For America, probably more than for other nations, foreign policy is a morality tale.
The Syrian civil war now presents itself not just as a diplomatic and military challenge, but as a challenge to our values and our self-interest.
President Obama’s cautiousness regarding Syria has been criticized by those who see him as unwilling to stand up for a persecuted people and for freedom and human rights. His caution is seen as a moral failure.
But his caution is viewed by others as a highly moral form of prudence, showing that he has learned the lesson of Iraq and he doesn’t want to waste American lives in a project that could well make matters worse.
Thus, Americans weigh decisions about foreign policy not just in terms of their effectiveness, but also in terms of their virtue.
These are complicated calculations. Robert D. Kaplan, journalist and author (and former reporter for the Rutland Herald), has written a provocative article for The Atlantic describing the greatness of Henry Kissinger as a statesman. The article will be hard to swallow for liberals used to viewing Kissinger as an architect of serial foreign policy disasters. But Kaplan raises important points about how moral judgments figure into foreign policy, including the foreign policy challenges faced by the Obama administration today.
Kissinger was a realist who believed that the cause of peace was best served by maintaining a balance of power among forces who might otherwise teeter into war. The principal challenge of Kissinger’s time was to prevent war with the Soviet Union. Maintaining the balance that would keep the peace required the United States to engage in a variety of small wars and interventions to fend off the influence of the Soviet Union and to strengthen the hand of the United States.
Chief among Kissinger’s accomplishments, according to Kaplan, was to recognize China, helping to balance the power of the Soviet Union and opening China to changes leading to the historic transformation of Asia today. In Kaplan’s view, the war in Vietnam was an important assertion of America’s willingness to counterbalance the influence of the Soviet Union and opened the way for our rapprochement with China.
Kaplan reviews other Kissinger projects, including intervention leading to the rise of Pinochet in Chile and the withdrawal of support from Ethiopia by the Carter administration, which led to immense suffering in the Horn of Africa.
Kaplan’s reading of these situations is open to question, but his larger point is a good one: that a pragmatic foreign policy may be more moral than a moralistic one if the moralistic one cannot work. It was possible for the United States to work itself into high moral dudgeon about the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but the war to oust him was, in practical terms, a disaster, which made it also a moral disaster.
Kaplan notes that the intervention in Bosnia, which aimed to avert genocide, was not much different in motive from the intervention in Vietnam, which, in his view, was a prolongation of what John Kennedy called the long “twilight struggle” of World War II. Statesmanship has a tragic dimension. In order to defend the larger interests of the nation, we must sometimes do terrible things, as in the war we have waged in Afghanistan.
In some instances it may be tragic and statesmanlike not to act. Caution in Syria is compelled by an inability to determine who it is we should help without making the situation worse. Opposing the Soviet Union in Afghanistan seemed like a moral thing to do, except it radicalized and destabilized the region in ways that are still hurting us.
Kaplan says that Kissinger-style realism is more prevalent in the Obama White House than it is within today’s Republican Party, which is why liberals wring their hands at Obama’s slowness to act in the Middle East. Then again, there are plenty of liberals and millions of Americans who understand that the American people could not tolerate or afford a new war. It is a cause for anguish all around.
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