An Ethic of Responsibility

By Singer, Peter | Free Inquiry, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

An Ethic of Responsibility


Singer, Peter, Free Inquiry


George W. Bush has often emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for the decisions one makes. "America, at its best," he has said, "is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected." When he was governor of Texas, he told an audience at Texas A&M University: "Always remember: you are responsible for the decisions you make." That seems a plausible moral stance. But over the past few months, it has become difficult to understand what Bush might mean by the idea that we are responsible for our decisions.

The difficulties have arisen because of the claim Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa. Already in October, 2002, a secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document, the "National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq," said that "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in [the assessment of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research] highly dubious." (1) That month, the CIA sent two memos to the White House voicing doubts about the claims. One went to Bush's deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and the other to his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson. CIA Director George J. Tenet also phoned Hadley before the president was to make a speech in Cincinnati, on October 7, asking that the allegation be removed. (2) Nevertheless, three months later the claim made its way into the most solemn speech that the president gives each year. By making the claim, Bush misled Congress, the people of the United States, and the world about a central issue in the case he was making for going to war with Iraq.

That the inclusion of the statement in the speech was an error is now universally admitted. Tenet has said that the evidence for it "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches." (3) But now the question arises: who should take responsibility for this error, and what are the implications of so doing?

If Bush's staff knew that the information in his speech was not reliable, then Bush himself should have known. If he knew, he is, of course, as culpable as they are, and he should, at a minimum, apologize to all those he misled. If his staff knew of the unreliability of the information and he did not, then either he had not properly instructed his staff on the importance of passing such information on to him--in which case the same apology should be forthcoming--or he had properly instructed them, and they failed to follow his instructions. If they failed to follow his instructions, then a president who insists that we must be responsible for the decisions we make should see, on first learning of the possibility that his staff had acted improperly, that whoever was responsible for this serious error of judgment suffered the usual consequences that befall senior officials or political leaders who make such mistakes. In other words, they should be dismissed from his staff or assigned to less important duties.

Bush, however, did nothing of the sort. When the issue became public, instead of launching an investigation into what went wrong and why, Bush's initial response was to evade questions about the credibility of the information he had provided by asserting that the war has had, in the removal of Saddam Hussein, a good outcome. …

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