Syria and Moral Crusade

Woodrow Wil­son is famous for irri­tat­ing the Euro­peans. After WWI, when Eng­land, France, and the US met to decide the sta­tus of post war Europe, Wil­son kept insist­ing on drap­ing prac­ti­cal polit­i­cal objec­tives and national self inter­est in the high flown lan­guage of moral cru­sade. His­to­ri­ans always cite as an exam­ple George Clemenceau, who when asked about Wilson’s “14 points” for peace replied “God Almighty had only ten!” Wil­son didn’t just want sta­bil­ity, he wanted uplift and nobil­ity and moral purity. Clemenceau found Wilson’s lec­tures bor­ing, and must have won­dered “does he believe this stuff? Or is this some kind of dodge?”

Often this kind of thing is cast as “inno­cence” and Amer­i­cans are accused of being per­pet­u­ally “inno­cent,” or maybe as will­fully inno­cent, unwill­ing to see their own motives clearly. We don’t just go in to pro­tect our own secu­rity, or for rub­ber plan­ta­tions in the Philip­pines, or pineap­ples in Hawaii, we go in for the uni­ver­sal global cause of “free­dom.” We didn’t invade Mex­ico to get more land, we did it for the cause of civ­i­liza­tion itself!

Here’s a famous exam­ple, John Gast’s 1872 paint­ing Amer­i­can Progress, in which Indi­ans are being pain­lessly dis­placed by the march of tech­nol­ogy and enlight­en­ment. It’s not about want­ing their land; it’s big­ger than that.


This is more or less, I think, what Wil­son imag­ined when he was talk­ing with Clemenceau.

The prob­lem with Syria, plain and sim­ple, is that the Assad regime has chem­i­cal weapons, and we, mean­ing par­tic­u­larly us and Israel 1, don’t want them to fall into “the wrong hands.” That was the con­cern over a year ago, when the Syr­ian civil war appeared to be part of a “arab spring,” and it’s the con­cern now, what­ever pieties you hear about chem­i­cal attacks and Munich and appease­ment and inter­na­tional cred­i­bil­ity. If the Assad regime falls, we don’t want hos­tile non-state actors to get their hands on chem­i­cal weapons.

That’s a rea­son­able motive, and a rea­son­able goal, but it’s entirely devoid of the raw mate­r­ial of moral self-flattery. We don’t really care about the Syr­ian people–we didn’t care when sev­eral years of famine caused wide­spread star­va­tion, and we didn’t and don’t care about con­ven­tional weapons that kill far more peo­ple just as dead as chem­i­cal weapons. We didn’t care when Sad­dam Hus­sein used chem­i­cal weapons against Iraq, but sud­denly in 2002 we cared deeply about hypo­thet­i­cal chem­i­cal weapons he did not have and had not used. Beware of pretext.

For a remark­ably clear eyed, his­tor­i­cally informed analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion in Syria read William Polk’s take, pub­lished by James Fal­lows in The Atlantic. I doubt Assad used chem­i­cal weapons–he had noth­ing to gain by it. I sus­pect some other fac­tion that wants US involve­ment made the chem­i­cal attack, and the moral cri­sis of chem­i­cal weapons is being used to beard another instance of pure self-interest.

The larger his­tor­i­cal ques­tion is why–why is it nec­es­sary to drape self-interest in platitude? This has always been a very reli­gious coun­try, and even non-believers have liked the rhetoric of moral crusade.

But it’s also true that the biggest chal­lenge fac­ing “free mar­ket” rhetoric, or the clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism of early cap­i­tal­ism, was mak­ing self-interest appear moral. That was Adam Smith’s great accom­plish­ment in The Wealth of Nations: cast­ing indi­vid­ual self aggran­dize­ment as a prin­ci­ple of moral order. Smith argued that human self­ish­ness would pro­duce sta­bil­ity and effi­ciency and hap­pi­ness, not strife and exploita­tion and chaos. To do this, he had to imag­ine larger sys­tems of mean­ing. He had to invent “the mar­ket” and imag­ine it as some­thing out­side of cul­ture. He had to con­nect mar­ket rela­tions to larger, more neb­u­lous ideas about “lib­erty” and “indi­vid­u­al­ism.” The good thing about unreg­u­lated exchange was not that it made peo­ple rich, it was that it pro­moted “lib­erty” and progress. He had to make self­ish­ness seem utopian.

So maybe that’s why we have to wade through a lot of self-righteous twad­dle before we end up, as I sus­pect we will end up, putting Amer­i­can sol­diers on the ground in Syria.


  1. but not just Israel. None of the lead­ers of neigh­bor­ing Arab states want yahoos with chem­i­cal weapons run­ning around nearby either.

One Comment

  • Stephen Watts wrote:

    I’m enjoy­ing the blog.

    On this post, though, I would point you to Ger­man for­eign pol­icy. It is dif­fi­cult to find a more moral­is­tic tone in a country’s for­eign pol­icy than you find in Germany’s. yet Ger­many has vastly lower lev­els of church atten­dance (and other indi­ca­tors of reli­gios­ity) and a much greater ded­i­ca­tion to social democ­racy than you find in the wild-west cap­i­tal­ist US. The Soviet Union was also known for the mas­sianic tone of its for­eign pol­icy, yet clearly nei­ther reli­gios­ity nor cap­i­tal­ism were major influ­ences there. On the other hand, Ire­land, Spain, and Poland score as high on some indi­ca­tors of reli­gios­ity as does the US, but I have never heard their for­eign poli­cies char­ac­ter­ized as highly moral­is­tic. I’m sure there is some rela­tion­ship between the pecu­liar­i­ties of Amer­i­can cul­ture and its for­eign pol­icy, but I think they are much more com­plex than you sug­gest here.

    You may be inter­ested in Peter Liberman’s arti­cle “An Eye for an Eye,” (in the jour­nal Inter­na­tional Orga­ni­za­tion) in which he looks at the link­ages between reli­gion, com­mit­ment to ret­ribu­tive jus­tice, and will­ing­ness to use mil­i­tary force. He has since expanded this theme in arti­cles about tor­ture and other issues.

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