Morals and Foreign Policy

By Dr. Michael Brenner

Morality and international politics do not mix easily. For good reason. War is the distinguishing trait of relations among states. And war is all about killing and maiming other human beings. Of course, war is episodic rather than continuous. But the ubiquity of conflict situations remains the hallmark of inter-state relations. Violence is omnipresent – in mind if not in act.

Yet, we are creatures who have an innate ethical sense – genetic rather than conceptual, albeit we also have the innate capacity to harm others. First, it derives from our awareness that survival as a species in competition with other species conveys a basic solidarity even as we contest with other humans – at times violently. Second, every organized society develops a code of conduct that proscribes a range of disruptive actions: violent attacks foremost among them. In effect, they extend the instincts/logic of family or tribal identity to an abstract grouping – covering a considerable genetic range. Social morality in concept and doctrine derives from those elementary facts of collective life.

At the international level, there is no equivalent authoritative government, organized society or – above all – communal sentiment. Hence, the logic of realpolitik predominates. It is structurally determined whatever the proximate reasons for any particular war might be. Still, war as much as peace at any given time is a function of circumstances. War is a social phenomenon – not the expression of humans’ innate penchant for violent combat. The international disorder is not tantamount to a state of anarchy; violent encounters do not occur in the manner of collisions among billiard balls after the break.

So, how does morality/ethics enter into the picture?

The moral standard applicable to political affairs is different from that applicable to individual behavior. The latter entails ultimate ends and abstract norms. The former gives place only to an “ethic of responsibility” – as Max Weber explained. No Ten Commandments or their counterpart in other religious traditions exists as an appropriate benchmark for appraising good or bad conduct. – certainly not of the collectivities (states) which are the protagonists.

Violent actions taken against other societies usually are felt as requiring a justification. Not always, of course. At the extreme, there were the Huns, the Mongols, Timur, and the Nazis who launched wars and committed atrocities because they felt like it or for self-glorification. For others, conquest was its own justification. Implicit in imperial expansion has stemmed from the notion that superiority itself endows conquest with rightness. For still others, the flame of ideology (religious or otherwise) ignites violent acts aimed at the propagation of the truth or to fulfil destiny.

The more autocratic the ruler, the less accountable he or she is, the less need there is for justification. Therefore, the spread of literacy and the heightening of awareness among the masses (or some substantial segment) has made legitimation increasingly important. Popular democracy made it an imperative.

That need has proven less of a hindrance to war-making than Kant, and many others, presumed. However, justification of war does, as a consequence, draw upon some moral imagery. Where necessity is less than self-evident, i.e. where the defense of the native territory is not at issue, warring needs to be legitimated as ‘right.’

A closely related, even more acute requirement, is to pursue war in a manner that conforms to society’s generalized ethical standards. That has several aspects. There should be a persuasive explanation of why the country has to go to war – that is one. Non-violent means of resolving the underlying conflicts should be pursued until proven futile – that is two. The minimum requisite force should be used – that is three. Enemy troops should be treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Convention and norms of the society – that is four. Non-combatants (civilians) should be spared the dangers of combat whenever reasonably possible. That is five.

Here is where the question of war and morality gets interesting. For most of history, wars were fought between armies composed of ‘professionals’ and volunteers. They were limited in space and time. Battles were intermittent. Civilians suffered mainly from two causes: the disruption of normal civil life, and plunder. That changed with the advent of total war wherein the resources of entire societies (human and economic) were mobilized to fight prolonged wars. The logic of that circumstance made production sites and whole cities targets. Airplanes created the means to do so on a massive scale. Thus: Rotterdam, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, and ultimately Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was not any appreciable moral outrage about the resulting indiscriminate murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Total war itself implied the highest stakes; therefore, everything goes.

The experience of World War II did not bury the idea that there were ‘civilized’ standards of war that should be observed. The United States and other Western countries, in particular, continued to enunciate principles that forbade the committing of atrocities against individual civilians or defenseless prisoners. That code presumes that an identifiable soldier is in a position to decide whether or not to harm a vulnerable individual on the other side. In modern war, however, the ‘other side’ most often is not visible and the individual on our side does not have much discretion over how to act. Where those conditions do not obtain, ethical rules can still be applied: e.g. in the wake of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Admittedly, many atrocities are not acknowledged or they are covered up. (By the way, the officer who composed the first draft of the initial My Lai whitewash for the U.S. Army was then Major Colin Powell – he of ‘aluminum tubes’ infamy).

