U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Moral Ambiguity

challenge of peaceReflection on the machinations and implications of the yet to be approved diplomatic deal with Iran, has placed us in yet another moment of fear. In the Austin American-Stateman, colleagues Will Inboden and Jeremi Suri offer opinions regarding the stakes involved in the deal. Inboden concludes that future American presidents will contend with an Iran that possesses nuclear weapons:

Tehran gets an immediate windfall of up to $150 billion in unfrozen assets and the right to uranium enrichment. The country retains its nuclear infrastructure. Also, it can evade disclosing past weapon development activities and dodge future inspections, import conventional arms and resume work on ballistic missiles within five and eight years respectively, and resume almost full nuclear activities within 10 to 15 years.

Suri is not so certain about what the future will bring.

What the nuclear agreement offers is time and openness — delaying the day when Iran might become a nuclear power and allowing deeper American and other Western penetration of Iranian society. This is the most realistic strategy for encouraging beneficial reforms. As in Germany, Japan, China and Russia during the Cold War, we have reason to believe that more trade, travel, media access and direct conversation will give powerful Iranian figures an interest in cooperation that outweighs the urge to be destructive…. If we want to pursue a strategic transformation of the region aimed at reform and not war, we should accept the opportunity presented by the agreement. The advocates of change, following a long and successful American diplomatic tradition, recognize that we must have the courage to work with the enemy, rather than wish him away.

What appears to divide the positions taken by Inboden and Suri is the problem of telling the future based upon interpretations of past actions. While both largely agree that Iran has acted against American interests and those of its allies, Inboden believes the world loses in this deal, while Suri sees an opportunity for a “win.”

So are they are operating with two different crystal balls? When I encounter such future-telling, I am reminded of a scene from Spielberg’s Lincoln. Setting aside the controversy over historical interpretation, I can appreciate the artful arguments made in the story. In a scene that portrays Secretary of State William Seward arguing against negotiating (or even pretending to negotiate) with Confederate peace delegates because such a move would almost certainly undermine support for a proposed amendment to abolish slavery, Seward says to Lincoln, “you can have this amendment or a negotiated peace, but not both.” To this prediction, Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln observes: “Time is great thickener of things.” To Seward’s apparent harsh realism Lincoln offers beguiling advice—something Seward humorously admits he does not understand.

The Obama administration cannot know what will happen with Iran in the next few years. Yet the administration does have the power to live by principles that might create the prospect of a world slightly less terrifying than it is now. Such a path does not sound as definitive as it might, but perhaps it is the language of ambiguity that creates fear more than what is often seen as moral imperatives. Such fear often betrays a strong undercurrent of morality—that there are clear rights and wrongs involved and we avoid them at very great peril.

In 1983, in a moment far more dangerous for the world than our present time, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter called The Challenge of Peace that asked Americans to reconsider the nation’s position on nuclear deterrence. The point of the letter appeared designed to oppose the hardline position taken by the Reagan administration on nuclear weapons. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the leader of group of U.S. bishops appointed to consider U.S. nuclear policy, began from a simple question: what was the point of nuclear deterrence? Early on in the process of addressing that question, Bernardin reminded his fellow bishops of their duty to bear witness: “We need to be convinced that some actions can never be taken, even for survival; that there are limits to the argument that, because our adversaries are considering something, we must be prepared to do it also. We need to recall that as Americans and as people of faith we are expected to have our own principles, to be prepared to live by them and, in faith, to accept the consequences of doing so.” [NCCB ad hoc committee on war and peace, November 16-19, 1981]

Looking to deflate what they saw as a faulty moral position, a group of Catholics led by Michael Novak wrote an open letter in opposition to The Challenge of Peace published in the National Review. In place of moral witness, Novak and others offered what they argued was moral realism: “Moral reflection requires the moralist to face other eventualities [other than nuclear war]. Today, the possibilities are shaped by two great concrete realities: the actual nature of the Soviet Union and the actual nature of the United States and other Western democracies. The problem of saying no to nuclear war is not abstract; it is concretely directed most of all to Moscow, to Washington and to the European capitals. Actual decisions about existing and forthcoming nuclear weapons are made by real persons in specific political and geographical locations. Moral thinking about nuclear war must be concrete, as well as abstract.” [“War and Peace Today,” National Review, April 1, 1983, 368]

The approach Bernardin and a majority of U.S. bishops took was predicated on an application of just war principles that sought to slow down the only side it had influence over, the United States. Novak and his allies applied the just war theory as it had been practiced for most of U.S. history, as a way to justify aggressive military action through the language of moral realism. In the long run, Bernardin and the bishops offered an approach we would do well to consider. We now see that time could indeed be a great thickener of things–the Soviet Union, much to surprise of just about everyone, did change–proving to Novak and his allies that they did not (could not) understand the “actual nature” of either the Soviet Union or, for that matter, the United States (especially Ronald Reagan). In hindsight we might conclude that realism dressed up in language of certainty becomes dangerous moralism. Perhaps it is time once again to give principled ambiguity a try.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I may make a further comment later but for now I want to point out that the quoted passage from Inboden is misleading. The first sentence of that passage — “Tehran gets an immediate windfall of up to $150 billion in unfrozen assets and the right to uranium enrichment” — is wrong: Iran does not “get” the right to enrich uranium because Iran already has that right by virtue of being a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A brief summary of the NPT prepared by the Arms Control Assn. notes that “Article IV [of the treaty] acknowledges the ‘inalienable right’ of NNWS [non-nuclear-weapons states] to research, develop, and use nuclear energy for non-weapons purposes.” Thus under the NPT, Iran has the right to a nuclear fuel cycle provided it is directed to civilian, non-weapons purposes. And as part of the recent deal, Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium to anywhere near weapons grade. Moreover, Inboden’s assertion that Iran can “dodge future inspections” is not something that most experts who have looked at the detailed provisions of the deal seem to agree with (or that’s my impression at any rate).

    • Louis, I agree with your assessment, though if you read the whole editorial linked in the blog post there might be context to Inboden’s claim. I am not sure how he reached these conclusion.

  2. I like Ray’s point about the moral virtues of embracing necessary ambiguity. The world is a very uncertain place, and fundamental political change in a society like Iran is unpredictable. Worst case assumptions are easy for a strong power; taking calculated risks for positive change are crucial to the moral improvement of international relations. The history of international affairs gives ample evidence for this proposition, and Ray offers a great example from the 1980s.

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