Morality should matter in foreign policy
By Hossein Askari
Foreign policy realists may exclude a place for morality (ie, consistently supporting human rights and political and economic freedom and opposing international aggression) in their formulation of foreign policy and label anyone who argues for it as naive, but countries that dismiss morality as an important factor may be doing so at their own peril.
The arguments against placing morality at the foundation of foreign policy formulation are many and include: (i) countries are here to pursue their own "national interests" and not those of
others (it is not their responsibility); (ii) morality towards foreigners is not a factor to be included in a country's "national interest"; and (iii) touting morality conveys weakness and undermines the projection of power, inducing further conflict.
While these are powerful arguments against affording morality a place in foreign policy formulation, much less placing it at its foundation, they miss a crucial point - the "limitations of the human mind" when confronted with uncertainty. For illustration, let's look at a recent episode in the Persian Gulf - the Iran-Iraq War and US "national interests".
In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, a rag-tag bunch of students took over the US embassy in Tehran. Conditions rapidly deteriorated after the students took the condemnable step of taking 52 US embassy staff hostage (in the name of preventing a coup as in the joint CIA/MI5 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953) and became even more troubling after Ayatollah Khomeini's endorsement of their unlawful act. The US found itself powerless. Iran had to be pressured to release all the hostages and behave according to international norms of conduct.
Feeling helpless, the US saw anything that would humiliate and punish Iran and result in the speedy release of the 52 hostages as in its national interest. So it was not surprising that when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, hoping to make territorial gains and settle an old score in a strategic area to afford better access to the waters of the Persian Gulf, the US gave its full-backing to this internationally condemnable act.
The US saw it in its national interest to support Saddam Hussein's aggression. What did the US do to support its national interest? Was this support moral? Did US policy makers foresee even some of the events that this aggression and US support would spawn? And was support of Saddam Hussein preferable to the US embracing morality and international law by condemning Iraq's aggression and taking action at the UN Security Council to punish Saddam Hussein and evict Iraqi forces from Iran?
In order to back Saddam Hussein, the US did all it could to isolate Iran. Iran had little access to weaponry, while Iraq was freely supplied and showered with billions of dollars in loans and gifts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Russia (the Soviet Union). Iran found itself helpless, facing loss of territory and occupation and with Syria as its only ally. But as Iranians were fighting to keep their country together, they managed to expel Iraqi forces and to take the fight into Iraq.
With this turn of events, the US and its European allies realizing that the only way Iraq could defend itself was with outlawed chemical weaponry, exported these to Iraq (presumably again perceived as in US "national interest"). The Iraqi forces used their new weapon with impunity and turned the tide, killing thousands of Iranians and leaving over 10,000 in masks as a permanent reminder to Iranians of their international vulnerability. As an aside, if chemical weapons had been found in Iraq after its invasion by US forces, the source would have been embarrassing.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties and injuries, the lessons of the war were stark to most Iranians: (i) global powers, including the US and Western Europe, flaunt all international laws when their perceived national interests are at stake; (ii) foreign powers say one thing and do the opposite (in fact, well-placed Iranians simply laugh at Western duplicity as a matter of course); (iii) the Persian Gulf is a dangerous place and Iran needs a strong deterrent force and a strong ally; and (iv) the clerical regime had saved Iran from dismemberment, or at least from prolonged occupation and territorial loss.
The war and all that went with it impacted Iranian decisions in a number of ways. Almost immediately after the conclusion of hostilities, Iran started to ratchet up its domestic weapons manufacturing capabilities and expand the reach of its external intelligence services. A couple of years later, Iran embarked on its quest to master the nuclear fuel cycle as the most cost-effective option for self-defense and projection of regional power. In addition, the Tehran regime nurtured Hezbollah as a regional surrogate and looked to cooperate with Hamas. And all along, the Tehran-Damascus axis was nurtured as the clerical regime's existential regional alliance.
At the same time, it became clear that the war and Saudi support for Saddam Hussein, coupled with threatening rhetoric from Tehran, had plunged Iran-Saudi relations into the abyss. Iranian pilgrims demonstrated in Medina and Mecca, relations were severed. The Saudi king made no secret of his feelings that the clerics were bent on overthrowing his family, a feeling that will take decades to reverse if the clerics and the Al-Sauds hold onto power.
Finally, and most important to our mind, the war and all that went with it extended the lifespan of the regime in Tehran - the expulsion of the Iraqis afforded the clerics a big dose of legitimacy, and in the aftermath of the revolution and the war, Iranians were simply too exhausted to challenge those in power, affording the clerics invaluable time to tighten their grip on power.
In our opinion, the war and US and Western European support for Saddam Hussein emboldened Saddam Hussein and was a factor in his invasion of Kuwait. This in turn led to the war to liberate Kuwait and may have played an important role in the US invasion of Iraq.
Most recently, the Syrian civil war has forced the clerics in Tehran to do everything in their power to support Bashar Al-Assad's oppressive and murderous regime. It is pay-back time for Iran. Without Iran and Hezbollah at its side, Russia might not have been willing to keep Assad in power. The wider fallout of the Syrian civil war is further evident in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Did US policy-makers foresee all of the fallout, which we believe could be traced with much evidence to their decision to back Saddam Hussein's aggression in 1980? Unlikely. Were the support of Saddam Hussein and its consequences in the US "national interest"? We believe not. The US paid much in blood and treasure.
Regional hostilities have intensified. Would it have been preferable for the US to embrace morality and international law by condemning Iraq's aggression and taking action at the UN Security Council to punish Saddam Hussein and evict Iraqi forces from Iran? We cannot say for certain, but we believe so, and for five interrelated reasons.
First, US support for dictators and for the aggression that it sees in its national interest deprives the region of a gradual transition to political freedom and effective institutions, which in turn can only intensify future turmoil.
Second, US interference, which will invariably be perceived by the people of the region as naked intrusion into their domestic affairs, can but only lead to the loss of what little credibility the US enjoys in the region and fuel further anti-Americanism.
Third, short-term "national interest" has little, if anything, to do with long-term interests.
Fourth, humans simply cannot accurately predict all the consequences of even what might be perceived as a minor foreign policy decision today. The consequences are many and are exacerbated by immoral and illegal intervention. Policymakers are only increasing political uncertainty and risk by adopting aggressive policies in the blind hope that they are in US "national interest".
Fifth, given the human limitations in assessing uncertain policy consequences, it is better to adopt policies that are at least grounded in morality and international law because in the longer run morality and legality will, at a minimum, enhance the US' reputation around the world as a country that supports human development and practices what it preaches. Such a reputation can only help when and if the US has to intervene on foreign soil.
Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.
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