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Gary Younge


Peter Singer: taking a look at Bush
The moralist

These are claims that would have been relatively difficult to air in the US just a couple years ago, but are now fairly common currency. "When I first thought of writing it I wondered if anyone would publish it," Singer says. "In the period im mediately after 9/11 you couldn't say anything critical of the United States. But by the time it came out, the problem was whether it could find room among all of the books criticising Bush."

But the book is not the kind of shrill diatribe against the White House that has made liberal commentators such as Al Franken and Michael Moore so successful. The Australian-born Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is a softly spoken character, dry in mood and wry in wit, who has been described as one of the world's leading philosophers.

Most famous for his book on animal rights, Animal Liberation, which was first published in 1975, the majority of his previous work has concentrated on that area of morality and euthanasia, and is sufficiently incendiary that when he arrived at Princeton both he and the university president received death threats. The university laid on security for his first lecture and he was supplied with a scanner to check his mail for bombs. "I see [controversy] as what I am supposed to be doing," he said recently. "People are stimulated to think and I see that as part of my role. And though I get a lot of criticism, it's better, from my point of view, than being ignored."

Chief among his most contentious arguments - along with the parental right to put down disabled children - is his belief that animals should enjoy exactly the same rights as humans. He takes his vegetarianism seriously. When I suggest that we meet in the Blue Water Grill for lunch, he responds: "Somehow I can't see them hooking lumps of tofu out of the blue water and putting them on the grill." So we meet in a restaurant called Zen Palate where, over a plate of shitake mushrooms and seaweed, he explains that since Bush is not just the nation's president but its most prominent moralist, it makes sense to hold his morality to account.

A lot of criticism levelled against Bush, while valid, is over things he never set out to do, such as encourage economic equality or support gay rights. What he has consistently promised, however, is to reinvigorate the moral stature of American political culture. Singer points out in his book that the word "evil" appeared in a third of all his speeches - 319 of them in total - from his inauguration to the middle of last year. "Some people think it's inappropriate to make moral judgments any more," says Bush. "Not me."

But speaking to Singer, 57, you cannot help but come away with the impression that this exercise was somewhat less empirical and objective than he might suggest. Rather than measuring Bush's words and deeds and seeing whether they matched up, you can't help thinking he decided that they didn't match up and then set out to show how and suggest why.

Singer partly concedes the criticism. "I'm trying to say that what he has done is inconsistent with what he's been saying but I'm also arguing that on many issues he's done things that are seriously wrong," he says. "Had he done things that are consistent but wrong I would have had to write a different book."

Indeed, it is difficult to think of many American presidents, or other world leaders for that matter, who would live up to a moral audit from a professional ethicist such as Singer. "A lot of them would have stood up to it better than Bush does," he says. "I think the one who came closest was Jimmy Carter." The trouble is that Carter didn't get re-elected and his tenure is hardly regarded by most Americans as a golden age. Is it possible to be morally consistent and politically viable? "A person of good moral character who takes a false step will admit it, seek to understand what went wrong, and try to prevent something similar from happening again."

Perhaps in the realm of moral philosophy, but not that of electoral politics. Arguably, politicians should - but then that also would be a different book, about the degree to which it is possible to maintain integrity and office. "Holding them to a standard of complete consistency would be unreasonable, but I think [Bush] could have been far more consistent without it ruining his electoral prospects," he says.

But if Singer has a problem with Bush, he also has a problem with America. The distance he maintains as a foreigner provides him with a particular insight, but it also denies him access to a mindset that is baffling partly because it is different to the one in which he grew up. When the residents in his apartment block in Chelsea, Manhattan, hung a huge stars and stripes over their building following the terrorist attacks, he objected. "It's just not something Australians would do," he explained. But then, having a foreign monarch as their head of state is not something Americans would do.

Asked to explain why a large number of Americans still admire Bush, Singer says. "He puts things very simply, very clearly and a lot of Americans respond to that. They want to believe they are on the right side." The thought that they might actually agree with him does not seem to occur to him.

But he does find some praise for Bush, lauding his decision to prioritise and fund HIV/Aids work in the developing world. "He was slow to do it but he did take an initiative. He's been slow to follow through on the detail but he deserves some credit on it." And he even believes there should be some recognition for what Bush's morality has not allowed him to do in the Gulf. "Nobody found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he says. "A man of less integrity would have put them there."

· President of Good and Evil is published by Granta on April 29 at £8.99.

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