President Obama�s Moral Surge

President Barack Obama�s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize provided a framework for understanding the surge of troops he ordered in Afghanistan that appealed to some broader concepts than America�s national security. Many people have already praised the president for presenting this wider framework.[IMGCAP(1)] Still, the argument he gave at West Point has generated some misleading discussions about rival approaches to America�s foreign policy. The West Point speech is still the starting point for discussion about our new approach to Afghanistan and thus we are not through analyzing it.James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, has made the case that Obama�s rationale for the surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and indeed his foreign policy overall is based on considerations of pragmatism and not principle (Newsweek, Dec. 14, 2009). Pragmatic considerations, Rubin maintains, concern promoting the self-interest of the United States, whereas considerations of principle concerns promoting principles of democratic values throughout the world.Mr. Rubin�s account paints a stark picture of the old debate between realists and idealists in foreign policy. And although he calls for a balance between pragmatism and principle, he still associates pragmatism with an extremely narrow realism and he associates Obama�s approach to Afghanistan and all of his foreign policy with this narrow realism. Given the category he sets up in his taxonomy, it is therefore natural that President Obama�s foreign policy looks objectionable.The chief flaw in Rubin�s analysis and critique is that he makes the assumption that a foreign policy based on promoting national self-interest is not based on moral principles. It is true that the realism perspective revolves around the notion of power, but it does not follow from the fact that a country approaches foreign policy primarily in terms of using its power to protect its self-interest that the country is somehow devoid of moral principles.There are indeed some theorists in the realist tradition and some leaders past and present who advocate and/or practice a foreign policy that is based on aims of aggressively building up the nation or the city-state by dominating and exploiting other peoples and their natural resources. These realists are best regarded as power-abusers.Such an approach � and Machiavelli is the most notable realist of this mold � is essentially a self-interested power-seeking realism that is not based on any moral principles, let alone democratic values one seeks to uphold in one�s own nation or other nations.It is true that the primary rationale President Obama provided for the surge in troops in Afghanistan was based on national self-interest. Yet his argument was definitely based on moral principles, indeed democratic principles. President Obama essentially argued that the security of the country is threatened and that as commander in chief of the armed forces he was determined to take measures that would protect us against al-Qaida and the Taliban. He argued that increasing our presence in Afghanistan was necessary to protect our national security.There can be no doubt that deploying human and natural resources to protect your country is acting from the moral point of view. Human and natural resources can be otherwise employed for domestic economic and civic aims, and thus the very act of directing them to a foreign war shows that a moral decision based on moral priorities has been made.It is essentially an empirical question about whether the president�s strategy will lead to the results he predicts. Admittedly it is an extremely complicated empirical question, and it includes political and diplomatic dimensions that rob it of any pure empirical status. Nevertheless, the question about whether sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to be used in the ways the president intends will in fact stabilize the country and beat down the Taliban is largely empirical. It is on a par with other complex empirical questions, ranging from the question about how you build an atomic bomb to the question whether certain techniques for reducing carbon emissions in the air will have the effects predicted on global warming.But the decision to send the troops and employ the resources is a moral decision, and it is one that relies on moral principles about promoting democratic values in our country. Moreover, a democratic leader who takes on the responsibility to protect his country is clearly demonstrating the virtue of responsibility.Now there certainly is a legitimate question about whether the rationale for the surge was sufficiently broad in scope since it is possible to give a rationale that concerns promoting democratic values not only in the United States but outside of the United States as well, whether that includes Afghanistan, Asia overall or the entire world.It does seem accurate to say that President Obama did not give a moral argument with a particularly wide scope. In this regard, he was neither George W. Bush nor Woodrow Wilson. But President Obama�s mission in Afghanistan is profoundly moral, and it is obvious that he abhors Islamic extremism and does not want any people to suffer from it. If his Afghanistan speech was very targeted, then it seems most reasonable to say that he was trying to send a wake-up call to Congress and the citizens of the United States.As commander in chief, the president was saying that he has a moral duty to protect us and he wants to make sure that we are fully aware of the situation and the potential severe harm that could still come to our country.A speech to the cadets at West Point and to the rest of the country that was more Wilsonian in nature would have run the risk of being mistaken for one man�s need to impose his will on the world and secure his place in history. Wilson was right to seek a League of Nations after World War I because the worst war in the history of the world had just come to a conclusion. President Obama was right to base his rationale for the surge on principles of democratic values related to our national security because it is not obvious to Congress or the American public or the rest of the world that his strategy is correct. But whether President Obama�s extremely extensive empirical calculations will lead to the effects he predicts, it is clear that he has relied on principles of democratic values to make this very difficult decision.The Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech introduces some wider considerations for the surge in troops, where the president appealed to the concept of �just war� and the importance of supporting democratic values in other countries. Here he is moving away somewhat from the version of realism he seemed to be embracing in his West Point speech.Yet the basic points about moral versus empirical arguments should not get lost in the discussion of the president�s evolving foreign policy. The Oslo speech does not supplant the West Point speech so much as locate it in a broader context. A president�s foreign policy is not a document that gets written and re-written. It is a moving developing doctrine with a life of its own that has implications in every country on earth and that has that has different understandings for the different audiences to which it applies. The West Point argument was very important and should not be overshadowed by the more eloquent words at Oslo. After all, the Oslo speech was presented to the whole world and to posterity and to the pundits, but the West Point speech was presented to Americans, especially those who would be part of the surge and those mothers and fathers, and step-mothers and step-fathers, and brothers, sisters and other relatives who must watch their family members go off to war.David M. Anderson has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan. He taught political ethics at George Washington University�s Graduate School of Political Management for 12 years.