Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Not Tear Gas Nor Baton Charge

Matt Yglesias discusses the tendency to misconstrue morality in intention and consquence when analyzing foreign policy options - especially relevant after the latest round of preening surrounding the conflict between Russia and Georgia (though the stench of "Bomb Burma for the Sake of the Burmese" still lingers in the air).

...I think a lot of people have a tendency to wave the flag of “morality” or “idealism” in foreign policy as a way of evading responsibility for the consequences of their ideas...There would have been nothing “moral” about it if Dwight Eisenhower had taken an “idealistic” stand over Hungary in 1956 and wound up causing a nuclear war. Nor would the fact that the resulting war would, in an important sense, have been the result of immoral Soviet actions really done a great deal to exculpate Eisenhower. There’s nothing new about this idea, it’s all in Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” where he says that in the political domain we need an ethic of responsibility, where you put forth initiatives that actually lead to good consequences.

True to form, the McCain camp described Obama's level-headed reaction to the Georgia/Russia conflict (a reaction shared by our European allies and the Bush administration itself!) as a "naive" brand of "appeasement" - betraying a lack of concern for human suffering. Along these lines, McCain's allies shrouded their calls for a widespread confrontation between the US and Russia (and their exhortations to the Georgians to "let's you and him fight") in the cloak of compassion - defending the people of Georgia from a rapacious Russia which had morphed into some freakish Stalin/Hitler hybrid (our enemies always manage this transformation somehow).

In the rush to claim the moral high ground in the periodic game of king of the sanctimonious mountain, however, none of the would-be humanitarians were forced to account for the repercussions that would actually result from their preferred course of action. The death toll from the conflict if joined by the United States (or from a prolonged insurgency by Georgians with our aid) would be astronomical - potentially cataclysmic considering the availability of nuclear weapons. Yet war supporters were safe to bask in their smug judgmentalism in the knowledge that even the Bush administration would not be so reckless.

However, Andrew Sullivan is right to be concerned that when it comes to a potential McCain presidency, the safe harbor for the judgmental-set might be lost. Not that this would deter them. When their advocacy leads to disaster, the moral stalwarts will just hide behind the nobility of their intentions - Max Weber be damned!

There is another aspect of the tendency to equate bellicosity with righteousness that is worth analyzing: many of the deeply concerned idealists that reach the solemn conclusion that war is necessary (with a frequency that belies the supposed painstaking deliberations taken to reach the oft-visited option of last resort) tend to be unmoved when presented with non-violent means to better the lot of a beleagured population. The impassioned calls to action vanish, the brows un-furrow and the pious cloak is put back in the closet for another day. Humanitarian crises just seem to draw less consternation when one of the options to help the target population isn't to target the population. This commenter sums it up succinctly:

...[T]here is no one more contemptible than the people who are filled with sympathy for residents of poor countries only when it’s an occasion for dropping bombs on them.

Yes, it’s terrible that people were killed by Saddam, or the government of Sudan, or Milosevic, or whoever. It really is bad.

But it’s also bad that people are dying of water-borne illnesses, malaria, and many other problems that can be dealt with much more cheaply and reliably and without killing anybody. Someone whose empathy for the poor expresses itself only through advocacy for violence is much worse than someone with no empathy at all, who at least will leave them alone.

It is not just that a trigger-happy recourse to war is treated as the idealist's charge, but also the embodiment of strength. If a pundit or politician is willing to go to war with country X, that indiviual is described as a "country X hawk" or "strong on country X." Yet, just as the morality of a given policy choice should be derived from the actual moral outcomes (with costs factored in), so too should the strength of a particular course of action be judged based on the strategic consequences (again, when measured against costs).

A policy is strong in so much as it is effective in achieving the desired outcomes while keeping costs at optimally low levels. In some rare settings, this might involve the use of the military, but in the vast majority of circumstances, making strong policy requires, instead, the ability to employ subtler tactics to divine and exploit opportunities, advantages and mutual interests. Unfortunately, according to our great pundit class, nuance and subtlety are bad traits for leaders to possess - especially in the realm of foreign policy.

This anti-intellectualism has a price tag, though. In retrospect, did the Iraq war hawks deserve the "strong" label that was attached to their "War on Terrorism" credentials? Obviously not. They advocated a policy that has resulted in a foreign policy debacle of historic proportions, which has proven a setback in the effort to drain the appeal of radicalism and that has greatly weakened the United States on myriad levels. To state the obvious, there is nothing "strong" about a policy that makes your country weaker. Even if you blow lots of stuff up in the process.

Recourse to war is particularly unsuitable in the context of counterterrorism (as John Kerry accurately pointed out - much to his detriment as the media sternly punished his wisdom). The Somalia/Ethiopia conflict provides a recent and useful illustration:

Now, in the wake of an aggressive U.S. counter-terrorism program that has alienated many Somalis, there are signs that Al Qaeda may have its best chance in years to win over Islamic hard-liners in the Horn of Africa nation. [...]

Analysts say such talk highlights a growing radicalization of Somalia's Islamists. Although Somalia has long had hard-liners, most of the population practiced a moderate form of Islam, and even extremists limited attacks to inside the country or against Ethiopia, a longtime rival.

But some worry a more radical agenda in Somalia has been aided by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts during the last two years, including half a dozen airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets that often killed civilians.

Somalia's citizens are also outraged by the ongoing occupation of Mogadishu by Ethiopian troops, who came in 2006 to defeat a short-lived Islamic government that had taken power largely with help from Shabab fighters.

Yet, remarkably, John McCain is perceived as having an advantage over Obama on foreign policy. This, based largely on the fact that McCain is flippant about his willingness to bomb a whole range of countries, spanning several continents. His calling card is a promise to be even more reckless in the use of the military than the Bush administration, and the media, with a deference bordering on reverence, extols his "experience," "wisdom," "moral clarity" and, of course, "strength."

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