Moral Consequentialism and the Right

From NRO’s Corner, Michael Rubin:

Senator Obama’s senior advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Israeli counterterrorism and efforts to drive Hezbollah from Lebanon was little different from deliberate murder of hostages.

It would be good to hear Sen. Biden clarify whether, when he spoke of driving Hezbollah out of Lebanon, he agrees with Obama’s senior mentor who seems to believe that doing so is murder.  Frankly, it would be better to hear from Obama and his senior advisors whether they agree with Brzezinski.

Brzezinski’s comments in context (emphasis mine):

So I do not see Israel being able to change the mindset of the peoples involved and particularly not by use of force. Use of force can achieve certain short-term objectives, perhaps even today in Lebanon provides Israel some modest success in interdicting some Hezbollah military capability. But use of force breeds its own antithesis: the mobilization of deeper resistance, the radicalization of those around you, and a growing sense of outrage and determination to survive.

I hate to say this but I will say it. I think what the Israelis are doing today for example in Lebanon is in effect, in effect–maybe not in intent–the killing of hostages. The killing of hostages. Because when you kill 300 people, 400 people, who have nothing to do with the provocations Hezbollah staged, but you do it in effect deliberately by being indifferent to the scale of collateral damage, you’re killing hostages in the hope of intimidating those that you want to intimidate. And more likely than not you will not intimidate them. You’ll simply outrage them and make them into permanent enemies with the number of such enemies increasing.

Granted, Rubin’s just trying to score a few cheap points here, but his post raises a larger question. Is Brzezinski right and killing innocent civilians during a military campaign ethically indistinguishable from executing hostages in cold blood? Or should we all share Rubin’s indignation at the very suggestion of moral equivalence?

I don’t believe Bush invaded Iraq at the behest of a cabal of oil companies or because he’s a bloodthirsty maniac; in fact, I’m reasonably confident his intentions were quite noble. September 11th and its aftermath evidently had a profound effect on his worldview. Bush’s sincerity was also evident when he spoke of the need to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Does that mean we should judge his tenure less harshly? My own view is conflicted. I don’t think an Israeli fighter-pilot who accidentally kills civilians during a raid is the moral equivalent of a Hizbollah suicide bomber. His intentions are pure, and the mission was undoubtedly provoked by a perceived threat to Israeli security. Needless to say, the Israeli Air Force also takes greater precautions against civilian casualties than Hizbollah’s militiamen ever will.

But if the outcome of the Israeli fighter pilot’s mission is the same as Hizbollah’s latest suicide bombing, I’m not sure if Brzezinski’s conclusion is too far off the mark. For the people most affected by the attacks – namely, the victims – the results are nearly identical. With Iraq, Bush’s moral intentions are also quite irrelevant to the real humanitarian consequences of our invasion.

After Iraq, the Right’s moral certainty remains unshaken: our intentions were noble and the consequences of the war don’t implicate them. But my convictions have changed, and Brzezinski’s comments suggest I’m not alone. Ultimately, enhancing our own awareness of moral consequentialism is probably the best way to ensure we pay closer attention the next time we’re faced with the prospect of war.

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Filed under Conservatism, Foreign Policy

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