July 08, 2010

Two Quick Thoughts on Unrelated Topics

1. A CNN editor trying to express her admiration for Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah on Twitter is just silly. (The name and title alone are 42 characters!) One should not try and explain what seems to have been a nuanced opinion in a text message. Firing her for it, though, also seems silly. Also silly, though, is continuing to describe Fadlallah as Hizballah's spiritual mentor. That may have been kind of true in the 1980s but has probably not been the case since then. My guess is that the young and relatively undistinguished religious scholars who formed Hizballah's leadership in the early 1980s -- Musawi, Tufaili, Nasrallah, etc. -- needed someone of high religious stature like Fadlallah to beef up their Islamic bona fides.* Fadlallah, in turn, benefited from his relationship with Hizballah within civil war-era Lebanon. By the 1990s, though, both groups more or less outgrew one another. Fadlallah no longer needed Hizballah's support, and Hizballah no longer needed his blessing. Both Fadlallah and Hizballah had enough stature to stand on their own. Even Martin Kramer, who once wrote a long monograph on the man titled "Oracle of Hizballah", is highly sensitive to the way in which Fadlallah's stature and relationship with Hizballah has changed over time. Personally, I think Hizballah and Fadlallah are best understood as separate if overlapping phenomena within Shia Lebanon. Fadlallah's ministry and activities, for example, long precede those of Hizballah.

2. This Andrew Bacevich blog post is off. Bacevich wants us to consider foreign policy decisions black-and-white moral affairs. Bush, he argues, reliably chose the wrong option out of two available but was at least guided by a flawed moral compass. Obama, Bacevich argues, is amoral. This is absurd. In matters of war, leaders at all levels make hard moral choices involving sin and virtue. One could describe this as the hard moral economics of war, and it applies from platoon leaders to presidents. Invading Iraq, for example, delivered difficult-to-calculate moral benefits (overthrowing a brutal dictator, responsible for the death or torture of hundreds of thousands) and similarly-difficult-to-calculate moral costs (horrific violence affecting the lives of millions and costing the lives of many thousands more). By invading and occupying Iraq in such an incompetent manner, we Americans changed the margins, indesputably raising the moral costs further. I disagreed with the initial decision to invade Iraq on both strategic and moral grounds but understood the moral calculus involved. (I have never understood the strategic calculus.) In the same way, just because you disagree with the Obama Administration on Afghanistan does not mean that the administration lacks a moral compass. They probably just did a strategic and moral cost-benefit analysis and arrived at a different conclusion than Bacevich did. I understand that Andrew Bacevich is upset about our policy in Afghanistan. But concluding as he does -- without any evidence to suggest that moral considerations, such as an obligation to the Afghan people, were not weighed in the president's decision-making process -- that the president lacks a moral compass is ugly, unnecessarily ad hominem, and beneath a man of Bacevich's intelligence and humanity. If Bacevich was serious, he would consider not just the strategic risks to a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan -- which is what he is apparently advocating -- but also the moral costs to be paid by the Afghan people we leave behind. In that light, the moral economics of war are no more black and white than the strategic economics of war. We're left with hard choices and trade-offs, and the public discourse is very poorly served by those who pretend they are easy.

*I should add here that I am hardly the only person who has come to this conclusion. I do not have any citations handy, but I do not want to be accused of plagiarizing someone else's research either. So let me just say, again, that my take on this is not unique.