MORALS & FOREIGN POLICY
Morality and international politics do not mix easily. For good reason. War is the distinguishing trait of relations among states. And war is all about killing and maiming other human beings. Of course, war is episodic rather than continual. But the ubiquity of conflict situations remains the hallmark of inter-state relations. Violence is omnipresent – in mind if not in act.
Yet, we are creatures who have an innate ethical sense albeit we also have the innate capability for harming others. The former has two sources. First, it derives from our awareness that survival as a species in competition with other species conveys a basic solidarity even as we contest with other humans – at times violently. Second, every organized society develops a code of conduct that proscribes a range of disruptive actions: violent attacks foremost among them. In effect, they extend the instincts/logic of family or tribal identity to an abstract grouping. Social morality in concept and doctrine derives from those elementary facts of collective life.
At the international level, there is no equivalent authoritative government, organized society or – above all – communal sentiment. Hence, the logic of realpolitik predominates. It is structurally determined whatever the proximate reasons for any particular war might be. Still, war as much as peace at any given time is a function of circumstances. The international disorder is not tantamount to a state of anarchy; violent conflict does not occur in the manner of collisions among billiard balls after the break.
So, how does morality/ethics enter into the picture?
1. The moral standard applicable to political affairs is different from that applicable to individual behavior. The latter entails ultimate ends and abstract norms. The former gives place only to an “ethic of responsibility” – as Max Weber explained. No Ten Commandments or their counterpart in other religious traditions is an appropriate benchmark for appraising good or bad conduct.
2. Violent actions taken against other societies usually are seen as requiring a justification. Not always, of course. At the extreme, there were the Huns, the Mongols, the Nazis who launched wars and committed atrocities because they felt like it or for self-glorification. For others, conquest was its own justification. Implicit in imperial expansion has been the notion that superiority itself endows conquest with rightness. For still others, the flame of ideology (religious or otherwise) ignites violent acts aimed at propagation of the TRUTH or to fulfill DESTINY.
3. The more autocratic the ruler, the less accountable he or she is, the less need there is for justification. Therefore, the spread of literacy and the heightening of awareness among the mass (or some substantial segment) has made legitimation increasingly important. Popular democracy has made it an imperative.
4. That need has proven less of a hindrance than Kant, and many others, presumed. However, justification of war does, as a consequence, draw upon some moral imagery. Where necessity is relatively less apparent, i.e. where defense of the native territory is not at issue, warring requires to be legitimated as ‘right.’
5. A closely related, even more acute requirement, is to pursue war in a manner that conforms to general ethical standards. That has several aspects. There should be a persuasive explanation of why the country has to go to war – that is one. Non-violent means of resolving the underlying conflicts should be pursued until proven futile – that is two. The minimum requisite force should be used – that is three. Enemy troops should be treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Convention and norms of the society – that’s four. Non-combatants (civilians) should be spared the dangers of combat whenever reasonably possible. That’s five.
6. Here is where the question of war and morality gets interesting. For most of history, wars were fought between armies composed of ‘professionals’ and volunteers. They were limited in space and time. Battles were intermittent. Civilians suffered mainly from two causes: the disruption of normal civil life, and plunder. That changed with the advent of total war wherein the resources of entire societies (human and economic) were mobilized to fight prolonged wars. The logic of that circumstance made production sites and whole cities targets. Airplanes created the means to do so on a massive scale. Thus: Rotterdam, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, the fire-bombing of Tokyo and ultimately Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was not any appreciable moral outrage about the resulting indiscriminate murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Total war itself implied the highest stakes; therefore, everything goes.
7. The experience of World War II did not bury the idea that there were ‘civilized’ standards of war which should be observed. The United States and other Western countries, in particular, continued to enunciate principles that forbade the committing of atrocities against individual civilians or defenseless prisoners. That code presumes that an identifiable soldier is in a position to decide whether or not to harm a vulnerable individual on the other side. In modern war, however, the ‘other side’ most often is not visible and the individual on our side does not have much discretion over how to act. Where those conditions do not obtain, ethical rules can still be applied: e.g. in the wake of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Admittedly, many atrocities are not acknowledged or they are covered-up. (By the way, the officer who composed the first draft of the initial My Lai whitewash for the U.S. Army was then Major Colin Powell – he of ‘aluminum tubes’ fame)
8. Overall, there has been a loosening of ethical standards and less inclination to enforce them. That trend, in the U.S., has been greatly accentuated by the War On Terror. It has something to do with the level of emotion (the thirst for revenge in the wake of 9/11), the nature of counter-insurgency warfare, a heightened sense of vulnerability, the end of the draft and the professionalization of the armed forces, the widespread use of uncontrolled mercenaries, an inattentive public absorbed with their private lives. Torture was declared the official policy of the United States government and ordered from the White House. It was widely carried out not just at Guantanamo and the ‘black sites’ but in the field as well albeit with far less attention. Round-ups and detention of suspect populations were commonplace in Iraq. They again are being done in Iraq and Syria by our local allies with American backing. Abuse of civilians in ‘search-and-capture’ missions have been frequent and remain so in Afghanistan.
