The Meaning of Morality


WITH A CONVULSIVE SHOUT, America's leaders are dragging it down the road to war. For the new militarism, getting worked up into a fighting frenzy is more important than knowing when, where, whom or why to fight. The brief spell after Vietnam under which American leaders sought to understand why that tragedy occurred and how to prevent it in the future ended quickly enough; today a typical attitude about foreign affairs seems to be, "America has taken enough shit from the world and ought to start flinging some back."

The U.S.'s return to gunboat diplomacy and covert operations--in President Carter's Iranian rescue mission and Congress's freeing the Central Intelligence Agency to roam foreign nations at will--certainly signals the start of that flinging. But Americans who feel that their government has a right to do what it wants in the world as a result of a few years of a nominally moral foreign policy are turning their backs on every lesson in international relations the world has given the U.S. since World War II.

The Iranian crisis--which remains a crisis, despite Carter's best attempts to wish it away--has crystallized this dangerous attitude. The U.S. has reached an impasse in Iran as much because of its own refusal to take responsibility for its past as because of the intransigence of the Iranian militants. American claims of international law sound good in Washington, but in Tehran, where a C.I.A.-engineered coup placed the shah in power in 1953, Uncle Sam looks less innocent. The rights of the hostages are important, but where was American concern for human rights while the shah's secret police tortured his political opponents? America ought to recognize its complicity in the fate of Iran and publicly repudiate the Shah; the hostages' return might well be furthered, but more importantly, Iranians and non-aligned nations everywhere would see that America understands the criminality of much of its past, and resolves not to let history repeat itself.

IN FACT, OF COURSE, the trend in both public opinion and government action seems, ironically, exactly the reverse. As a consequence of a crisis the U.S. got into because of an arrogant, immoral foreign policy, our leaders decide to step up the arrogance and immorality. Soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, Carter proposed massive aid to Pakistan--like the shah's Iran a repressive military dictatorship.

The ineptness of much of Carter's foreign policy continues to stupefy the world. The bungles are endless--from the buck-passing and double-dealing following the vote in the U.N. Security Council on Israel's West Bank settlements to the recent diplomatic faux pas of the president's absence at Yugoslav leader Josip Tito's funeral. One reason for the perpetual inconsistency of Carter's diplomacy, of course, is his stage-fright: every move on the international stage is selected to please the audience of American voters, not to further a coherent foreign policy. It is precisely Carter's failure to solve domestic problems--most notably his inability to present an effective energy program--that have led him to seek the warrior's glory around the globe.

Carter deserves the most blame for irresponsibly aggravating war fever; his absurd statement that the invasion of Afghanistan constituted the gravest threat to world peace since World War II has become a sitting target for commentators. But behind Carter's hysteria stands a serious policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union that makes no sense internationally, though plenty for Carter's domestic political survival.

We oppose a return to draft registration, and the functioning draft that would inevitably follow, because the motivation behind it is purely political. Neither American military needs nor the nation's security requires this step; only Jimmy Carter's future seems to demand it. The war 19-and 20-year-olds might die in would be to defend America's inability to secure its energy independence, not our national interests at all, as the Carter Doctrine wildly states. We urge students to fight the reinstitution of draft registration, and if--as is likely--Congress approves the bill and Carter signs it, not to comply with the law.

AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY under Zbigniew Brzezinski is returning to its state under our last realpolitik, government-professor National Security Adviser: a nearsighted, bipolar view of the world which cares less about a nation's welfare or common interests with us than about its value in the life-or-death wrestling match between the two superpowers. In a world that has a third arena no one can ignore, the stupidity of such a view could be fatal. Looking at developing nations merely as pawns in the game against the U.S.S.R., with a blind eye to their internal affairs, is what first associated the repression in places like South Korea and South Vietnam with the American name across the world. Tying America's policies to individual leaders like the shah not only makes a mockery of American principles; it does not even further our self-interest. Such autocrats usually topple from power after revolutions spawned by their own repression, leaving America with even fewer friends.

A consistently moral foreign policy--not Carter's abortive, capricious "human rights" campaign--would offer financial aid to nations where it can save lives and promote economic health; and military aid only to those governments which we know will not use American arms to invade their neighbors or turn American guns against their own people. If we hope to convince the Third World that our system of government is superior to the Soviets', it simply won't do to continue making ourselves laughing-stocks every time we send a shipment of arms to a dictator. If we sacrifice our values every time we try to defend them, why bother?