Ross Douthat: Moralism has its limits in Middle East and U.S.

Noting about this can be reduced to a single moral argument. But, then, that’s always been the case.

By Ross Douthat / The New York Times

Foreign policy can make a mockery of moral certitude. You’re trying to master a landscape of anarchy policed by violence, where ideological differences make American polarization look like genial neighborliness, where even a superpower’s ability to impose its will dissolves with distance, where any grand project requires alliances with tyranny and worse.

This seems clear when you consider the dilemmas of the past. It’s why the “good war” of World War II involved a partnership with a monster in Moscow and the subjection of half of Europe to totalitarian oppression. It’s why the “bad war” of Vietnam was only escaped at the cost of betraying the South Vietnamese and making a deal with yet another monster in Beijing.

But in active controversies the tragic vision can seem like a cold way of looking at the world. Lean into it too hard, and you get accused of ignoring injustice or recapitulating the indifference that gave cover to past atrocities.

Sometimes those accusations have some bite. A “realist” foreign policy can slide from describing power to excusing depredations. It can underestimate the power of a righteous cause — as I underestimated, for instance, Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself in 2022.

But seeing statecraft as a tragic balancing of evils is still essential, especially amid the kind of moral fervor that attends a conflict like Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. The alternative is a form of argument in which essential aspects of the world, being inconvenient to moral absolutism, simply disappear.

For example, reading the apologia for pro-Palestinian protests from certain left-wing intellectuals, you have a sense of both elision and exaggeration, a hype around Israeli moral failures — it’s not enough for a war that yields so many casualties to be unjust, if it’s wrong it must be genocide — that ends up suppressing the harsh implications of a simple call for peace.

A representative passage, from Pankaj Mishra in The London Review of Books, describes many protesters as “motivated by the simple wish to uphold the ideals that seemed so universally desirable after 1945: respect for freedom, tolerance for the otherness of beliefs and ways of life; solidarity with human suffering; and a sense of moral responsibility for the weak and persecuted.”

No doubt many campus protesters have these motivations. The difficulty is that liberal “freedom” is on offer almost nowhere in the Middle East, certainly not in Gaza under Hamas’ rule, and the most challenging “otherness of beliefs” in this situation are the beliefs that motivated the massacres of Oct. 7.

Another difficulty is that some instigators of the protests, including some of the student groups that were at work immediately after Oct. 7, seem untroubled by this fact, and perfectly comfortable with supporting not just peaceful negotiation but a revolutionary struggle led by Islamist fanatics.

Which yields the moral dilemma the protests don’t acknowledge: Ending the war on the terms they want could grant a major strategic victory to the regional alliance dedicated to the murder of Israelis and their expulsion from the Middle East.

Maybe the Israel-Hamas war is unjust enough, and Israeli goals unachievable enough, that there’s no alternative to vindicating Hamas’ blood-soaked strategy. But you have to be honest about what you’re endorsing: a brutal weighing-out of evils, not any sort of triumph for “universally desirable” ideals.

Then a similar point applies to supporters of the Israeli war, for whom moral considerations — the evil of Hamas, the historical suffering of the Jewish people, the special American relationship with Israel — are invoked as an argument-ender in an inflexible way. We are constantly urged to “stand with Israel” when it’s unclear if Israel knows what it’s doing. Joe Biden’s administration is chastised for betrayal when it tries to influence Israel’s warmaking, even though the Israeli government’s decisions before and since Oct. 7 do not inspire great confidence.

Biden’s specific attempts to micromanage the conflict may be misguided or hamfisted. But it’s not misguided for America, an imperium dealing with multiplying threats, to decline to write a blank check for a war being waged without a clear plan for victory or for peace.

The alternative articulated by, for instance, Mitt Romney — “We stand by allies, we don’t second-guess them” — is not a serious policy for a hegemon balancing its global obligations. And the religious vision of House Speaker Mike Johnson and other Christian Zionists, where Israel’s re-founding is evidence of a providential plan, does not imply that Israeli governments are immune from strategic blunders. Go read the Book of Kings!

In each case, you have a desire that mirrors the impulse of the left-wing intellectuals — to make foreign policy easy by condensing everything to a single moral judgment. But the problems of the world cannot be so easily reduced.

Being cold-eyed and tragic-minded does not mean abandoning morality. But it means recognizing that often nobody is simply right, no single approach is morally obvious, and no strategy is clean.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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