The Lack of Moral Outrage

Richard Cohen laments the absence of moral outrage among “liberals” about the horrible things going on in Syria:

The inescapable truth is that the world needs a policeman. The inescapable truth is that only the United States can play cop. We have the wherewithal. A further inescapable truth is that evil exists and needs to be fought. We should always proceed cautiously and prudently, aware of mission creep, complexity and our own limitations. I have always thought, maybe naively, that these were values embedded in the very soul of American liberalism. It seems I am wrong.

Yes, he’s wrong and in more than one way. The few remaining liberals are white-haired and feeble, in their final years. Hubert Humphrey has been dead for 35 years. Their successors, calling themselves “progressives”, are not about morality but about gain, about securing advantage.

The protests of the Aughts were not anti-war. They were anti-Bush. Now that George W. Bush is gone and there’s a Democrat in the White House, there’s nothing to protest, even when he does very much the same things that his Republican predecessor did. I’m reminded of William F. Buckley’s half-hearted defense of Richard Nixon’s obviously wrong-headed wage and price controls: “Well, at least he imposed them reluctantly.”

The president also is under the handicaps that he’s making an incoherent argument in a particularly passionless way. It is incoherent to argue for immediacy but be willing to delay action, first for Congressional deliberations, then for diplomatic negotiations. It is incoherent to argue for the moral necessity of “unbelievably small” actions.

What is it about chemical weapons? It is that they are technological, impersonal, indiscriminate, and used from afar. So are drone strikes. We may not see it that way but most of the world does. It is incoherent to argue that killing children and other civilians with chemical weapons is immoral while killing children and other civilians with drone strikes is moral. The decision isn’t a moral one; it’s a pragmatic one. And the pragmatic decision when there is no acceptable strategy for producing the outcome you wish, as is the case in Syria, is to do nothing.

It is an imperfect world and no one in it is morally pure. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

7 comments… add one
  • steve

    “, there’s nothing to protest, even when he does very much the same things that his Republican predecessor did.”

    You really dont see the difference between thousands of dead Americans and trillions spent vs no one dead and a couple of billion spent? You want the protestors to be idealists.

    “What is it about chemical weapons?”

    Good question. The triangular bayonet, chem weapons and nukes are what we have agreed to not use.

    Steve

  • As I wrote in the post, you are arguing pragmatics, not morality. Mr. Cohen is asking where is the moral outrage?

    The triangular bayonet, chem weapons and nukes are what we have agreed to not use.

    Actually, no. We have agreed not to use force in any form against other countries other than in self-defense or with Security Council authorization.

  • In a related vein, Josh Foust argues that securing Syria’s chemical weapons requires boots on the ground.

  • steve

    “As I wrote in the post, you are arguing pragmatics, not morality. Mr. Cohen is asking where is the moral outrage?”

    They are linked. Excepting those instances when things go viral for whatever reason, thousands of deaths (or impending deaths), rapes or thefts generate a lot more outrage. If a bridge collapses in a local flood and granny dies because she cant get out of her car, few care. If an entire city gets wiped out, you get concerts with the word “Aid” in them.

    Steve

  • You’re saying there’s a moral calculation. Is that compatible with the kind of outrage that Cohen is wondering about?

  • PD Shaw

    It would be interesting to hear Cohen’s response to this question:

    Do you feel outrage now that the human rights situation has become catastrophic since we helped free Libya from Qaddafi? Should we?

    I suspect Cohen doesn’t feel as much outrage. I think a lot of people need a villain, like a Qaddafi or an Assad, to channel their passions against. If its diffused chaos, it doesn’t count for much.

  • jan

    How to take the United States off it’s pedestal, losing it’s moral rudder, is discussed in this piece: The Long Withdrawing Roar.

    In the space of 24 hours President Obama went from being the enforcer of international norms to the enabler of Putin and the Assad regime. He has once again ducked responsibility for his words and actions, and in so doing has made the brutish leader of a defeated and broken empire the dominant player in Mideast affairs. And he has sent a signal: not to our enemies, who will continue to pursue their strategic objectives until they are met with force or deterred by overwhelming power, but to our allies, who must now realize that American foreign policy under Barack Obama is simply not serious.

    The bottom line is that our so-called exceptionalism is no longer considered exceptional, as strong words, followed by limpid actions, repel credibility and global respect. IMO, the consequences will be enormous.

    Adrift and rudderless, the alliance of free peoples comes apart, the friends of freedom seek leadership and find none, and the wrong help the wrong to victimize the weak. Hear now the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of American power, as we sink “down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.”

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