That Good Men Do Nothing

I was going to write a post which would serve little but to belabor many of the same points I’ve already made, but structured in the manner of a frustrated cry of futility at the hubris of moving against ISIS.

Someone beat me to it. Days ago.

Seriously, read this. It’s everything I could have said and more, but better than I could have said it.

So now what? Well, I’m gonna wax a little philosophical.


Lately on this issue, there’s a lot of talk about moral imperative. ISIS is “evil” so it has to be stopped. And yeah, they’re bad dudes. They do outrageous and horrible things to innocent people. And even assuming they were not one of many violent radical groups who use beheading, torture, and rape as methods of population control, why shouldn’t it be a moral imperative to act against them?

There’s that famous quote. You know it. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

If we don’t act, doesn’t that mean evil triumphs?

There’s a fundamental assumption here, and it begs a serious question: How do we know that we’re good (wo)men?

In America, it seems to have become a presumption that goodness and action are inextricably intertwined. Or put alternatively, that doing something is always better than doing nothing. That quote might have something to do with it. But we often do not distinguish between “good” action and “rash” action.

“Good” is not a word that should be associated so quickly with any national agenda. Politics and morality don’t often mix, and when they do, it’s been pretty contentious. We need to stop identifying America, and ourselves, as “good” in every foreign policy decision we make. If we’re honest, we’ll realize our actions are at best benevolently self-serving. Why is it that ISIS and Bin Laden and Hussein have been fair game but Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey have been allowed to operate with near-impunity? Is there a scale of morality, a numbered list from “most” to “least” bad, and Al Queda is at the top, and ISIS is two names down? What about Hezbollah? North Korea? Where do they rank on the scale? China? Shouldn’t they be somewhere on the list since the Tienanmen Square Massacre and with all the other questionable stuff they do?

There is no rhyme or reason to who is defined as “evil” and who is not; at least, there isn’t in a true moral sense. There is merely an illusion of moral superiority produced where political opportunity and arrogance combine. America does not truly champion causes of good. It champions causes of economic, social, and political expedience. In other words, America does not always act because it should, but often does because it can.

Assuming that the Bush Administration truly believed in its own moral imperative, one cannot deny that its decision to invade Iraq was based significantly on the determination that an invasion was feasible. America has not, and probably will not, invade Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, but Iraq was a prime target. American leaders believed that an invasion would be quick, painless, and result in a net gain for the US and the region (again, benefit of the doubt). Upon embarking on its great crusade, America claimed responsibility for its consequences, as they were the basis for its justification for invading in the first place.

Over a decade later, what have the real consequences been? Iraqi infrastructure has been crippled, millions have been displaced, and thousands have been killed or seriously wounded. AQI and ISIS have spawned and gained prominent footholds, feeding into violent civil unrest unlikely ever to end. If the United States had not invaded Iraq, conditions for many might have been bad, but they certainly would not have been worse than they are now.

Armed with this knowledge, can we say the invasion of Iraq was moral? Probably not.

Would restraint have yielded a more positive outcome for more Iraqis and Americans alike? Probably so. “Doing nothing” against an “evil” dictator in Iraq would have resulted in a more positive outcome than acting against him.

“Restraint,” that is, “doing nothing,” is not a popular word among presidents mobilizing for war. While it provides an opportunity for a reasonable exploration of potential consequences and a rational, national debate, it is not well-suited to the polarizing jingoism involved where a battle line has been drawn against something so extreme as “evil.”

The question is not whether ISIS are bad guys. Surely, they are; they might even be “evil.” But the United States, the same entity that has assumed the authority to define evil, has essentially created them. They are a consequence of a rash decision, to invade Iraq and arm Syrian rebels. But if the United States, in acting against evil, only sows more evil, what does that make us?

A good nation, a moral nation, would not act rashly, where rash action would result in more evil. A good nation would show restraint.

For all the talk of good and evil, of destroying terrorists and ending, in even more hyperbolic language, “terror,” there should be no illusions that the United States fights for the side of “good.” How do we even define what is “good” in a world where deposing dictators leads to more terrorism?



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