The Morality of Intervention: Living Up to Self-Imposed Labels

The question of how and when the United States ought to be involved in international conflicts, particularly those in which we are not directly implicated, has long been a matter of fierce debate among Americans. The catalyst for its current place at the forefront of public discourse seems to have been our decision to involve ourselves in the Libyan conflict. This decision has been especially contentious as it played out in the midst of violent conflict in a multitude of neighboring countries, which we have otherwise steered clear of militarily. Furthermore, our decision to intercede in Libya was seen as a slap in the face for longtime advocates of intervention in Sudan, where civilians have been suffering for years.

As the debate continues, not only are people concerned as to whether we should be involved in Libya, the question has continued to arise of “why not______?”

Why not Sudan? Why not the Congo? Why not Syria? Why not ______?

One of the keystones of the American identity is our sense of moral character. America has long described itself as a “moral leader” in the world, an example of morality in our word and deed. We claim to promote human rights, and condemn those who would impinge on those rights; to fight for the oppressed, and seek out their oppressors. We call on the world to live up to the same standards of morality we have established for ourselves. President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy  spoke of our “moral leadership” in the world and the “moral imperatives of international justice.” As a senator, Obama boldly stated that “the United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes.” When it comes to our involvement in international conflicts, explanations and justifications for action are dripping with themes of moral duty.

Of course, as anyone who has been keeping tabs on America’s international involvement will tell you, we are not exactly a bastion of morality (ahem, Guantanamo…). The truth of the matter is that our decision to intervene is always a matter of when and where it is politically beneficial for our own state. The idealist in me would like to think we intervened in Libya purely because we believed we had a  responsibility to protect the civilians in harm’s way. However, the realist in me acknowledges this decision was based on a complex web of political benefits of action as well as detriments of inaction. It is sadly never as simple as “these people need our help, so we must act.” As much as many of us might wish that was the case.  

In a political sense, the problem with Sudan is that it is not beneficial enough for us to act. In fact, the political detriment of truly stepping into the center of the situation far outweighs the benefits of intervening. Intervention would appease the activists, but there are many, including China, that would be less than pleased were we to become more involved than we already are. What our inaction says is that our political relationships within the international community are more important than any moral duty we might have.

This is, of course, a reasonable strategy for foreign policy (though fairly heartless). It is important to consider the consequences of action and inaction. Where I take exception is in the promotion of ourselves as a moral leader, and the blatant choice not to live up to that label. In practice, America only lives up to our supposed moral duty when it is beneficial to us. Moral hypocrisy runs deep in our political history.

If we are going to claim to be a "moral example" and a "moral leader" in the world, it would be reasonable to assume that moral imperatives would be at the center of all political discussions. If moral imperatives are not going to be at the center, it is perhaps time for this label to go.

Innumerable books could be written, and have been, on this topic of morality in the politics of intervention. In lieu of this blog post turning into one of these books, I will leave you with a few question I have been and will continue to wrestle with:

- Should America continue to label itself a moral leader; a label it lives up to only when politically beneficial to itself?

- If America truly is a moral leader in the international community, does it have moral duty to the people of Sudan? 

- Is our moral hypocrisy detrimental to our effectiveness as a world leader? 

Barack Obama, Libya, Sudan, Syria