Protecting Humanity Takes More Than Moral Indignation

This week I read a well-intentioned article in support of President Trump’s decision to launch a punitive missile attack against Syria for “using chemical weapons against his own people….”  Its author, Siena Hoefling, dismissed Senator Rand Paul’s complaint that the punitive attack was “an unconstitutional rush to war.”  She noted that “like his colleagues, the senator made no demand that the House of Representatives impeach the president because “A president who uses executive and military power in the name of innocent human life has a morally defensible cause.”

The default of Congress’s responsibility to deliberate upon and represent the will of the people of the United States before committing their government to war is hardly proof that our Constitution authorized President Trump’s unilateral use of his power as commander-in-chief. It’s hardly surprising that a GOP Congressional majority did not even consider moving to impeach a newly elected Republican President. This reluctance had everything to do with politics, and nothing at all to do with the Constitutionality of President Trump’s decision.

As I noted in this column last week, President Trump’s punitive action, taken in the absence of any Syrian aggression against the United States, its citizens or armed forces, was an offensive action that initiated a de facto state of war between the United States and Syria. America’s war against Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, is cited by some as a prime example of America’s flirtation with militaristic imperialism.  But the slogan used to foment public support for that war, Remember the Maine, reminds us that Congress formally declared a state of war to exist in response to an event widely touted as Spanish aggression against our military forces.  This illustrates the truth of President Reagan’s observation about the wars the United States fought during his lifetime. “In each,” he said, “we struggled to defend freedom and democracy.  We were never the aggressors.

Siena Hoefling asserts that President Trump’s claim of moral outrage, focused particularly on the horrific deaths of infant children, gave Congress reason to acquiesce in his disregard for the Constitutional provision that makes Congress responsible for the decision to commit the people of the United States to war.  Emotion may explain the impulse to attack another state, but it does not justify simply ignoring the Constitution’s evident requirement that the people’s representatives be consulted, especially when no actual attack against them requires immediate military action.

Mrs. Hoefling argues that President Trump’s action is morally justifiable because it involves the defense of innocent life.  But, so does the action of an individual who decides to slay an abortion doctor to avoid the further destruction of innocent infant life. Does Mrs. Hoefling believe that that action is morally justified?  In the absence of any semblance of government over them, individuals may reasonably assert that they are obliged to take it upon themselves to execute punitive judgments against those they think guilty of offenses. John Locke (the English philosopher whose logic America’s Founders often consulted,) asserted that this was their natural obligation.

But we Americans now function under a government informed, at least in principle, by Locke’s logic. That logic derives the lawful powers of government from the aggregation of the individual powers of people willing to do right, according to “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.” Acting on this common will, they delegate responsibility for justice and law enforcement to their government. They do this with the understanding that individuals may thereafter resort to force only as and when they are immediately threatened with violence. But since no such government of delegated power exists over the nations of the earth, doesn’t each nation retain its responsibility to enforce the moral laws all human beings are obliged to respect?

Speaking of what the United States aimed to do in the aftermath of WWII, Ronald Reagan said of the United States that “We took the initiative in creating such international institutions as this United Nations, where leaders of good will could come together to build bridges for peace and prosperity.”  He spoke of “watching…succeeding generations of American youth bleed their lives onto far-flung battlefields to protect our ideals and secure the rule of law.”  As Reagan knew, we intended the UN institutions to be “a new chapter in the history of mankind.”  But in all the decades since, they have proven only sporadically and weakly capable of constraining the age hold tendency toward violent human conflict.

In this respect, their failure seems to predominate. That is, until we call to mind the catastrophes that loomed large in the minds of those who had experience the global catastrophe of WWII.  First and foremost, the renewal of global war that so quickly took place after WWI, has continually been postponed.  The new and devastating weapons of destruction that may yet extinguish human civilization, if not all human life, have not yet been deployed again in any conflict.  So it was not simply in vain that leaders of nations that were bitter enemies committed their people to the UN experiment.  Not all were sincere, to be sure, but they responded to the fact that their nations were exhausted by war, and their peoples hungry for the solace of peace and a chance to rebuild.

The institutions that developed from their leaders’ agreement have not yet realized the dream of lasting peace that tantalized them all.  But neither have they simply failed.  This is, at least in part, because the United States chose never simply to abandon their hope. We made the institutions our way of life inspired our first resort for conflict resolution.  We did so knowing that, in the end, we ourselves would end up doing most of the heavy lifting required to enforce even a semblance of the norms the UN’s Charter sought to codify.

Though our detractors accuse us of abusing our power, we nonetheless did what no nation in the world had ever done before — we chose rather to restrain than fully assert power that was, for a moment in history, without equal.  We did so for the sake of a human hope that is, in some sense, the cause of our existence as a nation — the hope that someday human freedom may truly be reconciled with the rule of law, so that liberty can flourish with the exercise of right.  That is the moral purpose which led America’s greatest statesman to tolerate the evil of slavery while the seeds of its destruction, planted in the very foundation of America’s identity, matured.

That meant, for many, restraining the impulse to do justice for my enslaved ancestors when it meant destroying the constitutional union that, in its Declaration principles, raised the standard of right that condemned the injustice of their enslavement. The challenge of pursuing the aim for humanity that informed America’s post WWII commitment to the United Nations is even more complex. But it requires the same willingness to discipline the very passion for justice and moral right that leads us to pursue that aim in the first place.  If we impulsively take offensive military action to punish the violation of right, wherever individuals suffer atrocious injustice, what becomes of this statecraft?

It calls, instead, for self-discipline, in order to uphold the right of humanity to which so many nations committed themselves, at least in principle, in the aftermath of WWII.  It is the right of people of good will to respect the laws inscribed upon the human heart. It is their right to consult and co-operate with one another, in the pursuit of justice, so that all may live in peace. It is a right of all humanity, which we Americans made it our responsibility to protect.

This right makes it imperative that we should not act alone unless some emergency gives us no choice. To protect this right, something more than our own moral indignation is needed to justify offensive uses of our military power.  Like our nation’s founding generation, we must show “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.”  Before all the world, we must take pains to give other nations reason to join with us in the enforcement of right, and we must do so before we act, not after the fact. Isn’t this the reason we helped devise the UN Security Council in the first place?