Overall, there has been a loosening of ethical standards and less inclination to enforce them. That trend, in the U.S., has been greatly accentuated by the War On Terror. It has something to do with the level of emotion (the thirst for revenge in the wake of 9/11), the nature of counter-insurgency warfare, a heightened sense of vulnerability, the end of the draft, and the professionalization of the armed forces, the widespread use of uncontrolled mercenaries, an inattentive public absorbed with their private lives. Torture was declared the official policy of the United States government and ordered from the White House. It was widely carried out not just at Guantanamo and the ‘black sites’ but in the field as well albeit with far less attention. Round-ups and detention of suspect populations were commonplace in Afghanistan. They again were done in Iraq and Syria by our local allies with American backing. Abuse of civilians in ‘search-and-capture/destroy’ missions has been frequent and remained so in Afghanistan until the very end.

Most serious are the enormous civilian casualties caused by American airstrikes and artillery barrages. Some, those resulting from attacks on compounds or groups of persons by drones and planes acting blindly or at the request of local parties with their own agenda (the Kunduz hospital massacre), are specific enough to involve individual victims and individual perpetrators. Not a single one has been identified and held accountable. Far more consequential are the attacks on population centers a la WW II. The initial assault on Iraq, “Shock & Awe,” killed thousands of Iraqis. The 2004 ‘liberation’ of Falluja killed an estimated few hundred. (Leaving aside wounded in both cases). The ‘liberation’ of Mosul and Raqqa entailed massive firepower. 50,000 bombs or artillery shells landed on Raqqa alone. 90% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. No water, no electricity, little food. Untold thousands died as a direct result. Estimates by neutral, knowledgeable sources suggest deaths upwards of 10,000 to 20,000. Many are still buried in the rubble. The United States government denies these figures; its long-delayed, ever-changing number is fewer than 500. One per every 100 shells or 500-pound bombs. These are lies, of course – calculated lies.

The discrepancy between the nominal dedication to observing humane standards of war, on the one hand, and the realities of methods, arms, and aims, on the other, has made lying, deception, and hypocrisy the norm. Self-interested parties accept that. The public sublimates it. The racists and neo-fascists who go berserk at Trump rallies celebrate it.

Militant Evangelical or fundamentalist Christians – who compose a significant segment of the MAGA movement, and exert influence across the political spectrum – are particularly exposed to criticism that their avowed religious principles are at war with their bellicose promotion of violent actions. It stems directly from the contradiction between the pronouncements of Jesus and the realities of the profane world. 

For many, it is the Book of Revelation, authored by the bizarre John of Patmos – the Christian Jew fleeing Roman authorities in Jerusalem after the suppression of the great revolt. He painted his grotesque forms the Armageddon when Jesus returns to pass final judgment. He offered no date, but set a crucial precondition: the Jewish people would reoccupy the lands of Moses. Then, they – and the rest of humanity– would be presented with a last chance to pronounce their belief in Jesus the Saviour and Son of God. That is why so many of the Christian fundamentalists are such fervent supporters of Israel no matter what their acts in treating the Palestinians in disregard of Jesus’ teaching.

Christ’s admonition to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22) had been predicated on the belief that the Day of Judgment was on the horizon. Its indefinite postponement left Christians in a quandary. The message of harmony and peace leading to eternal redemption could only be reconciled with war and violence by ingenious semantic gymnastics. It took four centuries for the nimble mind of Augustine to come up with the formula we call “just war theory.”

The popular, conventional interpretation is that “he believed that the only just reason to go to war was the desire for peace. We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace” – come to Jesus. In effect a recasting of Augustine as Woodrow Wilson. Its fuller meanings provide the basis for Christian rulers, and the Church itself, to distance themselves from Christ’s preaching while preserving an untroubled conscience.

Saint Augustine held that, while individuals should not resort immediately to violence, God has given the sword to government for good reason (based upon Romans 13:4). In Contra Faustum Manichaeum book 22 sections 69–76, Augustine argues that Christians, as part of a government, need not be ashamed of protecting peace and punishing wickedness when forced to do so by a government. Augustine asserted that this was a personal, philosophical stance: “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition. The sacred seat of virtue is the heart.”

Hence, a faithful Christian, pure of heart, can kill and maim at will while remaining in a ‘state of Grace, if the end is virtuous and betters the condition of the Christian community or the Church that guides/protects it. In short, it is wrong to run a sword through your neighbor for denting your car with his lawnmower, but it’s okay to “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” It’s a formulation that has served well, for nearly 2,000 years, the institution that claims to carry forth the revelation of a Prophet who preached against it.

