Axis to grind

The President of Good and Evil: taking George W Bush seriously

Peter Singer <em>Granta Books, 256p

As US president, George W Bush has proved to be doctrinaire, rather than a pragmatist, so the idea of subjecting his world-view to a philosophic critique is a promising one. In the opening pages of The President of Good and Evil, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer dismisses reductionists who claim that everything Bush does "is always in the interests of his Texan friends in the oil industry, or of the big corporations and wealthy individual donors who contribute so heavily to his campaign coffers". As Singer points out: "Tens of millions of Americans believe that he is sincere, and share the views that he puts forward on a wide range of moral issues."

Despite this promising beginning, Singer does not "take George W Bush seriously". Instead of defining Bush's public philosophy as fairly as he can, and then criticising it from his own well-defined viewpoint, he hastily ticks off a list of positions that Bush holds, announcing in each case, to no one's surprise, that Bush is not only philosophically wrong but personally immoral for disagreeing with Professor Peter Singer. Eager to get a conviction on all counts, he denounces Bush from the standpoint not only of Singerism (whatever that may be), but from the perspective of a number of mutually incommensurable world-views. For example, he invokes the just-war theories of the Catholic Church to denounce Bush's invasion of Iraq, elsewhere denouncing Bush for agreeing with the Catholic Church, and disagreeing with Singer, about euthanasia.

Not content to convict Bush in absentia in a variety of philosophical jurisdictions, Singer claims that he is not even a consistent conservative because his support for federal bans on euthanasia and gay marriage violates conservative support for states' rights. Bush may be wrong about both these issues, but he has not betrayed conservative principles. No matter how much they prefer state governments to the federal government, many conservatives (along with some liberals) think that euthanasia (as with abortion) is murder, and US conservatives do not think that states have the right to legalise murder within their borders. As for gay marriage, Singer appears not to understand that, under the US constitution, all states are bound to respect most if not all rights accruing to a couple married in a particular state. Bush may be opportunistic in exploiting the gay-marriage issue, but in accusing the president of inconsistency, Singer merely proves that he does not know what he is talking about.

When Singer sets forth his own views, he hardly helps his case. Arguing against the American leader's strident moralism, he veers close to relativism:

But who is to decide what counts as an evil regime? . . . England's appeasers of the 1930s considered Hitler's nationalism a distasteful but understandable response to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In Russia, there are still millions of older people who think back nostalgically to the communist regime . . .

Could Karl Rove invent a critic of Bush less likely to inflict damage?

Most of Bush's critics, including me, have thought that the alternative to a Pax Americana is a concert of the leading great powers, including the US, acting within or outside of the UN system. But according to Singer: "After the end of the cold war, there were only two plausible candidates for the role of global peacekeeper in international affairs: the United Nations, or the sole remaining superpower, the United States." He appears not to recognise that there is no UN, at least in the security realm, without US military power. Absurdly, he cites the fact that the US ranks 18th out of 21 countries in contributions to United Nations peacekeeping to suggest that the UN is really not dependent on US power.

Abandoning for a few pages the prosecution of Bush, Singer indulges in utopian fantasising of the kind that gives academic philosophers a bad name. Citing Kant, he calls for a "world federation", in the shape of a "reformed United Nations, with adequate force at its command", and based on global majority rule, with the votes of member states weighted "in order to reflect their populations". Such a proposal, however, would be resisted not only by the US, even under a liberal president, but by most countries of the world, which would refuse to belong to a world body in which India, China and a few other populous nations, including the US, could easily unite to outvote everyone else.

For all his pretended cosmopolitanism, Singer, in his own way, is as parochial as Bush. "I am frequently struck by how differently Americans think from Europeans, Australians, and even Canadians about social, political and ethical issues," he writes, and elsewhere: "Europeans, Canadian or Australian politicians may also want to cut taxes, but it is hard to imagine them making a moral argument for a tax cut in the way that Bush argued for his initial tax cut." Nations that disagree with the rather anti-climactic trinity of Europe, Canada and Australia must be benighted - such as Japan (which, like the US, has the death penalty), Switzerland (which lacks universal healthcare) and China, India and Russia (all of which, like the US, rejected the idea of International Criminal Court jurisdiction over their soldiers). That the government of his native Australia - a country which, if Singer is to be believed, represents the gold standard of civilisation - supported Bush's Iraq policy must give him pause.

The sloppiness of such thinking is matched by the incoherence of the book, which appears to have been hastily spliced together rather than written. Singer seems to have read little of the voluminous material on the history of the modern American conservative movement and Republican Party. Apart from newspaper/magazine articles, many of his sources are anti-Bush blogs, including one with the scholarly name of uggabugga.blogspot.com. Like a number of other recent books, The President of Good and Evil provides troubling evidence that the bad habits of the blogosphere are corrupting the world of print discourse. As in a blog, caches of documentary material are dumped between rambling riffs of opinion.

Bush, the worst president of my lifetime, has the power to reduce otherwise intelligent people to sputtering rage. Singer's polemic, which tells us nothing we did not already know about Bush's beliefs, proves that it is a bad idea to sputter in print.

Michael Lind is the author of Made in Texas: George W Bush and the Southern takeover of American politics (Basic Books)