U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15. U.S. Soldiers and Marines are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps./Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

The Tough Tensions of Foreign Policy

Between Service and the Recognition of Limits

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 12:53 PM

I join with our esteemed editor-in-chief in lamenting what has happened in Afghanistan. For the moment, I will leave the Christian reflection to him. For my part, I see the tragedy of Afghanistan as the unfortunate culmination of long-running battles in US politics, over US military involvement.

It is not so simple as a debate between interventionists, and non-interventionists. Indeed, declining to intervene in some humanitarian disaster presents moral challenges as readily as the projection of force does. This is so even while we recognize that military intervention creates unanticipated problems, even after the thorny considerations of just war theory, which never seem to be satisfied by any modern military intervention.

It has been the fashion of some “liberals” to imagine that some notion of the “international community” is preferable to unilateral actions by the United States. But given the differing political objectives even among the major players at the UN, any unified action in defense of human rights is a vain hope indeed.

Also, most articulations of non-intervention usually appeal to some vague notion of “national interest” without saying what that national interest is, or in what precisely it consists. I want to at least credit those who argue for US military intervention on many fronts with the correct intuition that moral obligations do not stop at national borders. On the other hand, there always have been a plethora of unintended consequences in any military intervention, which creates new problems.

Many activists lament a failure of political will, as, for example, in the Rwandan genocide, but we must recognize that political power in America is still notionally and actually tied to the democratic will. We must temper our criticisms of US political leaders, at least in recognition of the fact that their failure to act with boldness in particular situations is a reflection of our ambivalence as a whole on the questions of national interest, war, and cooperation in supranational organizations.

It is probably the case that no particular set of experts has the magic bullet to prevent the misfortunes attached to the decisions of some previous set of experts. I notice that most questions of urgency today in foreign policy are whittling themselves down to the use of force, or not. To sit and wait risks the possibility that some erstwhile opponent will do or achieve the thing we do not want them to achieve.

What special soothing words, for example, will lead Iran to dismantle its nuclear program? Is the US commitment to non-proliferation strong enough that the use of force is desirable? What collection of shared interests will allow a multinational coalition of negotiators to talk any of the “pariah states” down from various ledges?

We the people are caught between our own snares, in the sense that most of us are motivated by some sort of partisanship. I doubt that any majority of us— or any of us as individuals— has a well-articulated view of when to use force or not. It is likely that most of us will seize upon any negative happening to use against the politicians we dislike.

The American politician is stuck in an impossible situation: he or she is beholden to majority opinion, which is almost always conflicted, or even incoherent. It takes a person of special character to ignore the instinct of political self-preservation, in the service to some set of principles, when to actually do this with any consistency will assure that one is no longer an elected official. We need to stop blaming our politicians, and start blaming ourselves.

On the other hand, the rewards of this political system are tied to individual political self-preservation, while we mouth the proper pieties to acting in the public interest. Our own participation is not designed to produce outcomes in the public interest. As countless political scientists have noted, an individual congressmen rarely has a poor approval rating from his own constituents, but Congress as a whole rarely receives a rating that reaches 30%.

And again, what is the public interest, in a global community? By what means would it become known and expressed? We have a few examples of flagrant violations of human dignity in the 20th century; in that sense, we have a general idea of what ought not to be done. Even so, we want the world to live as one, without knowing exactly what that means, or what it would look like.

For now, the people of Afghanistan again suffer under a monstrous tyranny. It’s one that the United States took great pains to thwart, but now lacks the democratic will to continue opposing.

That is a tragedy, but a tragedy that may have been unavoidable.

Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.

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