Moral Relativism Is Bad, But NY Times Column Makes a Point about Iraq

Some conservatives hate this New York Times piece, and I don’t blame them since it begins with a heavy dose of moral relativism:

The beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has rightly provoked global condemnation of the insurgent group and its horrific tactics. Yet it has also led to a disturbing return of the moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks.

In an eerie echo of President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against “evildoers,” President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East that had “no place in the 21st century.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS as the face of a “savage” and “valueless evil,” while Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the group “barbaric.”

There is no question that ISIS has committed thousands of grave human rights violations against civilians in Iraq and Syria, and that many of its most gruesome acts, like the execution of Mr. Foley, constitute war crimes. Anyone with a conscience is disgusted by their brutality toward not just Mr. Foley but the thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians whom they have killed, raped and even buried alive.

This makes my brain want to explode. How can the writer acknowledge the murderous “brutality” of the movement and then criticize Cameron for calling them “barbaric.”

islamic state

Ultimately, however, I am glad I read the full column. I can’t condone some of his initial remarks, but I think the writer’s concern is that the rhetoric of our leaders is intended to effectively stampede us into a policy that might be self-destructive to the United States.

Moralizing rhetoric also defines groups on the basis of their tactics rather than their goals. However appalled we might be by a group’s actions, our objective should always be to understand our enemies as they do themselves: in this case, a highly organized insurgency with specific strategic objectives.

This last aspect is particularly important because the discourse of “evil” can create a slippery slope in which almost any countermeasures become permissible to stop the advance of the threat. This week, Mr. Kerry tweeted that ISIS “must be destroyed/will be crushed.” America is still extricating itself from the huge costs and reputational damage sustained by more than a decade of foreign wars begun in the name of stamping out “evildoers.”

For this reason, the Obama administration should be very careful about lapsing into language about “destroying” the cancer of ISIS without thinking through, and articulating publicly, exactly what that would mean. The strategic drift produced by this moralistic language is already noticeable, as an air campaign first designed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe has morphed into an effort to roll back, or even defeat, ISIS.

In my opinion, the author is giving us an “either/or” decision for what should be “both/and.” We should be able to call the group evil for what it does without committing U.S. lives and treasure to a quagmire on the other side of the planet. Iran and Syria both have every reason and desire to drive these Sunni killers out of Northern Iraq and Syria. They also both are run by regimes that have religious minorities and, to some degree, protect them (I think Syria’s regime is better than Iran’s). So why not stop all support for the “rebels” in Syria and pressure Saudi Arabia to stop all support to them as well?

In addition to “morphing” air attacks we already have boots on the ground in Iraq, including Green Berets. We are being led into war, with no obvious endgame or exit strategy. We are doing so only a few years after finally getting out of that country. Rick Perry is openly campaigning on going back to Iraq.

Are we that stupid?

I’m all in favor of moral condemnation, but if the rhetoric is being used to blind us, we need to be wary.