9. Most serious are the enormous civilian casualties caused by American airstrikes and artillery barrages. Some, those resulting from strikes on compounds or groups of persons by drones and planes acting blindly or at the request of local parties with their own agenda (the Kunduz hospital massacre), are specific enough to involve individual victims and individual perpetrators. Not a single one has been identified and held accountable. Far more consequential are the attacks on population centers a la WW II. The initial assault on Iraq, “Shock & Awe,” killed thousands of Iraqis. The 2004 ‘liberation’ of Falluja killed an estimated few hundreds. (Leaving aside wounded in both cases). The ‘liberation’ of Mosul and Raqqa entailed massive firepower. 20,000 bombs or artillery shells landed on Raqqa alone. 90% of the city’s buildings are destroyed. No water, no electricity, little food – still. Untold thousands died as a direct result. Estimates by neutral, knowledgeable sources suggest deaths upwards of 40,000. Many are still buried in the rubble. The United States government denies these figures; its delayed, ever changing number is 300-400 hundred. One per every 50 loads of 500 pound bombs and shells. These are lies, of course – calculated lies.
10. The discrepancy between the nominal dedication to observing humane standards of war, on the one hand, and the realities of methods, arms, and aims, on the other, has made lies and hypocrisy the norm. Self-interested parties accept that. The public sublimates it. The racists and neo-Fascists who go berserk at Trump rallies celebrate it – as does the Orangutan himself.
11. This is the background to the American reaction to the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi by the Trump family’s close friend Mohammed bin-Salman. There is not much mystery about MBS’ behavior. He is an ego-maniac, somewhat unhinged, who is drunk with power and accustomed to torture and kill at whim. His campaign of annihilation against the Houthis of Yemen indicates the depths of his depravity and the scope of his ambition. So, too, his imprisoning of 400 wealthy Saudis in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton where they were physically abused until they coughed up their riches for his personal use (e.g. spending $500 million for a mislabeled ‘Leonardo’ painting). A good imitation of Caligula and Nero. So, too, his kidnapping and physical abuse of the Prime Minister of Lebanon (Saad Hariri) – who owed MBS money and, therefore, political fealty. In these ruthless ventures, he has been encouraged by the American government. The Saudi bombing of Yemen to smithereens literally, physically could not happen without participation of the Pentagon. It flies the refueling planes without which his air force could not reach their targets on two-way missions. It provides the detailed electronic Intelligence critical to the mission. American military personnel sit in the very command rooms from which the operations are conducted. In addition, Washington provides unqualified diplomatic cover and justification. This policy was inaugurated by Barack Obama and continued by Trump. In legal terms, we are an accessory before, during and after the fact of MBS’ crimes in Yemen.
12. What responsibility do we have for the Khashoggi murder? Our main responsibility lies in helping instill MBS’ deep sense of impunity. In addition, we encouraged the KAS’ alliance with Israel which gave MBS further confidence that active lobbying in Washington and the media would insulate him from any retribution. Hence, he is furious that some people in the West (not including the White House) are making such a fuss over the pedestrian act of whacking an annoying critic. Furthermore, we set the example and the precedent for the assassination of political enemies. Our program of drone killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Chad and a number of other countries has gone a long ways toward establishing the de facto legitimacy of extra-judicial murder as a standard combat tactic. In the United States, it is accepted as such. Indeed, it is praised by many as Obama’s one worthy contribution to the War On Terror since it involves no U.S. casualties – thereby, making prosecution of the War more palatable to the public. Targeted assassination is now in the playbook. The Israelis inaugurated it; we refined it and extended it; MBS emulates us; others will follow. The level of inhibition varies from leader and by target. American’s singular influence in setting fashions means that inhibition will weaken most everywhere and the range of individuals targeted will widen.
