Prudence and Presidential Ethics: The Decisions on Iraq of the Two Presidents Bush

By Dobel, J. Patrick | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Prudence and Presidential Ethics: The Decisions on Iraq of the Two Presidents Bush


Dobel, J. Patrick, Presidential Studies Quarterly


This essay discusses the importance of the virtue of prudence to presidential ethics. It examines the nature of prudence through an analysis of the decision making of Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush to go to war with the Republic of Iraq. The wars began only 12 years apart; the presidents shared a father-son connection; they also shared many advisors, party affiliation, and moderate conservatism. Both viewed themselves as charting new courses, one in a post-Cold War environment, and one in a world changed by 9/11. Both presidents had initiated "regime changes" earlier: George H. W. Bush overthrew Manuel Noriega in Panama, and George W. Bush overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; both faced a military reluctant to embark on war. The similarities of personnel and situations provide a unique opportunity for comparative analysis. This essay studies the two decisions to go to war through the lens of the virtue of political prudence. The analysis will illustrate the central role that prudence should have in the ethics of presidential leadership by demonstrating how political prudence, or its lack, contributes to policy success or failure. (1)

Prudence is a moral virtue traditionally associated with leading. It identifies the self-discipline and cognitive focal points that individuals should address to shape moral commitments into sustainable reality. Unlike principle- and rule-based ethics, which depend on discovering the correct norms to guide action, virtue ethics argues that judgment and action should be guided and informed by qualities of character, understood as stable cognitive and emotional dispositions, or patterns of response to the world. As both a cognitive and a moral virtue, prudence resembles a normative practice with a set of parameters of required attention and reflection but without deductively clear outcomes. Virtues are not preordained; individuals can acquire virtues such as prudence through self-reflection, training, and experience. As cognitive and emotional attributes of persons, they generate trained perceptions that help individuals identify morally relevant aspects of a situation and flame their judgments around them. Virtue ethics grows from internal structures of trained cognitions, emotional responses, and perceptions that enable individuals to align moral intent with moral action. The virtue of political prudence identifies attributes and domains of reflection that leaders should apply in order to make decisions that accord with the moral complexity, resources, and long-term consequences of actions (Aquinas 1967; Aristotle 1969; Cooper 1987; Dobel 1998, 1999; Norton 1991; Sherman 1989). Virtue ethics emphasizes the moral responsibility of individuals and their obligation to give reality and content to moral norms.

Much modern usage has narrowed the meaning of prudence to either the disposition to be very cautious or merely a tactical means to achieve self-interested ends (Garver 1987). This essay draws on the older and deeper understanding of moral virtue, which argues that individuals need prudence to have the moral discipline to discern all the moral aspects of a situation and to create a fit between moral aspirations and the realistic possibilities of a situation. It is too easy to believe that one knows the correct moral requirements without full reflection on all moral dimensions, and it is even more problematic to try to act on the norms without moral attention to what is needed to build a sustainable solution with minimum unanticipated consequences.

Political prudence is recognized in all moral and political traditions--given the ubiquitous problem of linking moral ideals with ever-changing reality. Prudence is foundational for political ethics because there are no deductively clear outcomes to pursue based on one's moral commitments. Political engagement requires that considerable thought be given to moral complexity, accommodations, and solutions that can endure in the face of conflict. …

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