Without wanting to dwell too much on Roger Kimball’s response to the war in Georgia, his new post concerning the candidates’ reactions prompted two reactions. When I saw the headline, “The crisis in Georgia, 9/11, and the lessons of gratitude,” a strange thought flashed through my mind: “Maybe he’ll thank Putin for the help he provided us after 9/11!” The more elaborate version of that momentary thought would go something like this: “Kimball’s a fair-minded guy. He’s going to remind everyone that the first government to lend unequivocal support to the U.S. after 9/11 was the Russian government, and that Russia’s assistance and cooperation helped make the initial, overwhelmingly successful stages of the war in Afghanistan possible. Maybe he’ll even work in a reference to Solzhenitsyn’s last published interview in which the great man talked about a missed opportunity in forging better U.S.-Russian relations. I bet Kimball is going to temper all of his overheated rhetoric about Moscow reassembling the Soviet empire and remember that Russia was one of our strongest allies in the wake of the attacks.”
From there he might have gone on to argue that the truly tragic thing about this unnecessary war is that both nations could be valuable U.S. allies, and that through a series of mistakes our ties to Georgia became one of the causes of the deterioration in previously decent U.S.-Russian relations. Kimball could then have said that it makes no sense to perpetuate Cold War attitudes towards Russia in a post-9/11 world when a strong Washington-Moscow relationship is more vital than ever. No such luck. The post wasn’t about that at all.
Instead, Kimball offered these observations towards the end of the post:
On 9/11 we were grateful to have a leader who could distinguish between friends and enemies and who was not so crippled by moral relativism that he believed that victims should be equated with their victimizers. In 2008, we have a choice between 1) a man who knows evil and repudiates it and 2) a man who believes that there is “fault on both sides” and that discredited “progressive” institutions like the United Nations are better equipped to deal with disputes among sovereign nations than the nations themselves.
Which would you choose?
If I have only those choices and #2 is supposed to be Obama, then I would choose Obama. No question about it. It’s not even close. You have to wonder how Kimball thinks wars between sovereign nations will be resolved if international institutions are rejected entirely and one of the belligerents is much weaker than the other. It won’t work out well for the small country. That much is certain. In any case, after the last nearly seven years since 9/11, we have seen how the instinct that served Bush reasonably well in responding to terrorist attacks have been one of his most ruinous flaws in handling foreign policy questions, because he has consistently looked at conflicts and threats simply in terms of whether or not such-and-such a regime is to one degree or another evil. I agree that McCain is very much like Bush in his aversion to complexity and hostility to the idea that both sides in a conflict usually do bear some share of the blame. In this view, one side serves the forces of darkness and the other is simply resisting evil. This view also contributes to the dehumanization and denigration of everyone on the side that is deemed reprobate, and it excuses injustices committed against that side because they are supposed to embody evil.
But let’s think a little more about how Kimball is framing this. By likening McCain’s Georgia response to Bush’s response to 9/11, Kimball is implying that Russian retaliation in response to an escalation of violence is morally equivalent to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (i.e., both are evil). That would mean that Kimball thinks that the military of an internationally recognized government engaged in a retaliatory operation in defense of a proxy is doing something very similar to what Atta and the other hijackers did. This sort of equivalence will accomplish only one thing, which is unintentionally to legitimize the terrorists and blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force. Indeed, this is the logic employed by the very relativists Kimball attacks, since they also tend to blur these lines.
Even though Saakashvili escalated the violence and bears a large share of responsibility for the deaths that have followed, McCain evidently did not see that evil and did not repudiate it, which gets at the heart of how surprisingly flexible this gnostic approach to foreign affairs can be. There is certainly no foolish consistency for the morally clear. This moral clarity, so called, is the ability to see the crimes and villainy of people whom you already regard as villains, while being largely blind to one’s own flaws and those of one’s allies. It also seems to involve a healthy dose of ingratitude towards those governments that have lent support and aid to ours in times of crisis, provided that those with “moral clarity” have decided that a given government is malevolent.