Augustine asserted that peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Defense of oneself or others could be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority (the Church and those secular powers it has blessed) They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

While not breaking down the conditions necessary for war to be just, Augustine nonetheless originated the very phrase itself in his work The City of God:

Augustine’s sophistry should be understood in the context of his time and circumstances (circa 400 AD) when the Christian Church, now the official religion of the Roman Empire, engaged in a struggle to establish total dominion by snuffing out all non-believers: the Gnostics above all, the pagan sects, and the stubbornly skeptical Hebrews.*

Example: This is the background to the American reaction to the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi by the Trump family’s close friend Mohammed bin-Salman – now embraced by Joe Biden. There was not much mystery about MBS’ behavior. He is an ego-maniac, somewhat unhinged, drunk with power. His campaign of annihilation against the Houthis of Yemen indicates the depths of moral depravity and the scope of his ambition. So, too, his imprisoning of 400 wealthy Saudis in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton where they were physically abused until they coughed up their riches for his personal use (e.g. bidding $400 million for a mislabeled ‘Leonardo’ painting).

The Saudi bombing of Yemen that has turned it into a shooting gallery literally could not have happened without the participation of the Pentagon. It flies the refueling planes without which his air force could not reach their targets on two-way missions. It provides the detailed electronic Intelligence critical to the mission. American military personnel sit in the very command rooms from which the operations are conducted. In addition, Washington provides unqualified diplomatic cover and justification. This policy was inaugurated by Barack Obama, continued by Trump – and now reaffirmed by Joe Biden in his desperate hunt for oil treasure. In legal terms, we are an accessory before, during, and after the fact of MBS’ crimes in Yemen.

What responsibility do we have for the Khashoggi murder? Our main responsibility lies in helping instill MBS’ deep sense of impunity. In addition, we encouraged the KAS’ alliance with Israel which gave MBS further confidence that active lobbying in Washington and the media would insulate him from any retribution. Hence, he is furious that some people in the West (not including the White House) have made such a fuss over the pedestrian act of whacking an annoying critic. That is now demonstrated in his thwarting Washington’s will on oil production/pricing, his cozying up to China, and his taking Saudi oil exports off the dollar standard.

Furthermore, we set the example and the precedent for the assassination of political enemies. Our program of drone killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Chad, Niger, and a number of other countries has gone a long way toward establishing the de facto legitimacy of extra-judicial murder as a standard combat tactic.

In the United States, it is accepted as such. Indeed, it is praised by many as Obama’s one worthy contribution to the War on Terror since it risks no U.S. casualties – thereby, making prosecution of the War more palatable to the public. Targeted assassination is now in the playbook. The Israelis inaugurated it; we refined it and extended it; MBS emulates us; others will follow. The level of inhibition varies from leader to leader and by target. America’s singular influence in setting fashions means that inhibition will weaken almost everywhere and the range of individuals targeted will widen.

The tactic of knocking off the enemy’s chief has deep historical roots. In the age of kings and emperors, it was tempting to think of decapitating the opposition. Normally, it was a vain hope, though. They were out of reach. Also, there was always some inhibition since the prospect of retaliation in kind was unappealing. There was an opportunity when a valiant leader took the field at the head of his troops – as did Alexander as well as several others. The annals are replete with tales of armies breaking and running when their champion was killed or incapacitated. In modern warfare, it is generally felt that no one leader is indispensable – certainly not generals. Think of Afghanistan, where the parade of American commanders numbered 18, not due to attrition but rather to an odd ritual of rotation. Anyway, it has been a totally irrelevant factor – like whoever manages the Pittsburgh Pirates. Robots would have done as well – or as badly. (In WW II, political leaders of extraordinary stature could make a difference: Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill – so did generals, especially German and Soviet commanders).

Multiple assassinations as a method for thinning the enemies’ leadership ranks is something new. This novel notion has emerged from the endless cogitations on how to suppress insurgent movements, especially jihadist ones of the Islamic persuasion. Its net effectiveness is unmeasurable to date. It is fair to say that never before in the annals of warfare has a fighting force been found to have so many (nominal) commanders and sub-commanders, treasurers, and propaganda chiefs as recorded on kill lists.

