The Ethics of the U.S. Pullout
Political philosophy sheds some light on the United States' moral responsibility in Afghanistan
Chaotic scenes in Kabul accompanied the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Islamic group was able to retake power after President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from the country.
The withdrawal brings to a close nearly 20 years of American military presence in Afghanistan.
Without the ongoing prospect of U.S. military support, the Washington-backed Afghan government quickly fell - and on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban declared the creation of a new political order, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The withdrawal was widely popular in the United States, when first announced by Biden on April 14 - the majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, favored an end to the military presence in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal, however, has brought significant costs for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban has proved itself willing to engage in widespread violation of basic human rights - in particular, the human rights of women. The decision to withdraw is likely to lead to enormous suffering in the years to come. A hypothetical decision to remain in Afghanistan, however, would also have led to significant moral costs - that decision would continue to put American soldiers in harm's way. As a political philosopher whose work focuses on international affairs, I have tried to understand how ethical reasoning might be applied to such cases.
It is difficult for a person to be both good at politics and a genuinely good person.
The first, and most important, ethical question might be: Was the United States justified in withdrawing its troops?
A second question might involve asking about how the moral wrongs that are now emerging in Afghanistan should weigh upon the American conscience. Should American political leaders regard these wrongs as, in some fashion, their responsibility?
More broadly, is it sometimes possible that, in doing the best available thing, we are nonetheless guilty of doing something morally wrong?
Many philosophers have disliked the idea that someone might make the best choice available and nonetheless be thought to have committed a moral wrong. Immanuel Kant, for one, thought this vision was fundamentally in conflict with the purposes of morality – which is to tell people what it is they ought to do.
If a moral theory told us that sometimes there is no option open to us that does not involve doing wrong, then that theory would sometimes imply that even a perfect moral agent might end up having to become a wrongdoer.
That sort of theory would mean that there might be situations in which we could not escape from doing wrong. If we were unlucky enough to end up in those situations, we would become liable for wrongdoing because of this bad luck. Kant thought this sort of “moral luck" was simply implausible. For Kant, if we do what is best, we can regard ourselves as having avoided doing wrong.
Other philosophers, however, have been more willing to entertain the possibility of moral tragedy, which is understood as a state of affairs in which all options open to us involve serious moral wrongdoing.
Afghan interpreters who served with the British army protest and demand that the country protect all Afghan workers who served the U.K.Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire
Michael Walzer, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, argues that those who exercise power over others may frequently find themselves unable to do good for some without doing serious wrong to others. Instead of thinking that the good they do outweighs the wrong, Walzer argues, individuals ought to accept that the wrong continues to be a genuine wrong.
For example, the politician who must make a deal with a corrupt colleague in order to help protect vulnerable children does wrong in the name of a greater good. This individual does their best but nonetheless stains their soul in the doing.
On this view, politicians who do wrong while trying to do what is right may do the best thing, but they should also be understood as having done wrong, and having stained their consciences in the doing. For Walzer, it is difficult for a person to be both good at politics and a genuinely good person.
If Walzer is right about politicians, his analysis might also help in understanding the morality of international relations – and the morality of the American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Taken in this context, the benefits of withdrawal may have been sufficient to make it the right act. However, the human rights violations that are now very likely to follow in the aftermath of this withdrawal are genuinely wrong, and they are rightly attributed to the United States.
What happens to them should be on your conscience
The women and girls of Afghanistan are likely to face abuses, and the inhabitants of Afghanistan will likely face significant violence as the Taliban seek to reassert their vision of religious law. This ought to trouble the politicians who defended the withdrawal, and those voters who gave power to those politicians.
This vision of international politics is echoed in former Secretary of State Colin Powell's advice to then-President George W. Bush about the invasion of Iraq – codified as the “Pottery Barn rule" after the perceived store policy: If “you break it, you bought it." That is: If you make yourself the ruler over others, you are responsible for them, and what happens to them should be on your conscience.
There are at least two things that might follow this moral vision. The first is that, even if the withdrawal entails taking ownership of some moral wrongs, the United States has an obligation to ensure that such wrong is minimized.
It might therefore be obligated to provide refuge to those people who have borne particular risks in the name of the United States, such as the translators who worked on the military bases within Afghan territory and have been targeted by the Taliban for their work.
The second is, more broadly, that the U.S. tries to avoid entering into such morally tragic situations in the future. If Walzer's analysis is correct, it might be impossible to avoid situations in which the United States is responsible for serious moral wrongs. Having power over others always involves the risk of moral bad luck, and the U.S. has exceptional power in the global community.
But it might at least be expected that the United States, in future conflicts, take account of what philosopher Brian Orend calls justice after war and enters into such conflicts only with some clarity about how and when to end them well.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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