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Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances

In the Middle East our moral responsibilities and motivations are not always clear. It is not merely our hands which are dirty but reality itself. That said, there are times when our moral responsibilities are self-evident


What are our moral obligations in light of the carnage in Syria? Is a call for action a moral imperative or morally duplicitous? How does motive factor into the equation, and are our motives pure? Is the call to action the result of moral outrage at the carnage inflicted by chemical weapons, or is its aim really to weaken the Iranian-Syrian axis and to overthrow President Assad, and is merely utilizing the use of chemical weapons as an excuse? If one disdains military dictatorships and holds the murder of civilian populations to be morally indefensible, how does one distinguish between blood spilled in Syria and Egypt?
In a world where consistency is the highest virtue, the Russians and the Chinese always come out on top. Their foreign policy is motivated solely by national self-interest. Moral concerns are never a part of their considerations, unless the utilitarian doctrine of universal maximization of happiness is somehow inextricably tied to the fulfillment of their particular interests. The nice thing about the Chinese and the Russians is their honesty. Morality does not enter into their political discourse, nor do they pretend that it does.
Western liberal democracies, however, find ourselves particularly challenged on the question of the role of morality in the international political arena. As liberal democracies, we believe in the inalienable rights of individuals, whether they are citizens of our nation or of others. The abuse of these rights is morally problematic whether within the confines of our nation-states or outside our borders. We abhor tyranny, whether that of the minority or of the majority. Democracies advocate for the spreading of democracy not out of self-interest but out of the moral principles on which we stand.
At the same time, we recognize that the right of sovereignty must limit our actions outside our own borders and prevent superpowers from constituting a new tyranny which imposes its will on others simply because it can. This is particularly important given the fact that the line between geopolitical self-interest and morally motivated intervention is often blurred and susceptible to manipulation.
In human interaction in general, and in international politics in particular, moral utilitarianism and altruism do not exhaust the moral domain. The pursuit of self-interest is not morally flawed or even morally neutral. Unto itself, devoid of negative consequences to others, it is even morally obligatory. In the Jewish tradition we are taught that love of self is the foundation on which love of neighbor resides (Leviticus 19), and that your life takes precedence over others’ (BT Baba Metzia 62a). Human life is sacred because we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 9), and that sacredness cannot apply to others if it is not applied to oneself.
The difficult question pertains to the limitations on the moral duty of self-preservation and where the rights of others ought to prevail. Our tradition teaches us on the one hand, that if someone rises to kill you, you are to kill them first (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4). If an individual is walking in the desert and is in possession of only enough water to sustain him or herself, he is obligated to consume the water and neither give it or share it with another if the consequences would be detrimental to his or her own safety (BT Baba Metzia 62a). At the same time, however, it also teaches that one is forbidden to take another life if commanded to do so, in order to save one’s own life, for who knows if "your blood is redder"? (BT Sanhedrin 74a)
There are limits to self-interest and self-defense. One can take the life of another only in response to an immediate threat that the other has instigated. One does not have to relinquish one’s own resources to save others at one’s own expense. At the same time, however, one cannot appropriate others’ resources, nor take an innocent life under the pretense of moral responsibility to oneself. While the distinction is at times thin, maintaining it makes all the moral difference.
That said, in the real world, a certain measure of "dirty hands" is morally tolerated in the pursuit of moral obligations and self-defense, be it individual or national. For example, no military action would be morally acceptable if there were a blanket prohibition on any and all non-combatant casualties. We limit the extent of our "dirty hands" in war by ensuring that actions are the result of a just cause (self-defense), by prohibiting targeting of civilians, by measuring harm to benefit, and by demanding a proportionate use of force. These considerations do not cleanse the "dirtiness" of one’s hands but make it morally tolerable and given the moral obligation of self-preservation, possibly even morally necessary.
When democratic societies undermine oppressive dictatorships and intervene in defense of human rights they have a strong moral foundation on which to stand, even if in so doing they happen to be supportive of their political self-interests as well. However, when we support those dictatorships which support our self-interests and only act against those who don’t, our hands are not merely dirty, but smelly as well. The odor becomes ever more odious when the political or military sanctions are hidden behind moral argumentation. The aspiration to acting morally within the realm of international politics does not require ignoring self-interest nor perfectly clean hands. It requires, however, the recognition of the existence and danger of dirty hands for only thus will limits be placed on its use, and ensure that it is limited to the most extreme cases of national self-interest.
A common mistake is made when we assume that because we ought to be motivated by moral considerations in our foreign policy, there is in all instances moral clarity with regards to what we ought to do. For example, in Egypt, while the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected, its track record (Iran, Gaza) to support a democratic process which gets them elected and to undermine a democratic process which could lead to their losing power, makes it difficult to be morally motivated to come to their defense. A party which supports one democratic election and not two is hardly an advocate of human rights.
The fact simply is that when it comes to Egypt, we do not have a clear moral mandate. What makes it even more confusing is that even our national interests aren’t clear and depend in no small measure on the imprecise calculation of who will win in the end.
When it comes to Syria we face a similar dilemma. It is clear that neither faction is attuned to moral and democratic principles. Wanton murder is being perpetrated in the light of day, yet it is not at all clear that the support of one side over the other will bring it to an end.
The use of chemical weapons, however, is not merely a political red line but a moral one. It is not that death by ingesting poison gases is morally more corrupt than death by sword or bullet (see Rwanda). It is the "mass" in weapons of mass destruction which changes the equation, with "mass" depicting both the indiscriminate as well as extensive nature of the killing involved. The utilitarian moral instinct which obligates us to seek, export and maximize well-being, identifies the individual or regime that uses weapons of mass destruction as particularly evil and dangerous to the moral fiber of our world.
Are we morally duplicitous and inconsistent, and are our motivations pure? Without doubt, moral inconsistency plagues us all, and our moral obligation is to strive to limit that inconsistency while knowing fully well that it will never be eradicated. The support of one’s moral right to self-preservation versus the protection of the inalienable rights of others will invariably lead to dirty compromises and failures. The inability to be morally consistent, however, in no way undermines the moral legitimacy in those cases when one is acting justly. Human nature, society, and politics are flawed, and the placement of consistency as the ultimate value is not a force for moral improvement but moral corruption. It inhibits the doing of good under the claim that one cannot do so unless one always does so, and sanctions the doing of evil, for unless one is consistent, doing of the good is not obligatory.
When it comes to the purity of motivation, the ground is even murkier, as the line between mere political self-interest and the moral obligation of self-preservation is blurry at best. Kant argued that the morality of an act is inextricably connected to one’s moral intent, but the Jewish tradition teaches that while purity of intent is preferable, the doing of good even when not for its own sake is valuable and a critical step in fulfilling our human obligations. The critical test is whether our actions are morally defensible and serve universal well-being, freeing ourselves from the impossible psychological analysis of motivation in the realm of international politics.
In the Middle East our moral responsibilities and motivations are not always clear. It is not merely our hands which are dirty but reality itself. That said, there are times when our moral responsibilities are self-evident. When weapons of mass destruction are used, it is such a time.

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