13. The tactic of knocking-off the enemy’s chief has deep historical roots. In the age of kings and emperors, it was tempting to think of decapitating the opposition. Normally, it was a vain hope, though. They were out of reach. Also, there was always some inhibition since the prospect of retaliation in kind was unappealing. There was opportunity when a valiant leader took the field at the head of his troops – as did Alexander as well as several others. The annals are replete with tales of armies breaking and running when their champion was killed or incapacitated. In modern warfare, it is generally felt that no one leader is indispensable – certainly not generals. Think of Afghanistan, where the parade of American commanders now numbers 17, not due to attrition but rather to an odd ritual of rotation. Anyway, it has been a totally irrelevant factor – like quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns or managers of West Ham. Robots would have done as well – or as badly. (In WW II, political leaders of extraordinary stature could make a difference: Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill).
Multiple assassinations as a method for thinning the enemies’ leadership ranks is something new. This novel notion has emerged from the endless cogitations on how to eliminate insurgent movements, especially jihadists ones of the Islamic persuasion. Its net effectiveness is immeasurable to date. It is fair to say that never before in the annals of warfare has a fighting force been found to have so many (nominal) commanders and sub-commanders, treasurers and propaganda chiefs as recorded on kill lists and successful executions.
14. The public reaction in the United States to Khashoggi’s grisly murder reveals some singular features of the prevailing attitude toward morality in foreign policy. The wide difference between the killing of one man in Istanbul and the decimation of thousands in Yemen by the same hand stands out – that is one. Anonymous murder on a mass scale is somehow less repugnant than the murder of one readily identifiable person by identifiable individuals – that is two. This common human trait is exaggerated by the decision of the mass media to ignore the human suffering in Yemen. That is three. If their fate had been given the graphic 24/7 publicity that deaths in Aleppo and East Ghouta allegedly caused by shelling from government forces (and fictitious gas attacks) were given, it would have registered. In the former case, you had a seemingly black-and-white story line pushed by the U.S. government – however confected – and colorized by the CIA/MI6 agents: the White Helmets. There was neither the political nor commercial motivation to lend the Yemeni atrocities similar treatment.
Morality counts for Americans. It still does even as the country has committed to playing the game of power politics most everybody else does, even as it has committed to a strategy of global dominance – by means violent as well as peaceable. They remain wedded to the belief that we are a moral people who compose a moral nation which follows the course of righteousness in the world. “When conquer we must, for our cause it is just; let this be our motto: In God is our trust.” Some acknowledge a few minor deviations; most do not go even that far. Hiroshima/Nagasaki? “We had no choice – it was them or us (hundreds of thousands G.I. casualties on the Honshu plain)”. Vietnam? Erase it from the national memory book. The illegal invasion of Iraq? 9/11 or “we were misinformed.” Guantanamo? Torture? ‘We have to protect ourselves?’ Raqqa? “Who’s he?” Yemen genocide? “Wasn’t the Boston bombing also genocide?” Imperialism? ‘We’re surrounded by enemies trying to do us in: Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Pakistan, Mexico, Honduras’ (check your daily news source for fresh additions to the list).’
This unthinking mental universe permits us to perpetuate other myths about our place in the world. We hear senior network journalists intone somberly that: “some in Washington worry that a weak reaction to the Khashoggi death will hurt our moral standing in the world – especially in the Middle East.” She probably does actually believe that the United States still has an exceptional moral standing to lose. Even after the record of the past few decades. Even after the kidnapping of thousands of children from their parents, scattering them to the four winds, leaving them at the mercy of predatory business outfits, and accepting that some inescapably will wind up in the hands of human traffickers. (The President’s implied message: “to Hell with the little bastards. It’s their mothers’ fault, anyway. We have to have an effective deterrence strategy – otherwise, we’ll be swamped by murderers and rapists. And I can’t let down my supporters who hate them even more than I do”). Even though it is inconceivable that any of our major friends and allies could be so calculatingly immoral. There is the tragedy – for everyone.
For the America that so many looked to for guidance in seeking enlightened political truth has become the model and inspiration for those who seek to evade it.
Views expressed are personal.
Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations; Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. He has held other teaching and research appointments at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Berkeley and the Brookings Institution. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 100 articles and published papers on foreign policy and politics. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and other news media.