The public reaction in the United States to Khashoggi’s grisly murder reveals some singular features of the prevailing attitude toward morality in foreign policy. The wide difference between the killing of one man in Istanbul and the decimation of thousands in Yemen by the same hand stands out – that is one. Anonymous murder on a mass scale is somehow less repugnant than the murder of one readily identifiable person by identifiable individuals – that is two. This common human trait is exaggerated by the decision of the mass media to ignore the human suffering in Yemen. That is three. If their fate had been given the graphic 24/7 publicity that deaths in Aleppo and East Ghouta allegedly caused by shelling from government forces (and fictitious gas attacks) – or in Ukraine -were given, it would have registered. In the former case, you had a seemingly black-and-white storyline pushed by the U.S. government – however, confected – and colorized by the CIA/MI6 agents: the White Helmets. There was neither the political nor commercial motivation to lend the Yemeni atrocities similar treatment.

The contrast with the American attitude toward Ukrainian civilians is stunning. What explains it? Part of the answer lies in the rude fact that it is harder to empathize with the Houthis who are brown-skinned Arab Muslims than the Ukrainians are fair-skinned Christians. ** What of the Russian civilians who are genetically identical? The inhabitants of the Donbas have suffered relentless shelling from 2014 until February 24, 2023 – until yesterday for those in Donetsk city. (A UN Commission estimates between 10,000 to 15,000 killed). Yet, their plight is systematically and comprehensively ignored. Indeed, the West – officials, MSM, and think tankers – have effaced the inconvenient truth that the 8 million self-identified Russians living in Ukraine (circa 2013) have ever existed. For all the concern they receive, they might as well be brown-skinned Arab Muslims. Such is the power of creative stereotyping and sublimation.
Our moral compass works in odd and mysterious ways. The ultimate paradox: were our paleolithic ancestors transported into the present, they would be amazed not only by our technological marvels and material abundance; they also would be amazed by the ease with which we murder each other en masse.

Morality still counts for the American public – or, at least, the appearance of morality. It does even as the country has committed to playing the game of power politics most everybody else does, even as it has committed to a strategy of global dominance – by means violent as well as pacific. They remain wedded to the belief that we are a moral people who compose a moral nation that follows the course of righteousness in the world. “When conquer we must, for our cause it is just; let this be our motto: In God is our trust.” Some acknowledge a few minor deviations; most do not go even that far. Hiroshima/Nagasaki? “We had no choice – it was them or us (hundreds of thousands of G.I. casualties on the Honshu plain)”. Vietnam? Erase it from the national memory book. The illegal invasion of Iraq? 9/11 or “we were misinformed.” Guantanamo? Torture? ‘We have to protect ourselves.’ Raqqa? “Who’s he?” Yemen genocide? “Wasn’t the Boston bombing also genocide?” Imperialism? ‘We’re surrounded by enemies trying to do us in Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Pakistan, Mexico, Honduras’ (check your daily news source for fresh additions to the list).’

This unreflective mental state permits us to perpetuate other myths about our place in the world. We hear senior network journalists intone somberly that: “some in Washington worry that a weak reaction to the Khashoggi death will hurt our moral standing in the world – especially in the Middle East.” She probably does actually believe that the United States still has an exceptional moral standing to lose. Even after the record of the past few decades. ***

For the America that so many looked to for guidance in seeking enlightened political truth has become the model and inspiration for those who seek to evade it.

A feature of Augustine’s role as proselytizer was his incitement to the zealous monks who rampaged through North Africa and the East destroying pagan temples, terrorizing Donatists, crushing the remnants of Gnostic communities, and burning synagogues. Flying squads of black-clad mad monks swept through targeted districts – intoxicated by their own incessant loud chanting. The calculated aim was to win converts by displays of power and militancy that intimidated the populace. Agitation and coercion were the methods. Augustine, as Bishop of Hippo, personally blessed these nasty forays to extend the Charity of Christ, i.e. boost the number of converts. That was the principal basis for his “just war” theory – not a defensive response to an inter-state threat. Encouraging a campaign of violence would create “facts on the ground’ that could serve as a bulwark against any successor to the apostate Emperor Julian who might threaten the Christian Dominion – however far it had strayed from Christ.

Those glaze-eyed fanatics were actually “Ye of little faith” whose visionary prospects for the City of God could not dissolve their fears about the City of Julian – or The City of Alaric or the City of Genseric. The Church as temporal power as well as spiritual power was their Caliphate – not to be rendered to some other Caesar. (This is the stated goal of today’s American Dominionists – one of whose pastoral leaders is Ted Cruz’s father. The defining concept of dominionism is “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”). Since Jesus’ prophecy of the imminent coming of the Day of Judgment had been shown to be inaccurate, the here-and-now had become inseparable from the hereafter. Augustine, possessing the mind of a shrewd political strategist – among other attributes, understood that securing the power of the state to instruct and coerce was crucial for the Church’s long-term success.

