Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James Skillen


November 23, 1998

The editorial page of a local paper last week contained three items: one on Saddam Hussein, one on the environmental summit in Buenos Aires, and one on President Clinton's out-of-court settlement with Paula Jones. The editors wish the world rid of the peace-pollutant, Saddam Hussein, wish the U.S. would do more to enforce carbon-dioxide clean-up at home, and wish the public had not had to endure the moral muddying caused by Clinton and Jones for the past four-plus years.

Three different kinds of pollution. All of them confronting publics and their governments with both the need for action and constraints on possible actions. Politics is the art of the possible, but by what standards may we assess the actions of governments as they try to accomplish the possible? How serious does pollution have to become before yesterday's "possible" becomes today's foolish timidity?

Iraq's leader does indeed appear to be dangerous. Strong action is required, but to do what? There are limitations on American capabilities and responsibilities to save the world from Saddam Hussein. A large-scale bombing campaign would have its own dangerous and polluting effects, destroying lives and still not guaranteeing Hussein's downfall or the destruction of his biological and chemical arsenal. Has the Clinton administration contributed to the clouding of international diplomacy either by making threats that should not have been idle, or by making threats that, if carried out, would fail to achieve the desired goals of greater justice?

On the environmental front, the nations of the world agreed to devise strategies by 2000 that will make possible the implementation of the 1997 Kyoto treaty to slow global warming. In this regard, however, the art of the possible must take into account that neither India nor China is willing to join the process, and those two countries could become bigger polluters than the U.S. in a few decades. The U.S., in the meantime, does not want to demand too much of itself until India and China agree to participate, and the kind of global treaty the U.S. eventually wants is one that will allow it to buy polluting rights from countries that pollute less than the new rules might allow them to do. Yet if the greenhouse effect truly poses a threat to our grandchildren, then shouldn't the U.S. be leading the way more vigorously? U.S. negotiators ought to replace the "principle" of minimizing economic pain in the short run at home with the principle of maximizing sustainable development for the long run throughout the world.

With regard to the third pollutant, The Washington Post's editors say simply, "it is beyond comprehension that this settlement [a Clinton payment of $850,000 to Jones without acknowledgement of wrong doing] took 4 1/2 years to reach," especially since neither side established any "grand principle." Do we Americans want a public-moral environment cleaner than this? Then we had better stop thinking we can live as we please while counting on special prosecutors and Congress to take out offenders at the top who embarrass us. Government officials will more than likely represent the morality of the people.

When Congress and the administration are finished dealing with Saddam Hussein, the Kyoto Treaty, and Clinton's personal conduct, will the principles of just warfare, environmental stewardship, and moral leadership by public example be established as essential guides to the art of the possible? Or will the art of the possible by that time look, even more than it does now, like the game of getting away with as much as you can for as long as you can?

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”