IEngage: The need to act is clear and moral

Is the West morally duplicitous in its policies toward Syria?

Netanyahu and Obama looking same direction 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama looking same direction 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Is the West morally duplicitous in its policies toward Syria? Are its actions the result of moral outrage at the carnage inflicted by chemical weapons, or is its aim to weaken the Iranian-Syrian axis and to overthrow President Assad, and is merely hiding behind the use of chemicals? If it disdains military dictatorships and holds the murder of civilian populations to be morally indefensible, how does one distinguish between blood spilled in Syria and Egypt? In a world where consistency is the highest virtue, the Russians and the Chinese always come out on top.
Their foreign policy is motivated solely by national selfinterest.
Moral concerns are never a part of their considerations, unless the universal maximization of happiness is somehow inextricably tied to the fulfillment of their particular interests. The nice thing about the Chinese and the Russians is their honesty.
Morality does not enter into their political discourse, nor do they pretend that it does.
Western liberal democracies, however, and principally the United States, find ourselves particularly challenged in the international political arena. As liberal democracies, we believe in the inalienable rights of individuals, whether they are citizens of our nation or of others. The same inalienable human rights which inhibit the majority within a state from imposing its will on the minority also constrain a nation from acting within the borders of another and ought to guide one’s foreign policies in support of those who share these values. Democracies advocate the spread of democracy not out of self-interest but out of the moral principles on which we stand.
A commitment to human rights, however, does not make the pursuit of self-interest morally flawed or even morally neutral. Unto itself, devoid of consequences to others, it is even morally obligatory. In the Jewish tradition we are taught that love of self is the foundation on which love of neighbor resides (Leviticus 19), and that your life takes precedence over others’ (BT Baba Metzia 62a). Human life is sacred because we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 9), and that sacredness cannot apply to others if it is not applied to oneself.
The difficult question pertains to the limitations on the moral duty of self-preservation and where the rights of others ought to prevail.
Our tradition teaches us that if an individual is walking in the desert and is in possession of only enough water to sustain him or herself, he is obligated to consume the water and neither give it nor share it with another if the consequences would be detrimental to his or her own safety (BT Baba Metzia 62a). It teaches that if someone rises to kill you, you are to kill them first. (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4). It also teaches, however, that one is forbidden to take another life if commanded to do so, in order to save one’s own life, for who knows if “your blood is redder”? (BT Sanhedrin 74a) Self-defense is morally required but does not allow the intentional and direct killing of innocents.
In the real world, a certain measure of “dirty hands” is morally tolerated in the pursuit of moral obligations and self-defense, be it individual or national. No military action would be morally acceptable if there were a blanket prohibition on any and all noncombatant casualties.
We limit the extent of our “dirty hands” by ensuring that actions are motivated by a just cause (selfdefense), by prohibiting the targeting of civilians, by measuring harm to benefit, and by demanding a proportionate use of force. These considerations do not cleanse the “dirtiness” of one’s hands but make it morally tolerable and possibly morally necessary.
When democratic societies support oppressive dictatorships which sell them oil and attack those that don’t, the hands are not merely dirty, but smelly as well. The odor becomes ever more odious when the political or military sanctions are hidden behind moral argumentation.
As long as one aspires to morality within the realm of politics, the recognition of the presence of dirty hands is conducive to the placing of limits on its use, and to at least ensuring that it is limited to the most extreme cases of national self-interest.
We err, however, when we assume that because we ought to be motivated by moral considerations in our foreign policy, there is in all instances moral clarity with regards to what we ought to do. For example, in Egypt the challenge of supporting a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood lies in the fact that its track record (Iran, Gaza) is to support the democratic process which gets it elected and to undermine a democratic process which could lead to it losing power.
A party which supports one democratic election and not two is hardly an ally of human rights advocates.
The fact simply is that when it comes to Egypt, we do not have a clear moral mandate. What makes it even more confusing is that our national interests aren’t clear either and depend in no small measure on the imprecise calculation of who will win in the end.
When it comes to Syria we face a similar dilemma. It is not clear which faction is more attuned to our moral and democratic principles, or if in fact either is committed to them at all. Wanton murder is being perpetrated in the light of day, yet it is not at all clear that the support of one side over the other will bring it to an end.
The use of chemical weapons, however, is not merely a political redline but a moral one. It is not that death by ingesting poison gases is morally more corrupt than death by sword or bullet (see Rwanda). However, if one of our moral instincts obligates us to ensure the maximization of happiness and well-being, the use of weapons of mass destruction identifies the individual or regime that uses them as particularly evil and dangerous to the well-being of the world that we are morally obligated to preserve.
Are we morally duplicitous and inconsistent, and are our motivations pure? Without doubt, moral inconsistency plagues us all, and our moral obligation is to strive to limit that inconsistency while knowing fully well that it will never be eradicated. The support of one’s moral right to self-preservation versus the protection of the inalienable rights of others will invariably lead to dirty compromises and failures. The inability to be morally consistent, however, in no way undermines the moral legitimacy in those cases when one is acting justly. Human nature, society, and politics are flawed, and the placement of consistency as the ultimate value is not a force for moral improvement but moral corruption.
It inhibits the doing of good under the claim that one cannot do so unless one always does so, and sanctions the doing of evil, for unless one is consistent, doing of the good is not obligatory.
When it comes to the purity of motivation, the ground is even murkier, as the line between mere self-interest and the moral obligation of self-preservation is blurry at best. Kant argued that the morality of an act is inextricably connected to one’s moral intent, but the Jewish tradition teaches that while intent is valuable, the doing of good even when not for its own sake is valuable and a critical step in creating a moral universe. The central question we must ask ourselves is whether our actions are good and morally defensible, freeing ourselves from the impossible psychological analysis of motivation in the realm of international politics.
In the Middle East our moral responsibilities and motivations are not always clear. It is not merely our hands which are dirty but reality itself. That said, there are times when our moral responsibilities are evident.
Preserving the redline against the use of weapons of mass destruction is such a time.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the Institute’s iENGAGE Project –