Morality in Foreign Policy

GEN. Maxwell Taylor made the rounds of college campuses in 1965, urging support for the Johnson administration's decision to expand US military involvement in Vietnam. I was one of a faculty panel asked to pose questions to him at the University of Connecticut. I noted that good motives - defending what President Lyndon Johnson called "the principle of self-determination that the people of South Vietnam should be able to choose their own course ... without terror and without fear" - could not by themsel ves justify the growing American intervention. Had our policymakers, I wondered, adequately assessed the totality of the costs we were likely to incur in obtaining our objectives? General Taylor replied: "How do you put a price on human freedom?" He was right, I believe, in insisting that American actions in Vietnam should be judged in terms of their larger morality, not by some grubby "cost-benefit analysis." But that begged the real question, which entailed figuring out just what it was that commitment to a moral policy in Vietnam required of us. That calculation had to factor in relative gains and costs.

The policy of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam ultimately failed the test of morality, not because those who designed it had shabby motives, but because their vast miscalculation of costs did great harm. A decade of involvement saw nearly 50,000 Americans killed, roughly $150 billion expended, the country deeply divided, and US foreign policy left crippled.

I review this experience because the country has again found itself during the Gulf conflict with the question of where commitment to a policy grounded in moral judgments leads us. In deciding to commit American forces to overturn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, President Bush argued that a failure to act would be harmful, for reasons that included but reached far beyond our economic interests. The US had the military capacity to overturn the Iraqi invasion with relatively low costs. Given this, with compell ing US and world economic incentives to intervene, and with an opportunity to discourage aggression by others of Saddam Hussein's ilk, for America not to have acted as it did would have been an error of staggering proportions. We and the entire world community would have continued to pay its costs of increased international gangsterism. Most Americans understood this.

What, then, was the moral course for US policy in the wake of the military victory? The Bush administration's answer was, I believe, the right one: In the first place, that our armies should not march to Baghdad and then impose an American settlement on Iraqi politics - even though not doing so would leave the people of Iraq under the control of brutal forces. This was right, because there are limits to what even this wealthy and powerful nation can achieve in a world full of problems, and in what it sh ould consider its right to attempt to achieve. This is a moral calculation, not, as some critics have charged, one of narrowly self-interested "pragmatism."

So, too, is it policy grounded in moral judgment to decide that the US can do more that is positive for long-term development in the Middle East by working with such countries in the region as Turkey and Saudi Arabia - which means, yes, paying some attention to their interests - than by going it alone. A moral foreign policy lies somewhere in between telling countries with which we are allied that "anything goes" and ignoring their interests.

America has, many of us believe, a high moral role to play in the world which involves assisting in advancing freedom. Of course, we have more prosaic interests, but promoting freedom, a central part of our national idea, is in the national interest. Playing this role requires that US leaders ask neither too little nor too much of the American people. The former abandons our values and our power; the latter unintentionally has the same end result - as in the case of Vietnam, driving us into frustrated w ithdrawal.

Striking the right balance between too much and too little, and then employing our resources most effectively in promoting freedom, is of course very hard. No president will always get it right. But it's wrong to claim, as so many critics, right and left, have been doing in recent weeks, that the administration has abandoned moral judgments for a callous realpolitik.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Morality in Foreign Policy
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today