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Kennan, Paul, and Moralism in Foreign Policy

There is a lot in Richard Cohen’s column on Ron Paul that I find objectionable, but these are the worst lines:

Just as troubling, though, is what was known about Paul all along — and that is a foreign policy, if it can be called that, drained of morality. His total indifference to what happens overseas [bold mine-DL] is chilling and reminiscent of the old isolationism, best articulated in Des Moines — a world capital this election season — by Charles Lindbergh back in 1941.

It is typical for interventionists to portray their opponents as amoral. According to this view, a person is simply “indifferent” to events elsewhere unless he supports state coercion and violence in response to it. If someone believes that our government should not attack another state, this is supposedly evidence of his amoral thinking. This seems to me to be a twisting of the language of morality to pursue unjust ends.

Even so, this is still a strange accusation. One would think that the U.S. is very much in need of a foreign policy that is not defined by what Kennan called “moralistic-legalistic” thinking. We have just been through a decade in which the government launched so-called preventive war to “prevent” a threat that was never going to exist, engaged in torture of detainees, and put suspects in indefinite detention, and all the while the government and its defenders insisted that all of this was vitally important for combating evil. “Moral clarity” has been one of the favorite phrases of contemporary militarists and hawks for some time now. The fruits of “moral clarity” in action have been aggressive warfare, lawbreaking, and the abuse of prisoners. Paul has spoken out and voted against all of these things, and his foreign policy is the one “drained of morality”? Is this some sort of sick joke?

For Kennan, morality was not irrelevant to policy-making, but he perceived a far greater danger from policies driven by moralism. To the extent that moralism enables the state to wage unnecessary wars, violate constitutional protections, and acquire more power, I suspect that Rep. Paul agrees with this concern. Consider this passage from Righteous Realists:

In essence, Kennan has defined his brand of realism by pitting against a moralistic-legalistic world view. Unfortunately, this has led to some confusion about his views on morality and foreign policy. Himself a highly principled and moral man, Kennan has been anything but amoral in his attitudes about private life and public policy. What he has opposed is the misuse of morality as a concept and a principle. He has seen to many crusades and causes and too many self-righteous politicians to be taken in by utopian rhetoric. Moralism, Kennan has argued, has too often been used merely to mobilize the public; it has obfuscated more than it has clarified.

A common interventionist tactic is to define morality in a way that privileges using force, and then to treat anyone opposed to this as lacking in morality. Cohen’s main problem with Paul’s foreign policy seems to center on humanitarian intervention, which Cohen supports and Paul rejects. There are many arguments against humanitarian intervention that usually object to such actions in the name of national interest, international law, and regional stability, but there are important moral arguments as well. The fact that the Libyan intervention “worked” in toppling a government doesn’t justify what the U.S. and our allies did, unless one subscribes to the view that the ends justify the means.

Regime change was not among the war’s original stated goals. Indeed, Obama specifically ruled out regime change as a goal when presenting the war to the public. The reason for this was that the intervening governments did not have authorization to seek regime change. In the name of protecting civilians in another country, several major governments started a war, attacked a government that had done nothing to any of them, and intensified a low-level conflict into a war that reportedly killed tens of thousands. Paul opposed this action because the U.S. had nothing at stake in this conflict, and because he objected to attacking another government that had not attacked us, but also because the administration did not seek and did not receive proper legal authorization from Congress to use force against Libya. Libya is a very good example of how moralistic arguments are used to start unnecessary wars.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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