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Yes, moral foreign policy is hard.

October 17, 2011

David Rothkopf wrote aninteresting post earlier about the crisis of conscience afflicting many of the liberal internationalists who have presided over and lived under the Obama administration’s supposedly flawed implementation of liberal ideals. The title of his piece is problematic, of course, for implying there is only one side with a moral case in the foreign policy realm, and that side is liberalism (as understood by the American center-left). Of course, to leave this merely as a moral disagreement is to miss the point, and also the obvious critique: that liberalism abroad, like any foreign policy, has always been more ugly and problematic than advocates care to admit.

It’s not Bush this time. It’s not a prior generation betraying a trust. It’s not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We’re not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.

This time, it’s us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, “not our problem” or “to intervene would be too hard.” Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable — apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.

Consider the contradictions above. After complaining about Guantanamo’s continued existence and “extreme measures with terrorists,” Rothkopf laments our ignoring of national sovereignty. The implication is that the application of state violence without accountability or respect for individual rights is a moral error, as is the violation of national sovereignty. Yet Rothkopf immediately castigates America for its reluctance to intervene against “weak, brutal regimes” What, exactly, does he believe intervention entails? It is nothing less than the sanctioning of war and state violence, and it very often ends in prison camps, executions, and thousands of innocent dead. Do revenge killings and arbitrary detentions become morally tolerable when our newly-liberated proxies conduct them?

He goes on to lament the abuses rampant in the Afghan prison system and the killing of al-Awlaki, all without according them proper recognition as part and parcel of very liberal elements of Obama’s foreign policy. These events are not aberrations. America overturned a despotic government and tried to build a relatively morally palatable one in its place. In the process, it took on the burden of processing those prisoners it held to be threats to the United States and the international order and attempted to manage them within its own institutional framework, the end result of which was Guantanamo Bay.

The revulsion which came with maintaining an American penal colony led Obama to work, however ineffectively, towards its closure. In the mean time, he attempted like any good liberal to mitigate its worst excesses and stains on American law and conscience. The result of this, however, was to leave more and more of the ugly task of dealing with insurgent and terrorist prisoners to Bagram and the Afghan prison system.

Americans also wanted to fight terrorism without escalating or promulgating massive land wars, leaving the President with the best available option of intensifying airstrikes and the drone war. Where possible, the American government would capture and arrest terrorists and terrorist suspects and try them in court. Where impossible, the US government would kill them with the lowest footprint practical. There was never going to be a law enforcement solution to AQAP – and indeed, Yemen is a case where cooperating with sovereign authority would have enabled a brutal, torturing dictatorial regime whose leader the US has urged to step down. Would delivering non-US citizen al Qaeda members into the hands of the Saleh regime serve morality, or the interests of the Yemeni people? It is easy to get hung up on the procedural (but legally substantive) critique of the Awlaki killing and miss the real challenge of AQAP, which is that it has a safe haven hardly accessible to the Yemeni government, whose cooperation would come at a steep diplomatic price at this point.

Rothkopf, however, is deeply concerned about the precedent assassination sets:

we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane’s piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation … perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?

And then we’ll bomb whatever neighboring country was foolish enough to host a drone airstrip to attack us with, is what. After all, the US ability to conduct airstrikes inside other countries preceded drones, and US drones strikes have been dependent on secure friendly airbases near the areas we are targeting. Drones enabled us to conduct the attacks at an extremely high pace and use persistent ISR to ensure greater accuracy. However, no country could wage a campaign even a fraction of ours on US soil without local airbases, which we would find and eliminate.  I sincerely doubt US drone use, hover probematic, will magically grant other countries the capability to conduct the sustained campaign by aircraft (and not just unmanned ones, as Harvest Hawk and Dragon Spear certainly are not) from unmolested local bases. The ability to use aircraft to conduct an aerial targeted killing in the US is not really about having drones, it is about having bases and platforms capable of delivering warheads to foreheads securely and consistently. Just because we use drones frequently does not drive other countries to use them, certainly not against us. To paraphrase Stalin, how many air wings does moral equivalence have?

The assassination of American citizens by foreign powers is nothing new, unless one wishes to fixate on the unlikely novelty of it being conducted with foreign drones. Assassinations do occur in the United States. The Dirty War came home when the Tupamaros killed FBI agent Dan Mitrione and agents of Pinochet killed Allende’s former ambassador to the US, Orlando Letelier. The KMT may have murdered Henry Liu, too. A radical agent of the revolutionary Iranian regime murdered Ali Akbar Tatabatabei.

The low frequency of these events has very little to do with precedent and very much to do with the motives and calculation of costs and benefits by potential foreign assassins. For a weaker country or political entity, getting away with assassination is easier with lower technology and complexity, rather than something as overt as a drone bombing campaign, as the aforementioned difficulties demonstrate. However, we should remember that countries use assassinations and bombing when they appear appropriate, sometimes without equivalent provocation. Russia’s probable murder of Alexander Litvienenko in the UK had very little to do with any precedent the UK set. New Zealand did nothing violent to invite the DGSE bombing the Rainbow Warrior.

As a factual observation, assassination and terrorism are tools of state power, and as such their use is shaped far more by what is expedient than by what seems morally acceptable. Moral acceptance plays into that expedience, but as covert actions, assassinations will never be written off by states with the perceived need and capability to pursue them. Simply forgoing their use will likely have relatively little bearing on the decision of other polities to use this tool, since the decision to employ a drone is based primarily on the needs and constraints of that country rather than what the US is doing with theirs, and the primary constraints on foreign countries using drones against US citizens are practical, not ethical.

Rothkopf closes by asking if a liberal foreign policy is really possible or if “self-righteous” American exceptionalism makes it impossible. This question seems wrong to me. The faults Rothkopf describes are not merely the result of realism dressing itself up in liberal garb. They are part of the implementation of genuinely liberal policy preferences. A country which no longer wants to conduct foreign occupations is going to be less likely to intervene against genocidal regimes and more likely to pursue assassinations against targets involved in terrorist conspiracies against it. A country unwilling to detain and torture enemies of the state close to home will be more likely to do so or enable in an area it can legally call a war zone. These policies do not make Obama illiberal, they just reveal that liberalism, like most domestic political agendas exported overseas to a world of anarchy, war, and expedience, tend to become extremely morally inconsistent (lest anyone think I am being unfair to Rothkopf and liberalism, the problem of an ideologically consistent conservative [and communist!] foreign policies are also apparent from a quick scan of the last 100 years). It is better to ask if this is simply endemic to foreign policies generally, particularly for those who view foreign policy as a natural extension of political principles with their origins in the domestic sphere. Blaming the problem on “self-righteous exceptionalism” is a moot point. American exceptionalism has come in many forms (isolationism, imperialism, liberalism, conservatism), it is a post facto justification for these moral failings, not their source.

A moral foreign policy is not impossible, nor is a liberally informed one. However, if the standard by which we measure foreign policy is that it produces no effects which undermine any other principles of a foreign policy, then indeed, it is impossible. However, such a standard for morality in foreign policy is ridiculous. There will never be a stable end state where unintended consequences, particularly unintended moral consequences, do not occur. Liberals, or any other political inclination in foreign policy, would be wise not to write their position out of the foreign policy debate by holding their platforms to such impossible standards.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2011 8:55 pm

    I know where Rothkopf blogs so I can find the piece if I want to, but for the record the link in your first graph is broken.


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