What's Left

October 4, 2002

Rejoice: Mass Murder Is Moral


By Stephen Gowans

Until now the most distinguishing feature of Thomas Axworthy was his anonymity.

And his girth.

As chief of staff in the early 80's for the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Axworthy was once referred to by his boss as, "Oh, you mean that fat guy."

Long departed from Ottawa's halls of power, Axworthy is now adjunct lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he is trying to distinguish himself in another way: as a sophist drumming up support for the mass murder of civilians half way around the world.

For those of you whose knowledge of ancient Greece is rusty, a sophist is:

Any of a class of professional teachers in ancient Greece who gave instruction in various fields, as in general culture, rhetoric, politics or disputation; any member of a portion of this class who, while professing to teach skills in reasoning, concerned themselves with ingenuity and specious effectiveness rather than soundness of argument.

Axworthy isn't new to specious reasoning. It's an unwritten job requirement for liberals, or "progressives," as Axworthy calls them; those people who claim to be far enough to the left that  their decency as human beings can't be questioned but not so far that they won't be scorned as flakes by those with money. It's known as having your cake and eating it too, and healthy dollops of "ingenuity and specious effectiveness" go a long way towards allowing oneself to enjoy the fruits of unprincipled action, while crying out, as the 60's songwriter Phil Ochs once put it, "Love me, love me, love me; I'm a liberal."

Axworthy, practising the liberal's art, says Canada should commit to George W. Bush's war-making. "Committing Canada now when many nations are still in doubt and committing Canada after the fact when the United States has already decided to move, is the difference between leadership and irrelevance."

What Axworthy is really saying is that the US take-over of Iraq is a done deal, so why not earn brownie points with Washington by committing to Bush's plan now, rather than dragging our heels and getting under the master's skin?

But he can't put it in those crass and calculating terms without running headlong into the fundamental dilemma facing liberals: How to be crass and calculating without appearing so.

So, drawing from the sophist's kit bag, Axworthy has come up with moral reasons "progressives everywhere" should "rejoice that a President of the United States is prepared to back ethical ends with American power."

For one, progressives must confront "evil" even if it means doing evil. There will be  "pain and suffering that war always brings in its wake," Axworthy acknowledges, but thankfully none of it will be visited upon Axworthy, who plans to spend the war chowing down on Twinkies in his Harvard office pondering the question, "How much evil must we do in order to do good?" The answer, in Axworthy's estimation, is a lot. Or at least enough to earn a gold star from Bush.

Parenthetically, Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, who just a few weeks ago was making noises about not supporting Washington's plans to escalate the war on Iraq, has decided that Canada may go along after all. This news was conveyed on the same day Chretien was in New York to receive a "humanitarian" award from a group headed by Bush pere. The award, handed out by Henry Kissinger, is grimly appropriate; it's an eagle perched majestically and commandingly atop the globe. It may have an inscription somewhere that reads, "In recognition of your past and impending contributions to the Empire."

It was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who asked, "How much evil must we do in order to do good?" as he twisted himself into knots to justify the atomic incineration of over one hundred thousand Japanese.  If ever there were a question infused with ingenuity and specious effectiveness, Neibuhr's is it. Evil to be good. Cruel to be kind. Dishonest to be honest. Fat to be thin. Haven't I heard this somewhere else before? War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

And haven't I heard this codswallop about doing evil to achieve ethical ends somewhere else too? Something about the ends justifying the means?

You see, inflicting pain and suffering (on Iraqis, not us) is necessary, Axworthy oozes, because, "it should matter to us whether Saddam is gassing the Kurds."  Indeed, it does matter that Saddam gassed the Kurds, as it matters that Washington, which was backing Saddam at the time, didn't seem to particularly care; as it matters that Turkey is oppressing and killing Kurds right now, while Washington, and Axworthy, stand by without a peep of protest.

It should also matter to us, says Axworthy, that "the Taliban turned Afghanistan into one large concentration camp for women." That too matters, as Washington's backing the Islamic fundamentalists who turned the beginnings of a progressive, secular state into a religious chamber of horrors matters; as the House of Saud maintaining Saudi Arabia as one large concentration camp for women matters; as it matters that Washington, and Axworthy, are perfectly happy to allow Saudi Arbia's institutional misogyny and human rights abuses to flourish with nary a mention.

It should also matter to us, continues Axworthy, that "Israel is a democracy with a commitment to the rule of law." Indeed, democracy and the rule of law do matter, which is why it matters that Israel has flagrantly violated international law for decades; which is why it matters that Washington, and Axworthy, are perfectly happy to allow Israel's illegal settlement building, illegal extrajudicial assassinations, illegal transfers, illegal use of force against civilians, illegal use of collective punishment, illegal detentions, and illegal military occupation, to continue, as they balance the rights and wrongs in the Middle East, a balancing that somehow always comes down in favor of those who have turned Palestine into one large concentration camp for Palestinians. Afghan women matter in Axworthy's moral scheme of things (or so he says), but Saudi women don't, and nor do Palestinians and Iraqis.

And it should matter to us, says Axworthy, that "Saddam Hussein's regime commits genocide at home and threatens mass destruction abroad." And so it does, just as it matters that Washington has been committing genocide in Iraq for over a decade with a cruel, inhumane sanctions regime that has killed more than a million; just as it matters that Washington not only threatens mass destruction abroad, it practices it.

What should matter to us, apart from the hypocrisy of Axworthy and that of the warmongers in Washington he wants Canada to suck up to, is that Bush's impending escalation of war on Iraq, and more broadly, his war on terrorism, has nothing whatever to do with ethical ends, much less ethical means. It has everything to do with what Bush says it's about: making over the world in the interests of the United States and the people who own and control it, and that includes, in the case of Iraq, stealing oil fields.

Remarked Senator Richard Lugar:

"As part of our plan for Iraq, in addition to identifying the political leadership and the coalition and building democracy, we're going to run the oil business...we're going to run it well, we're going to make money, and it's going to help pay for the rehabilitation of Iraq."
Central Command, headed by General Tommy Franks, is the United States military command in the Middle East and East Africa. Its "theatre strategy," based on "the broad national security interests and objectives expressed in the President's National Security Strategy, "is built around "dual containment of the rogue states of Iraq and Iran...to protect the United States' vital interest in the region - uninterrupted, secure U.S./Allied access to Gulf oil."

For emphasis, Centcom adds: "Primary among U.S. interests...is uninterrupted secure access to Arabian Gulf oil." Nothing about preventing Saddam Husein from gassing the Kurds, or Saddam being evil, or destroying weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice practically admitted that all the rhetoric about dealing with Saddam's misbehavior is an excuse. "It's not because you have some chain of evidence saying Iraq may have given a weapon to al-Qaeda," she told The Wall Street Journal. "But it is because Iraq is one of those places that is both hostile to us, and frankly, irresponsible and cruel enough to make this available."

As for Axworthy, John Flynn had his measure, and those like him. "The enemy aggressor is always pursuing a course of larceny, murder, rapine and barbarism," he wrote in 1944, thinking of the sophists whose job it is to build support for war by placing a veneer of morality on naked aggression. "We are always moving forward with high mission." But as we commit evil to do good, we find ourselves "incidentally capturing their markets...while blundering accidentally into their oil wells." In other words, we enrich ourselves at the expense and lost lives of others, while "that fat guy" (or is it "that fat head"?) tells us to rejoice in the robust exercise of our morality.

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