. A classic model is Plato’s Republic. The other focuses on respecting the dignity and choices of others because they are free moral agents themselves, just like you. It’s obsessed with how you treat others. (I’m filching this from Jesus, Kant and some others.) Now, we know which kind of morality Tony Bush and George Blair lean toward: the former. They may not pray together, as Tony said on TV, but they bomb together, in order to build a morally better world, “from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond,” in the President’s words this week.

Yet it seems to me Tony Blair has a special problem with the second kind of morality. I don’t mean the paradox of “imposing” democracy on those elsewhere; I’m talking about denying it at home. Doesn’t his morality include some respect for the choices of those who elected him and for the members of his own party, who oppose his war? George W. Bush may not have such worries, partly because he wasn’t elected by a majority, so why start worrying about them now? And partly since there’s a U.S. tradition of leaders proudly ignoring the people. Former president John F. Kennedy wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, on politicians who heroically defied the will of voters. Think of Gary Cooper as the sheriff in High Noon, who does his duty, then leaves town. Or Davy Crockett, who said, “Be sure yer right, then go ahead.” Tony Blair tried a Cooper, but it didn’t really fit. So he went back to arguing the case for morality. He continues to repeat phrases like, “I believe,” prayerfully, in the House.

As for the first kind of morality, it was exemplified by George Bush’s Wednesday speech. You set out to inculcate certain values — reform, progress, free trade (I kid you not) etc. — among the recalcitrants. This is serious stuff in powerful U.S. circles. Writing about a concept called “total war” in National Review Online, a former Marine officer says, “The purpose . . . is to permanently force your will onto another people group. . . Limited war pits combatants against combatants, while total war pits nation against nation, and even culture against culture.” Sound like a crusade? In The Washington Post, mainstream maven Charles Krauthammer wrote, “The question before us is very large and very simple: Can — and will — the civilized part of humanity disarm the barbarians . . .?”

I don’t want to get into the issue of cultural or moral relativism here. What I want to note instead is how this version of the moral mindset seems fated to reduce, simplify, overgeneralize and caricature everyone, including itself. So “Western values” are “civilized” and resistance to it that used to loom large in the consciousness of those societies? Great whacking mixes get reduced to wafer-thin categories, which are then forced on, or even embraced by, people who feel boxed in. The Islamists (or Islamicists) versus the Civilized World. What the hell does it mean? How did it come to this?


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.