In an episode of “Inspector Lewis” Dame Grace Orde has written an autobiography of her years with MI5 that promises to reveal all (some?) of the dirty little secrets of that organization. During a presentation prior to a book signing, she tells her audience that it is sometimes necessary to set aside ethics when it is a matter of national interest. That, of course, is right out of Machiavelli’s Prince. Or, if you prefer, it is out of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he insists that the right thing to do is that action that produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In a word, the end justifies the means. In the real world of dirty tricks this is a given and I have less trouble with it as an abstract principle than I do as a concrete action or set of actions. where it is used to “justify” such things as waterboarding. The really hard question is: who decides what is in the “national interest,” or what will produce the “greatest good”?
A case in point is the invasion of Iraq which was undertaken in “the national interest” by the United States with a “coalition” consisting of a few other countries for show. Even at the time there was considerable doubt about the wisdom of such a war which was initially undertaken to uncover “weapons of mass destruction” that weren’t there. When their non-existence was revealed, the rationale shifted to the capture of Saddam Hussein. When that was accomplished, the rationale morphed into bringing peace and security to a troubled country — whose troubles largely began with the invasion and the killing or displacement of millions of Iraqi citizens.
In any case, George W. Bush insisted later that he only undertook the invasion under duress, that he was “reluctant” to start a war in that region. There was considerable doubt about that claim at the time it was made, but there is even more now that Colin Powell has revealed in an upcoming book that the issue was never discussed in the Security Council. Powell’s claims, of course, directly conflict with those of the Shrub. But, given the weight of evidence on Powell’s side, and the fact that he has much less reason to say an untruth, I side with him on this. As a recent blurb surrounding the publication of Powell’s book puts it, But Powell supports the increasingly well-documented conclusion that there was actually no decision-making point — or decision-making process — during the events between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks.
With the possible collusion of Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and perhaps his wife, the Shrub pretty much did this on his own in the name of “National Security,” or “Iraqi Freedom,” or whatever else came to his troubled mind. One man, pretty much on his own, decided to order the invasion of a sovereign nation on the spurious grounds of “National Security.” The man ought to be tried as a war criminal.
The point is that the principle advanced by Dame Grace Orde, or anyone else, may have the appearance of respectability when found in the pages of books by philosophers like John Stuart Mill or even the pages of Machiavelli’s Prince. But when push comes to shove, it translates into unmitigated evil — murder and mayhem, and even widespread disaster brought on by the fact that humans in power are motivated by greed and the love of that power and they seldom think about the consequences of their actions.