Leadership in society is based on moral authority. Regardless of the law, there comes a point in which the tide of public sentiment will not be controlled by boots and guns alone. Even in authoritarian regimes, there is very often an appeal to “divine right”, “tradition” or “the danger of the enemy” in order to control a population. This is particularly true today when societal wealth is based on the ability to think. Being able to think means being able to think about anything - and a certain percentage of the population will think about the political structures that control society.
Moral authority is significant because it creates a perspective from which to view the words and actions of those who have it. Conversely, the lack of moral authority can engender cynicism against even the most benign activities. Moral authority, however, is not easy to come by. It is one of those things that is hardest to acheive when we openly seek it. Why? Because when we openly seek it, we create a higher standard. And since success and failure are defined by comparison against that standard, we can be judged as failures against a high standard even when we have exceeded the standards by which others are measured. Further, moral authority does not come from what we say - it comes from what we do. There are simply too many watchers waiting to expose any potential hypocrisy.
Given this, it’s not hard to see why the current President Bush has fallen so far in the polls. The continual string of non-existent “reasons” for the war in Iraq, the justification of torture, illegal military courts, warrantless wiretaps and now surreptitious searches of banking records have produced an ever growing skepticism1. The ability to “walk the line”2 of legality depends very heavily on trust. And trust comes from moral authority. In President Bush’s case, I doubt that many question his intent - most probably think he wants to do the right thing. However, there appears to be a growing distrust in his understanding of what the right thing is. Like many zealous to stamp out evil, he seems to have forgotten that the evil is as much in the process as in the result. And in doing, he fails to see that “fighting fire with fire” means that we all end up in Hell. And there’s no moral authority there.
It may be “unfair” that Bush is being held to this higher standard when we recall that the Taliban and al Qaeda seem to have a penchant for summary executions and terrorism. But complaining about that is crying over split milk. Bush created the standard by which he wanted to be judged - he has chosen to say that we’re in Iraq because exporting democracy is a good thing. By asking to be judged on a moral standard, he has invoked that moral standard on everything that happens in connection with Iraq and the “War on Terror”.
Bush had moral authority after 9/11 because of the suffering inflicted by the strikes. That authority evaporated as he chose paths that could not be OBVIOUSLY justified to the whole world. No one objected to the invasion of Afghanistan after repeated attempts to convince the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. The connection was clear to the entire world. The connection to Iraq was not clear - as evinced by the resistance prior to the war. The fact that Bush had to use Colin Powell’s moral authority3 because he didn’t have enough of his own should have been a wakeup call.
Moral authority can be used as a basis for war. The war in Afghanistan was not the first time the U.S. has successfully used moral authority. President Roosevelt, despite his concerns about Nazi Germany, was not able to involve the U.S. in WWII until after Pearl Harbor - because it was there he received the moral authority for war. Interestingly, had Hitler not felt bound by treaty obligations with the Japanese to declare war on the U.S., Roosevelt might not have had the authority to fight in Europe.
While moral authority is hard to obtain when we openly seek it, there are circumstances under which even the most repugnant can believably claim it - and being on the defensive is one of the easiest. This may be because all humans have an innate tendency to believe “us vs. them” constructions even when they come from the mouths of known liars. The consequence is that even innocent missteps can be radically reinterpreted in harmful ways if we don’t have the moral authority that enables others to see our intentions as good even if our actions are flawed.
Can President Bush recreate the moral authority he had after 9/11? Maybe - but it will be extremely difficult. Gandhi acheived moral authority through suffering and humility. While neither of these appear to be part of President Bush’s character, he could still attain moral authority through principled consistency. Former President Jimmy Carter was often maligned for what some perceived as naivete while in office. History has since shown him to be consistent in his commitment to the the principles he claimed at that time - he will be much better treated in retrospect than he was then. President Bush, if he can communicate how the policies and actions he has chosen are consistent with the principles he claims to believe in, could possibly regain the moral high ground. Unfortunately, White House communication so far doesn’t seem to contain much that would demonstrate that connection. Instead, it appears to be a flaccid combination of feel good messages and damage control as the ship of state springs one leak after another.
In turbulent times, moral authority is the strongest ally we have as imperfect humans. Since we aren’t perfect, we need to make it clear to all that we are doing are best to adhere to the principles we believe in. And we need to be ready to ask forgiveness when we fail. If we are the first to recognize our mistakes, we disarm our enemies. I pray the President can regain the moral authority he used to have. Much depends on it.
1. I’ve deliberately avoided incidents such as the Abu Ghraib scandals because those (so far) have no proven official policy behind them. Since the administration has attempted to distance itself from those as aberrations, they won’t be included at this time.
2. Apologies to Johnny Cash.
3. In the speech to the UN on Iraqi attempts to acquire African yellowcake.