You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Moral Foreign Policy? Get Serious.

My last post, suggesting it might be morally problematic for a commander-in-chief to persist in waging a war to which he is less than fully committed, drew this response from Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security:

Bacevich wants us to consider foreign policy decisions black-and-white moral affairs. Bush, he argues, reliably chose the wrong option out of two available but was at least guided by a flawed moral compass. Obama, Bacevich argues, is amoral. This is absurd. In matters of war, leaders at all levels make hard moral choices involving sin and virtue. One could describe this as the hard moral economics of war....
[J]ust because you disagree with the Obama Administration on Afghanistan does not mean that the administration lacks a moral compass.... If Bacevich was serious, he would consider not just the strategic risks to a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan—which is what he is apparently advocating—but also the moral costs to be paid by the Afghan people we leave behind. In that light, the moral economics of war are no more black and white than the strategic economics of war. We're left with hard choices and trade-offs, and the public discourse is very poorly served by those who pretend they are easy.

In fact, it is Exum who simplifies the moral calculus, deploying “the moral costs to be paid by the Afghan people” as if it were some sort of irrefutable trump card. Exum is by no means the only observer to engage in this sort of posturing. It has become a staple of American political discourse: Advocates of launching or prolonging wars respond to anyone questioning war’s necessity by loudly insisting that the United States has a moral obligation to pursue the policy they happen to favor.

Let us note before exploring this matter further that the issue is almost entirely a theoretical one. There exists precious little evidence to suggest that moral considerations in practice figure substantially in the making of foreign policy. Americans readily accept that statement as true when applied to Beijing or Moscow or Paris (especially Paris). It’s long past time that they accept it with reference to Washington as well. Perhaps moral issues should influence the formulation of American statecraft. Yet they don’t, except perhaps as an afterthought. To imagine that Barack Obama and his lieutenants sit around the Oval Office anguishing over “sin and virtue” serves only to impede our understanding of how power actually gets exercised. (To imagine that members of the previous administration did so is risible).

That moral considerations affect public perceptions of policy (even in France) is undoubtedly true. Hence, the efforts of policymakers to justify their actions by citing some higher purpose. In the case of, say, a Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon, this is almost entirely cynical. Yet there are also cases—Woodrow Wilson offers one example, George W. Bush another—where statesmen beguile themselves with their own rhetoric and genuinely come to believe what they find convenient to believe.

The problem—illustrated by Exum’s commentary—is that what passes for moral discourse is almost invariably superficial. While pretending to probe deeply, it actually serves to trivialize.

To illustrate my point, here are four questions to which I hope Exum (and other advocates of analyzing U.S. policy from a moral perspective) will respond:

To the extent that U.S. officials should take moral considerations into account, which comes first—the government’s obligation to provide for the well-being of the American people or the government’s obligation to provide for the wellbeing of people who are not Americans?

To the extent that the United States government has a moral obligation to people who are not Americans, why does the moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan qualify as a particular priority?

To the extent that the United States government has a specific and pressing moral obligation to Afghanistan, why does open-ended war qualify as the preferred way to acquit that obligation?

To the extent that fulfilling America’s moral obligation to the Afghan people requires the perpetuation of war, what should we make of the fact that responsibility for fulfilling that obligation falls on the backs of a small segment of our fellow citizens while the rest carry on as if there were no war?

On the first question, my own view is that U.S. officials have a moral obligation to the American people that takes precedence over all others. Those officials take an oath to the Constitution. That document does not commit the United States to saving or policing the world. It declares that the purpose of our union is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.” Although not necessarily evident to those who make their living in well-heeled Washington think tanks, that obligation remains unfulfilled. (Were foreign policy analysts to set up shop in downtown Detroit or Cleveland, they might reach different conclusions.) Indeed, with military adventurism helping to swell our trillion dollar annual federal deficits, posterity is in for a rude awakening: By the time members of Exum’s generation get around to filing for social security and Medicare, there won’t be any. When the coffers are bare, that failure will be moral as well as fiscal.

On the second question, if the United States does have an obligation to others, it’s not at all clear why the Afghans should come first. Does anyone think that America’s moral debt to the Iraqi people has been paid in full? How about the Vietnamese? Iranians? Filipinos? Nicaraguans? Guatemalans? Cubans? The list goes on. On this score, my personal favorite is Mexico–a near-neighbor used and abused for most of two centuries. We stole Texas. We launched a war of naked aggression to seize California and the southwest. We’ve pillaged Mexico’s resources. We’ve meddled in their revolution. We’ve a long track record of siding with kleptocratic elites against the Mexican people. Today the American demand for drugs along with our lax gun laws is transforming Mexico into a violence-riddled narco-state. Sure, Mexican institutions (like Afghan institutions) are weak, inept, and thoroughly corrupt. But does that provide a moral justification for treating Mexico like a footnote? If the U.S. Treasury has extra billions available for nation-building, doesn’t simple justice demand that we ship the money south of the border before attending to Central Asia?

And even if Afghanistan deserves to be first in line, why does it follow that war provides the best means of doing right by the Afghan people? The truth is that few of the resources that Washington expends in Afghanistan actually benefit the people. Instead, most dollars go to arms merchants and private security contractors, a.k.a., mercenaries, who couldn’t care less about the people’s wellbeing. Meanwhile U.S. operations routinely kill and maim innocent civilians: our commanders may regret that fact, but regret hasn’t ended the practice. Were the United States serious about actually doing something for Afghans, we’d spend less on munitions and more on economic assistance and social development. Better still, we’d offer interested Afghans the chance to get out of Afghanistan altogether and pursue the American dream, welcoming any and all to settle in the Land of Liberty. Carving an Afghan enclave out of a few million unused acres of Montana and Wyoming would show that U.S. expressions of solidarity with suffering Afghans go beyond mere rhetoric.

And finally, even if perpetuating a war already nearly a decade old really does provide the best way to meet some overriding collective U.S. obligation toward Afghanistan, it would seem to follow that the burden of service and sacrifice should be equitably distributed among Americans. Rather than passing the bill to Exum’s children, the present generation of Americans should pay for the war through higher taxes or by reducing domestic spending. They should also pay by changing the socioeconomic composition of the American military, ensuring that the U.S. forces sent off to Afghanistan “look like” America itself. Surely, it cannot be moral to pursue a policy of endless war, when the burden of service and sacrifice falls on the shoulders of 0.5 percent of the population.

It is Exum who would simplify the moral issues raised by Afghanistan. He does so above all by ignoring them.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.