Niebuhr’s Realism and the Mess in Iraq


[1] Published in the darkest days of the Great Depression, presciently warning about Hitler's rise in Germany, insightfully urging that achievement of greater equality within America is a matter of its own survival, Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is one of those books often referred to but infrequently studied. As we struggle to come to terms with both the Bush Administration's failures in Iraq and the American obligation nevertheless not to fail there, Niebuhr's case for realistic political morality is worth recalling.

[2] Against cynics who reduce everything to relations of force, Niebuhr argued that power in fact bows to moral truth. We can see this in the phenomenon of hypocrisy. The powerful rarely admit their imperial motives. Rather they pretend to dominate for the sake of the dominated who need help protection, deliverance, civilization, education or whatever. This hypocritical pretence is "the tribute immorality pays to morality." At the same time, however, Niebuhr argued against moralists who disregard the reality of relations of force in any conceivable social arrangement. The simplistic projection of an individual morality of love onto the relations of ethnic groups, classes and nation states systematically misleads moralists, who decline to fight fire with fire.

[3] The application of Niebuhr's analysis today seems evident enough. Given the inter-dependencies of today's global economy, in which oil is the strategic commodity, the Bush administration sought to deprive political enemies of this resource in the volatile Middle East. The hypocrisy involved in justifying this war has been particularly clumsy. It has been The War in Search of a Moral Rationale from the beginning. Be that as it may, political morality remains political. It is about power and its uses. It is about strategic commodities like oil. It is about despots like Saddam Hussein with his WMD-blustering on the world stage and brutal oppression at home. It is about apocalyptic nuts like Amahdinijad aspiring to join the nuclear club, breathing murderous threats against Israel, all the while meddling in Iraq.

[4] The Bush Administration lacks the political credibility to do anything about Iran. The best it can do is to do no more harm. Even so, the problem which Niebuhr diagnosed remains. Oppressors do not give up power voluntarily. Fascists do not scruple at the grossest propaganda. Brute force must be met with intelligent force, especially in foreign relations. Liberal democracy is a not the Kingdom of God on earth, but it is a superior form of modern government, and we ought to learn how to promote and defend it more intelligently. That includes, Niebuhr urged, a self-critical assessment of the atrophy of democratic equality here at home.
[5] My generation looks reflexively to Vietnam for an analogy to Iraq.  We re-fight the battles of our youth rather than gain real insight. A better analogy might be found in Niebuhr's probing analysis of the Spanish-American war and the insurgency thereafter in the occupied Philippines. Wanting a piece of the colonial pie, but abashed at bald land-grabbing, the McKinley-Roosevelt team conjured up war hysteria, pitting hygienic, progressive America against the sickly Spanish colonial overlords. Having occupied the Philippines to save them, Americans were surprised to be greeted with an insurgency. Having no stomach for such a fight, Congress almost succeeded in cutting off funding. At the last minute, a serious "hearts and minds" change in military strategy turned things around. These parallels are intriguing --but go read Niebuhr for yourself.

[6] The larger task before us, Niebuhr urged, is "one of reducing force by increasing the factors which make for a moral and rational adjustment of life to life." A Niebuhrian analysis suggests the following points of convergence for Republicans and Democrats who are serious about that task in Iraq and beyond:

[7] Overcome domestic inequality. Exporting democracy abroad while progress towards social equality withers at home exposes an hypocrisy so massive that fascists like Amahdinijad can and will drive a bomb-laden truck right through it.

[8] Go green - fast! Make oil less and less a strategic commodity. Make the war to save the environment the home front's urgent contribution.

[9] Boots on the ground. There is no technologically cheap trade off for soldiers in harm's way. And there is no morally serious decision to deploy them that does not reckon with this human cost.

[10] The alternative to some such bipartisan foreign policy consensus is our increasingly dysfunctional zero-sum politics pitting cynics against hypocrites, utopians against brutes.  


© June 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 7, Issue 6