Morality as Foreign Policy

At the core of the dilemma facing President Obama, the Congress and indeed the American people in Syria is this key question – Should this country intervene in the affairs of another country for humanitarian reasons?

Those terrible pictures of men, women and children being gassed to death break your heart and for some beg for military action that punishes the Assad regime and degrades its capacity to kill innocent people. But for others our foreign policy must be guided by national interest and national security, and despite the horror, the murdering of 1400 people does not rise to the level of national interest and national security.

Interjecting moral principles into American foreign policy rose to prominence during the administration of Jimmy Carter, who cut off aid to authoritarian governments in Latin America because they were guilty of human rights violations.

Carter did not have an easy job of making his case as his opponents reminded him about national interest and national security and the simple logic that if a heinous act occurs in a far off country that has no bearing on this country, then we should stay out of the fray. It’s basically none of our business.

Secretary of State Kerry is working overtime trying to convince Congress and the American people that moral principles must guide the United States and that there are national interest and national security issues at stake if this use of chemical warfare by Syria is not challenged.

Kerry’s argument and certainly that of President Obama is based on a principled foreign policy where moral values should be included as within the concepts of national interest and national security. Simply stated, other countries will sense US reluctance or weakness and use chemical weapons in the future. According to Kerry, the red line has to be held now, not just to save lives in Syria, but to send a clear signal to other regimes that the civilized world will not tolerate such killing.

Defining our foreign policy to include moral principles will always face a tough road in our political system. Bill Clinton turned his eyes away from the slaughter in Rwanda and George W. Bush paid little attention to the genocide in Darfur. Now it is Syria and in the coming days the American people will see their elected leaders grapple with the issue of whether humanitarian causes should drive a foreign policy decision.


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