David Rothkopf

Is America incapable of conducting a moral foreign policy?

We can’t blame the moral failures of today on someone else. 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 ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

We can’t blame the moral failures of today on someone else.

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.

(And before all the "yes, buts…": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century — more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that’s not a counter-argument, that’s the point.)

All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically — if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.

Look at the story running in today’s New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America’s Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country’s insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture’ during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.

Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.

Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane’s "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, 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?

Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don’t hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don’t debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don’t intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet’s environment.

Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.

We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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