The Brood: American foreign policy often exists in contexts where moral absolutes are few and far between. Progressives, champions of justice at home, are uncomfortable critically engaging with injustices abroad, and America’s often “problematic” responses to them. Can progressives find a way to navigate the world’s gray areas?
In a recent article, I talked about how American progressives do not have a foreign policy, full stop. Today I want to address a very specific aspect of this phenomenon: Progressives don’t know how to behave in moral gray zones. This is a major liability, because in international affairs, moral gray zones are the norm, and not the exception.
The primary example in my mind was inspired by a recent episode of Wordly, Vox’s foreign policy podcast. Let’s be clear: I am a fan of this podcast, and I endorse it. They have a progressive angle on world events, and an aggressive focus on human rights.
In this most recent episode, they covered the recent purges in Saudi Arabia, in which Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) shocked the world by arresting high level figures (including family members) to consolidate his power. When covering this story, I fault them on a couple of issues:
- They fell into the trap of critiquing current foreign policy without providing an alternative, something which, again, was discussed in a previous article.
- Their critiques, while valid, overestimated the ability of the United States to impact domestic changes in foreign countries.
- Their critiques again while valid, largely focused on violence, destruction, and death caused by, or abetted by, current US policy, but without balancing considerations of US interests, and, again, not providing an alternative.
Let me elaborate a little, for context. I’d encourage you listen to the podcast, but to make a long story short, MBS is consolidating power before he takes the Saudi throne, and he is aggressively exercising power as the heir-apparent by launching a deadly war in Yemen, which is about containing Iran, their chief rival, and certainly not a friend to the United States.
In particular, Zack Beauchamp talked about how the foreign policy establishment in Washington is hawkish on Iran. To his credit, he acknowledges there are reasonable grounds for opposition to Iran. In this podcast (around 20:05), however, he says that since opposition to Iran is our #1 priority in the Middle East, the alliance with Saudi Arabia is our #1 measure to counteract the Iranians. That leads to the awful situation of the US supporting MBS’s war in Yemen, which has targeted civilians.
Beauchamp and his colleague Jennifer Williams go on to deliver hot takes on America’s record on human rights, Beauchamp even going so far as to say (around 30:00) that the Saudi Alliance is a reason to believe that concern with human rights in US foreign policy is an illusion. There is a debate to be had about this, and probably more than one.
The frustrating thing about this argument on US foreign policy in the region is that it can be summed up as: “The government is supporting a war to contain Iran. The casualties are high, atrocities are staggering, therefore the policy is bad.” There is an implication that the US really ought to mind its own business.
I don’t agree, but then again that’s not what particularly annoys me here. It’s the fact that, again, my fellow progressives critique American foreign policy without providing a cohesive counter-proposal. Here is a smattering of questions that the podcast does not address:
- Is there an alternative way to minimize Iran’s destabilizing effects without supporting proxy wars and armed conflict?
- When should the United States view conflict and death abroad as an acceptable part of its foreign policy? Is violence ever acceptable, in a post-Iraq world?
- Should we revert to neutrality, and allow the Saudis and Iranians to tussle in the region on their own?
- Should we risk the Saudis turning to more authoritarian partners like Russia, instead?
- If we have “imperfect allies”, should we abandon them, even if it potentially sacrifices larger strategic goals such as economic, digital, and physical security?
- Do we have a higher chance of influencing domestic Saudi politics and society outside of an alliance?
- If we abandon the Saudi alliance, who are will align ourselves with in the region to make it a better place?
It is not wrong to critique a policy based on its physical impact on people’s lives and safety. It is wrong to critique it, and then not provide a well-thought out counter-proposal that argues that we could do better with less violence. It’s a disservice to your own critique.
While there are liberals like Chris Murphy trying to think through these questions, (and I really encourage you to read his manifesto here), most progressives aren’t. For people who are proud of encouraging people to consider the nuances of race relations, sexual and gender fluidity, systemic injustice, we as a group of people tend to shy away from the moral gray zones of foreign policy.
We feel much more at home in domestic social issues, where we enjoy the unquestionable moral high ground, and such internet hobbies as shaming Trump voters, “destroying” racists on twitter, and saying “yaaas” to hot takes about how actually white people are illegal immigrants who displaced Native Americans.
We are much, much more uncomfortable when anything less than our moral ideal occurs in foreign affairs, and what we should do about it, because often times our answers, sometimes whispered in the backs of our heads, don’t conform to our moral standards either. So we critique. We post hot takes. We get the likes. We get the shares. We get the affirmation. But we don’t think beyond that. It’s too uncomfortable.
That has to change. Progressives have to figure out how to embrace the gray zones if their vision of social justice is to be a truly global one.