August 23, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
“Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” This is the first sentence in President Obama’s recently issued Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities. Is it true?
It seems that there have always been, and until human nature changes there will always be, monstrous tyrants in the world doing monstrous things to anyone they can get in the grip of their claws. Whole nations seem capable of becoming bloodthirsty mobs. Some rather nasty tyrants have been in the headlines lately. Presumably Americans, who don’t like tyranny of any degree and who began our progress in the world proclaiming the natural right to overthrow tyrants, are especially opposed to tyranny that is atrocious and genocidal. We could probably get 100% of sane Americans to agree that it is desirable to prevent it. But does this make preventing it a “core national security interest” and a “core moral responsibility” of the country?
If men were angels there would be no atrocities to trouble us, but until men become angels, to implement this Directive will require endless American intervention across the sinful and suffering world. America would have to become the “universal landlord,” to use a colorful Shakespearean phrase, and this would be neither morally desirable nor strategically feasible, even assuming we were determined to exert all our means to this end. If—unmindful of these moral and strategic truths—we actually meant what we say in the Directive, we would need urgently and radically to increase American spending on our armed forces. We are certainly not going to do that. To the contrary, the President and his entire administration have taken pains to make clear that they intend to reduce American military power. The President issued the Directive at the very time when he was emphatically making known his willingness to cut American defense spending drastically as part of his domestic negotiations over the debt ceiling. So, we do not mean what we say in this Directive, and everyone can see that. America is announcing its obligation to intervene to prevent evil in the world at the very same time that it is diminishing its ability to do anything about it. This is not “moral responsibility” but the height of moral irresponsibility. It is moralistic boastfulness.
Given America’s deteriorating defense posture, the President’s Directive seems perfectly calculated to achieve moral bankruptcy in the eyes of the world to complement our actual bankruptcy at home. From the victims of tyrants and their sympathizers it will bring resentment as they see us giving mere lip service to our moralistic commitment. From the tyrants—who are not in the habit of paying heed to weakness—it will bring increasing contempt for our boastful limp-wristed moralizing that speaks loudly and carries no stick.
The President’s Directive also represents a further subordination of American foreign policy to the dictates of international institutions, especially the United Nations. There is nothing morally responsible about submitting America’s actions in the world to the judgment of this body. Many of its influential members are the very tyrannies committing the atrocities the President wants to make pronouncements about.
There is an old saying about the world of nations. In that world, “the strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must.” This is not a cynical principle, but a candid observation of the facts. It is an expression of moral and strategic modesty. When you are weak, you are in no position to prevent injustices in the world, even injustices to yourself. If America wants to do any good in the world, for itself or anyone else, it is paramount that we be strong. Thus in its infancy, when the United States was weak, George Washington in his famous Farewell Address looked forward to a time when America would be strong enough to have “command of its own fortunes,” and when “we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
Within the memory of the older generation in America, the United States became the most powerful nation on earth, and it remains so. But this is no cause for such boastful and empty pronouncements as the President’s Directive. Especially as we recklessly fritter away the strength we have acquired with such effort and good fortune.
If we might more modestly suggest what is “our core moral responsibility,” to ourselves and to mankind, we would say as we did in an earlier letter: It is to succeed in our own experiment in freedom. If we can show by the enduring success of our experiment that free government can be good government, this will be the greatest benefit Americans can bestow on their fellow human beings—our own political well being will be a constant act of philanthropy.
Americans should intervene in the world when intervening enhances the prospects of the American experiment. To commit to more than that betrays America’s national security interest and our core moral responsibility to ourselves and our fellow human beings. Much better than the boastful posturing of the President’s Directive are the modest words of John Quincy Adams: America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all [but]…the champion and vindicator only of her own.” If we vindicate our own freedom by securing it and using it well, it will be, as it has been from the beginning, a blessing and an inspiration to the world. It is as true today as it was when newly elected President Thomas Jefferson said it in his first inaugural: we are “the world’s best hope.”