Sunday, June 25, 2006

bumper stickers, part ii

A variety of anti-Bush bumper stickers make the rounds on the east coast, some printable, others not really. A number make implicit puns based on the similarity between the President's name and portions of the female anatomy, which seems unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't agree already with the position; but perhaps that's not the point.

One long-standing favorite is also a rhyme: "When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died." Although hardly a ringing endorsement of the last president, it seems to suggest that Clinton's lies about Lewinsky had not political as opposed to personal consequences, while Bush's alleged misrepresentations about Iraq have resulted in numerous American and Iraqi casualties. The clever phrasing aside, how convincing is this statement on its own terms?

An initial problem is the accusation, now widely accepted, that Bush misrepresented Iraq's possession of WMD before the invasion. But how much of a lie was this? Reports suggest that Saddam's own commanders believed he had chemical if not nuclear weapons, and troops were rigorously prepared to encounter these weapons in combat. With respect to nuclear weapons, there was unquestionably an aggressive program to get ahold of them, although it seems to have been rather less well along--largely thanks to American and British pressure--than was thought at the time. At most, these sound like exaggerations, perhaps taking Iraqi boasts more seriously than we should have, but hardly like intentional lies.

The Clinton half of the statement is also dubious. Clinton's personal problems plainly distracted his attention from Al Qaeda, and much else besides, during the months and years that led up to the 9/11 disaster, much as Watergate distracted the U.S. at the time of Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. This does not make Clinton personally responsible for the deaths, but it casts doubt on the notion that his activity was "harmless" in any meaningful sense. There is also the broader issue of whether, by sending a message that unrestricted sex with multiple partners is acceptable, Clinton did not undermine moral standards in a way that contributes to AIDS (hetero- and homosexual) and other health crises. One suspects that the former President's work on sexually transmitted diseases in Africa, which is entirely admirable on its own terms, is in part an effort to atone for this behavior.

Let us assume the very worst, and that Bush intentionally exaggerated the Iraqi threat so as to gain support for a policy he had already decided upon. Even in this case, the alleged "lie" would have been made to advance a genuinely held conviction regarding the national interest, rather than a purely personal interest like Clinton's. In Dante's scheme, at least, the latter would seem more morally dubious. But Dante doesn't fit on bumper stickers.


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