“I would not have believed the Gospel had not the authority of the Church moved me” Contra Epistulam Fundamentic. 410 ch.5 Hence, Christianity’s God-given mission to ensure the Salvation of humankind came to depend less on what was in a person’s heart than on an organization whose authority was preeminent in determining what was in the heart. The ‘mad monks’ blessed by Augustine were the Church’s – and thereby God’s – Holy warriors.
There is a direct line from Augustine to our native Salafist Christians – organized for political assaults on the heretical institutions. It is readily discernible – if we care to look and if professors use the occasion of reading the Augustinian Great Books to offer this insight. Otherwise, might they not better be left to the Seminary?

Seminarians may appreciate fully why St. Augustine is honored as the patron saint of theologians. After all, he is one of the principal formulators of the doctrine of original sin which has kept many a midnight candle burning – whether in reflection or penance. In addition, he is associated with the filioque – the theological concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople which was the source of so much doctrinal controversy and contributed to the Great Schism. The filioque has been the most notable subject for impassioned debates on the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” sort.
The exact pertinence of this eschatology to the moral aspect of war and violence is obscure. The route from Nicaea to Raqqa & Sana’a must be navigated without the aid of a moral GPS = then again, let’s recall that with faith everything is possible.

A similar statement might validly be made about every other major religion. Buddhism is the most pacific textually and in its overall outlook. That may have something to do with its peculiar form of atheism and, thereby, the absence of any claims to serving any Divine injunction. Still, wars in Buddhist societies were commonplace – even in the most orthodox Hinayana cultures: Khmer, Siam, Burma, the East Indies (pre-Islam), Vietnam as well as India itself. Elsewhere in Asia where Mahayana Buddhism was paramount (Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia), it had little bearing on the practices of war and peace. The great exception is Ashoka’s Maurya kingdom in the 3rd century B.C. Then again, he already had built his empire through bloody conquest when he laid down the rules of moral social intercourse among peoples and proselytized in Buddhism’s name as far afield as Alexandria.

There are less remarkable short-term incidents in which religious conviction led to unconventional behavior by a state leader. Morarji Desai, a devout Hindu Brahmin, was India’s Prime Minister in the late 1970s (1977-79) just a few years after the country’s first successful test of an atomic bomb in 1974. He imposed a strict cessation of any further development of nuclear weapons. He affirmed his belief that such weapons violated the humanistic principles of his faith and humane natural instincts.

We relate to the world as much by image and symbol as by its tangible qualities. The more distant the reality, the greater the tendency to rely on myth and stereotype. These are rooted in our subconscious as archetypes – a culturally derived idea or concept that resides deep in our minds as a visual construct loaded with meanings. By its nature, it is shared with many others in one’s community. Foreign and alien lands are especially susceptible to this sort of primitive understanding. Direct knowledge of them is limited. Actual pictorial knowledge depends on access. Where unavailable, we fall back on those shortcuts provided by stylized imagery compounded by stories, films, and our own imagination.

Everyone is susceptible to this phenomenon of being hostage to archetypes – to varying degrees Drawing on subconscious archetypes in order to explain a novel phenomenon about which there is little solid information almost always results in an exaggeration of its manifest characteristics. That is the fear reflex at work when the phenomenon is a menacing one.
War and conflict are the enemies of truth. Accurate perception, precise language, and objectivity are its first victims. For good reason. Emotion eclipses reason. The ‘we/they’ prism refracts and distorts our thoughts. The individual is swept up into the mass mood. Frenzy roils just below the surface.

Experiences of war and conflict, though, are not identical. They vary. Whose blood is being shed, and in what quantities? Are we the direct protagonists or just the empathetic supporters of certain combatants? How closely and why do we identify with one side? How much do we hate the other side? Is our collective self ginger and vulnerable or self-confident? What is the pre-existing anxiety level? Consequently, each situation is peculiar. A country’s subjective response and attendant behavior, therefore, can be highly revealing.

Unfortunately, observation is blurred and selective. We are poor witnesses to ourselves. Sometimes, we never do gain the perspective needed for a clear rendering of what happened, how we felt, and what we did. Oddly, the more peculiar the experience, the less the inclination and ability to reflect on it. Such is the case in regard to the current Ukraine affair.

*** “Indeed the idols I have loved so long;
Have done my record in men’s eyes much wrong,
Have drowned my honor in a shallow cup,
And sold my reputation for a song”

Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash