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Niebuhr, Iraq, And Moral Clarity

Concerns about are using moral clarity as a pretext for unwarranted aggression are often misused, not for prudent self-examination, but for moral paralysis.

The argument so far: Michael Boyle argued that calling ISIS “evil” is strategically self-defeating. Paul D. Miller argued that moral clarity is vital in wartime. Boyle responded by highlighting some of the potential dangers of moral clarity.

Michael Boyle has advanced two claims about the dangers of moral clarity: 1) it can blind us to the nuances of a situation, and 2) it can generate an aggressive overconfidence and self-righteousness. The first concern is overblown, maybe even exactly wrong: the obvious evil of a group like ISIS can concentrate minds to focus on how best to dismember it. In any case, the United States is bad at implementing just about every foreign policy, not just the one involving combat against evil groups, so we can hardly blame our failures on the use of moral language.

The second concern is widely popular and, theologically speaking, entirely sound. However, it is also widely misunderstood and misused, not for prudent self-examination, but for moral paralysis. Boyle’s concern here stems from a particular reading of the twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr rightly argued that the United States should be cautious about its own power; that it should examine its motives carefully. Niebuhr based his critique on a Christian understanding of human nature: because we are fallen and sinful, we are often blind to how our own selfishness warps our conception of morality. The problem with Niebuhr is that he talks out of both sides of his mouth and people only hear the side they like to hear.

Think, then Act

Boyle argues we should be skeptical about always assuming the moral righteousness of our cause. He is, of course, right. We shouldn’t assume: we should think carefully about it. But when we conclude that we are on the right side, we should hold that belief firmly, and act on it. Too often when critics invoke Niebuhrian caution, they are not cautioning us to be careful about too blithely assuming we’re right. Rather, they actually mean that it is impossible to ever be “right” on anything; any claims to “rightness” are dangerous fundamentalist zeal bound to lead us to fanaticism and violence. In counseling self-doubt, they are not suggesting a healthy debate and scrutiny of one’s motives and beliefs before acting; they mean we should park permanently in a position of self-doubt because all action is suspect.

That is, of course, not what Niebuhr said—and I assume not what Boyle would say either. Niebuhr was quite clear about our need to confront evil in the world, to take sides, and to take action. He was even pretty clear about the goodness of democracy. But I fear that the practical effect of Boyle’s and other critics’ arguments would engender moral paralysis and inaction because of their intense skepticism of American motives. They cite a few aberrations, like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and extrapolate a trend. But in the stretch of history those examples are the outliers, not the norm.

Jihadists Aren’t Wildly Different

Boyle and I also disagree profoundly on the nature of the war against jihadists. David Kilcullen rightly formulated the problem as a “global Islamist insurgency,” understanding the menagerie of jihadist terrorist groups and insurgencies around the world to be broadly similar in motivation and ideology while distinct in their short-term goals and tactics. While their ideology is hostile to the United States, the United States certainly cannot and should not try to combat every one of those groups on its own because very few of them can do us any significant harm. Our strategy has rightly been to disaggregate them by breaking the transnational links that empower groups to go beyond their national borders. Disrupting terrorist financing networks is probably the most effective thing we can do against most of these groups. We only need get directly involved to combat the groups that threaten to overwhelm whatever local government they oppose—which, right now, includes the Islamic State (ISIS), the Taliban, possibly al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and few others.

Disrupting terrorist financing networks is probably the most effective thing we can do against most of these groups.

Boyle underappreciates the ideological challenge jihadists pose. He brings out the old trope about how jihadism is a perversion of Islam and most Muslims don’t buy into it. True: but so what? The hostile and aggressive ideology of jihadism—no matter its relation to Islam—is thriving, alive, and well-established in many corners of the globe. Because of its implacable hostility to the United States, we should understand that the triumph of jihadism anywhere in the world would be a threat to U.S. national security—but especially in strategically valuable places like Saudi Arabia or Iraq (because of their oil), Pakistan (nukes), or Afghanistan (opium, caves, history, and dense network of jihadists across the region). That means any and all of these jihadist groups is part of “the enemy,” albeit not one we necessarily must be in direct combat with.

That is why I think Boyle’s recommendation that “we should stay focused on our enemy (al Qaeda), try to avoid making new ones by lumping other groups in with al Qaeda and now ISIS” is radically wrong and unrealistic. Al Qaeda (AQ) was never anything but the most theatrical, successful, and prominent of these groups. He is worried about us lumping them together—but he seems unaware that they lump themselves together, not as a merged organization or a monolithic institutional entity, but as an ideological movement, as variations on a theme, different manifestations of the same phenomenon. The fact that AQ “expelled” ISIS is immaterial. Jihadist groups will always squabble amongst themselves, but they are of a common ilk.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Again, that does not mean the United States need to use the same tactics to combat all these groups. In most cases we simply invest in the law enforcement, border control, and counterterrorism capabilities of partner nations (like the Philippines). Sometimes we can effectively ignore them (like Boko Haram in Nigeria). Other times we do need to be involved in airstrikes (Pakistan and Iraq) or even ground combat (Afghanistan). One of the weaknesses of Cold War policy was underappreciating the difference amongst communist states; President Nixon’s insight was to understand the cleavages between China and the USSR and exploit them. Similarly, we can and should take a different policy towards different groups as conditions require (although the Nixon analogy breaks down because I don’t envision us making peace with AQ to fight ISIS, for example).

Finally, it seems that Boyle actually does agree with the need to combat jihadists ideologically, even if he won’t admit it. He concluded that one way of undermining AQ and ISIS is that “we will also have to send a message to the thousands of other prospective terrorist groups that there is a better, more efficient way to make political demands.” That sounds an awful lot like combating them with superior ideas. I daresay he is even suggesting that enabling people to express grievances freely and demand accountable governance is part of how we should combat terrorist threats. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, someone else argued earlier in the war, “If the peoples in that region are permitted to chose their own destiny and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow and eventually end.” I’m glad Boyle agrees.

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