Sunday, July 25, 2010

The US's "Moral Obligations" in Afghanistan

Andrew Bacevich's recent exchange with Andrew Exum (at The New Republic's web site) on the morality of American foreign policy is extremely well worth noting.  By my lights, Bacevich make a compelling argument that objections to the US leaving Afghanistan that are based on our "moral obligation" to the Afghan people are deeply flawed.  To do so, Bacevich poses (and answers) four questions to advocates of basing US policy on moral obligations . . . and he expands his purview well beyond Afghanistan by reference to a broader and deeper historical perspective:
To the extent that U.S. officials should take moral considerations into account, which comes first—the government’s obligation to provide for the well-being of the American people or the government’s obligation to provide for the wellbeing of people who are not Americans?

To the extent that the United States government has a moral obligation to people who are not Americans, why does the moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan qualify as a particular priority?
To the extent that the United States government has a specific and pressing moral obligation to Afghanistan, why does open-ended war qualify as the preferred way to acquit that obligation?

To the extent that fulfilling America’s moral obligation to the Afghan people requires the perpetuation of war, what should we make of the fact that responsibility for fulfilling that obligation falls on the backs of a small segment of our fellow citizens while the rest carry on as if there were no war?

On the first question, my own view is that U.S. officials have a moral obligation to the American people that takes precedence over all others. Those officials take an oath to the Constitution. That document does not commit the United States to saving or policing the world. It declares that the purpose of our union is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.” Although not necessarily evident to those who make their living in well-heeled Washington think tanks, that obligation remains unfulfilled. (Were foreign policy analysts to set up shop in downtown Detroit or Cleveland, they might reach different conclusions.) Indeed, with military adventurism helping to swell our trillion dollar annual federal deficits, posterity is in for a rude awakening: By the time members of Exum’s generation get around to filing for social security and Medicare, there won’t be any. When the coffers are bare, that failure will be moral as well as fiscal.

On the second question, if the United States does have an obligation to others, it’s not at all clear why the Afghans should come first. Does anyone think that America’s moral debt to the Iraqi people has been paid in full? How about the Vietnamese? Iranians? Filipinos? Nicaraguans? Guatemalans? Cubans? The list goes on. On this score, my personal favorite is Mexico–a near-neighbor used and abused for most of two centuries. We stole Texas. We launched a war of naked aggression to seize California and the southwest. We’ve pillaged Mexico’s resources. We’ve meddled in their revolution. We’ve a long track record of siding with kleptocratic elites against the Mexican people. Today the American demand for drugs along with our lax gun laws is transforming Mexico into a violence-riddled narco-state. Sure, Mexican institutions (like Afghan institutions) are weak, inept, and thoroughly corrupt. But does that provide a moral justification for treating Mexico like a footnote? If the U.S. Treasury has extra billions available for nation-building, doesn’t simple justice demand that we ship the money south of the border before attending to Central Asia?

And even if Afghanistan deserves to be first in line, why does it follow that war provides the best means of doing right by the Afghan people? The truth is that few of the resources that Washington expends in Afghanistan actually benefit the people. Instead, most dollars go to arms merchants and private security contractors, a.k.a., mercenaries, who couldn’t care less about the people’s wellbeing. Meanwhile U.S. operations routinely kill and maim innocent civilians: our commanders may regret that fact, but regret hasn’t ended the practice. Were the United States serious about actually doing something for Afghans, we’d spend less on munitions and more on economic assistance and social development. Better still, we’d offer interested Afghans the chance to get out of Afghanistan altogether and pursue the American dream, welcoming any and all to settle in the Land of Liberty. Carving an Afghan enclave out of a few million unused acres of Montana and Wyoming would show that U.S. expressions of solidarity with suffering Afghans go beyond mere rhetoric.

And finally, even if perpetuating a war already nearly a decade old really does provide the best way to meet some overriding collective U.S. obligation toward Afghanistan, it would seem to follow that the burden of service and sacrifice should be equitably distributed among Americans. Rather than passing the bill to Exum’s children, the present generation of Americans should pay for the war through higher taxes or by reducing domestic spending. They should also pay by changing the socioeconomic composition of the American military, ensuring that the U.S. forces sent off to Afghanistan “look like” America itself. Surely, it cannot be moral to pursue a policy of endless war, when the burden of service and sacrifice falls on the shoulders of 0.5 percent of the population.

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