Moral clarity in foreign policy

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison examines the confluence of moral clarity and political strategy.

(Robison) In the long running musical Oklahoma, the delightful Annie sings her confessional, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” in which she says that she’s known what’s right and what’s wrong since she was 10. Annie had moral clarity. But she goes on to sing that even though she is clear about right and wrong she chooses wrong anyway.

George W. Bush has moral clarity but he chooses right over wrong. His moral clarity is so clear that it scares a lot of people especially a lot of Europeans. The president, however, seems to believe that all those doubters not only lack moral clarity but are uncomfortable with such truth. What distresses a lot of these folks, as the president would refer to them, is that Mr. Bush’s vision of moral clarity looks a lot like those old John Wayne movies where the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong is as clear as the picture on the screen right there in front of you. There is no ambiguity.

The president’s repeated references to “evil doers” who are frequently a part of the “Axis of Evil” seems to play well in the polls at least so far. A couple of weeks ago the president visited the troops awaiting deployment at Fort Hood. In addressing these men and women, the president was clear: “Either you are with those who love freedom or you are with those who hate innocent life.” No wonder this scares people. It is a stance that equates moral clarity with moral simplicity. It fails to understand that, frequently, moral clarity is in recognizing nuance, subtlety, ambiguity and complexity.

Now, I know, indeed we all know, that the opposite of this is equally undesirable, which is the leader who cannot decide on a course of action because he or she cannot get through the complexity. But that isn’t the only alternative. The international edition of Newsweek last week ran a full-page opinion piece by the editor with the bold headline, “Morality is not a strategy.” He is right of course. It isn’t just mushy, morally ambivalent liberals who are distressed. There are even an increasing number of the president’s own party who are growing uncomfortable. One such person is Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a good friend of the president. Senator Hagel is just back from a trip to the Middle East, and upon his return he spoke at a meeting of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He now seriously questions the apparent impending invasion of Iraq because, he said, invading Iraq “will neither assure a democratic transition in Iraq, bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, nor assure stability in the Middle East.”

Now, dear friends, let’s be clear. Sadam Hussein is among the worst. He certainly meets my definition of being an evil man. Iraq, the Middle East and, indeed, the world would be better off without him. And it may be that we ought to invade Iraq and take him out. But, if so, it ought to be for carefully considered strategic reasons. And, if that is the case, the president of the United States has a responsibility to tell the rest of us what those strategic considerations are. So far, we don’t have those explanations. And, again to quote Newsweek, “Morality is not a strategy.”

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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