Amorality and Chagos

Amorality postulates an absence of guiding first principles, or of moral values in the conduct of political affairs. One could almost identify this with the Machiavellian notions

A highly unusual event, an anonymous New York Times op-ed from a purported high official within Trump sphere, has rocked and kept Washington in thrall since last month. It was a blistering attack on the Trump presidency from inside the White House itself, forcing an unprecedented string of authorship denials by top Trump aides while fuelling more allegations of a chaotic administration, and a President already reeling from the methodical progress of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

In our understanding, morality refers to a set of ideals which hold and bind us in our lives and actions with some degree of consistency. Amorality, on the other hand, postulates an absence of guiding first principles, or of moral values in the conduct of political affairs; in other words, that a regime should only be judged against expediency, efficiency and effectiveness of its actions under a particular context and time. One could almost identify this with the Machiavellian notions that there is no appellate court higher than electoral legitimacy, that questions of right and wrong are irrelevant or that the ends justify the means…”


The widely respected independent prosecutor, of impeccable Republican credentials, fully mandated by the US Department of Justice to investigate charges of Trump “collusion” with Russians to influence the 2016 elections and any obstruction of justice since then, has secured enough convictions and plea bargains already of many top Trump campaign aides that the latter’s lawyers can feel the ever-tightening noose around their high-profile client.

The op-ed came after weeks of similarly unflattering views emerging from the Omarosa1 rants (“Unhinged”), the “Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House” 2018 best-seller by journalist Michael Wolff and the more documented blockbuster September 2018 book (“Fear: Trump in the White House” 2) by renowned journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. While desperately pushing back the Op-ed, a shell-shocked Trump cabinet and its higher-ranking officials had nonetheless to protest their guileless innocence, the Vice President even offering to pass lie-detector tests, in a surrealistic wave of daily denials.

These were apparently analysed word by word for clues by a Trump administration looking so clueless that the President had initially pressed its Department of Justice to hound the “treasonous” author, without any evidence of any crime having been committed, other than ethical (criticising and staying on!) or that of “lèse-majesté”!

This senior Trump administration official bitingly accuses the President of being “unstable” and prone to “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions”, of acting in a manner that is detrimental to the health of the US republic, while offering US public the “cold comfort” that the author and a small group of “adults in the room” – understood to be other senior Trump officials -, are working hard behind the scenes to thwart some of the President’s more erratic impulses!

The controversies rage on in a pre-electoral period for Congress, when Democrats hope to capture majority in at least one of the Houses at mid-terms to be held in less than two months time. In yet another unprecedented twist, past two-term President Obama has taken the road in a damning indictment of the values and policies of his successor while losing 2016 Democratic contender, Hilary Clinton, has authored a strongly-worded editorial in The Atlantic (sep. 16) titled “American Democracy is in crisis”.

The Trump presidency benefitted from the extraordinary vantage point of having Republican majorities in Congress, both in its Lower House and in the Senate, and an unfettered ability to bring radical amendments and legislation to suit his electorate. The latter have hailed massive corporate tax cuts, ending Obama care and a long list of judicial appointments on the internal front. He is also credited with more controversial stands vis-a-vis traditional allies, from Canada to the EU, while cuddling up to dictators like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un or Rodrigo Duterte and launching a growing trade and tariff war of potential momentous impact.

Americans will decide at the November mid-terms whether the all-powerful President needs to be reined in or fenced by a Democratic Congress at least in the House and possibly even in the more openly contested Senate. We will pause here on the less commented but equally devastating charge in the op-ed, particularly galling perhaps to a more sedate conservative wing of GOP establishment, that the President of the most powerful country in the world is essentially “amoral” whose action is not “moored to any discernible first principles”.

This is a vast topic on which laymen like us may not have the enriched experiences of those who stepped into the fray and have, over numerous years, worked their constituencies, clocking in uncounted hours, week-ends and even their family lives. Yet, and perhaps more particularly with the governance we have witnessed over the past few years, were we to query our compatriots about the moral fibre, values or principles of those who hold high offices or, in Westminsterian style, simply refer to themselves as “Honourable Members”, there would be little doubt about their general views, even if exception were made for a substantial few, mostly on Opposition benches today.

In our understanding, morality refers to a set of ideals which hold and bind us in our lives and actions with some degree of consistency. Amorality, on the other hand, postulates an absence of guiding first principles, or of moral values in the conduct of political affairs; in other words, that a regime should only be judged against expediency, efficiency and effectiveness of its actions under a particular context and time. One could almost identify this with the Machiavellian notions that there is no appellate court higher than electoral legitimacy, that questions of right and wrong are irrelevant or that the ends justify the means. As an aside, that party political leaders should be empowered to designate some MPs in our National Assembly, goes a long way in that direction.

If, as the New York Times op-ed author states, part of traditional Washington establishment shudders at the prospect of an amoral President, unguided by any first principles other than to his core electorate, one may feel in these writings an under-current of anguish that this significantly erodes the US ability to project itself as the lodestar of continued moral leadership in a more turbulent world. The Second World War had effectively reduced to shreds western moral legitimacy. Decolonisation, however bitterly resisted by the old guard for a couple of post-war years, was its inevitable historical offshoot.

The “winds of change” speech by Harold Macmillan in 1960 at Cape Town marked the belated historic recognition by the post-war UK establishment that, after the loss of the “jewel in the Crown”, after the Suez debacle, on the heels of the United Nations charter resolutions, decolonisation was an undisputable necessity for all its African empire. Yet, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, even (or perhaps, even more!) under the internationalist Labour government of Harold Wilson, while toying with the EU and Commonwealth ideas, and struggling perhaps with a Cold War context, did its best to effectively align UK policy on post-war US strategic interests to retain for the UK some moral, if not military authority or economic clout, in the emerging world order. That systematic UK-US geopolitical alignment thread culminated with Blair’s New Labour imperator and not altogether surprisingly finds its chaotic end in today’s Brexit.

That the Wilson Labour government was prepared to that end to adopt the FCO posture and proceed, despite a specific UN resolution of 1965, with the unilateral excision of the Chagos, with Diego being leased as a US base, and under conditions of blackmail between a colonial power and its subject administration from Mauritius was another blighting testimony to amorality. We have all been fully enthralled by the detailed submissions at the Hague ICJ and cannot prejudge the advisory ruling sought. But to portend that this “frighten with hope” Lancaster House agreement was a bilateral one between equal entities and systematically refusing to consider any arbitration concerning the Chagossian fate, the excision and the sovereignty issue, are implicit admissions of UK and FCO bad faith, particularly galling for those establishments which, in the UK or in the US, continue attaching importance to the moral leadership narrative in the world order.

Should the ICJ accept its competency and ultimately deliver a verdict in our favour, a position defended by much of the international community, we should still be realistic about the implications and the perspectives for an early resolution of the thorny issues. Past experience with the FCO’s moves, if only with the foiled attempt to establish a so-convenient Marine Protected Area around the Chagos or with the intense lobbying, pressure and threats to avoid The Hague advisory ruling, should guard us from triumphant local and partisan trumpets. The road to restoring our sovereignty and Chagossian rights would get a major boost but there might be many more hurdles on the road ahead. But we have the moral high ground and should not squander it in parochialism.

 


* Published in print edition on 21 September 2018

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