The Moral High Ground Is Also Safe Ground

Our desire to do the right thing in Syria is actually weakening our own national security.

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In "Raiders of the Lost Ark," an Arab swordsman ostentatiously displays his skill with an oversized sword until Indiana Jones pulls out his revolver and simply shoots the man dead. A very similar incident occurred in real life during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1521: A band of Aztec warriors in elaborate costumes brandished their feather-festooned weaponry in the traditional prelude to a confrontation with a group of Spaniards. The Spaniards enjoyed the display for a few minutes at a safe distance. They then lit a cannon and obliterated all the Aztecs.

The Aztecs despised the Spaniards as cowards who violated all the norms of war by using weapons that enabled them to kill at a distance rather than face-to-face. Firearms were the most obvious example, but, in fact, the Spaniards didn't even need gunpowder: The Aztecs fought with what amounted to wooden paddles with sharp stone edges – they could slash, but they couldn't stab, as the Spaniards could with their pointed metals swords, and slashing requires you to get about an arm's length closer to your adversary than stabbing (you can try this at home). This conveyed a huge advantage even in hand-to-hand combat – the advantage of distance.

Military technology has aimed for this advantage throughout history. The Aztecs themselves had invented a spear-thrower that allowed for the hurling of spears with greater force and distance, to inflict death from afar (just not as afar as the Spaniards). Thus, Mark Bowden of The Atlantic started his recent exploration of the effect of drone warfare with an analogy to David and Goliath – and, in his telling, David was a "cheater" for using distance-technology (a sling shot) instead of engaging at close quarters, as expected: "David's weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair." That's an interesting interpretation of the age-old desire to keep oneself, one's family and one's comrades as safe and far from harm in war as possible. But it does underscore that winning wars has generally consisted of breaking the rules, not playing by them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

In West Africa a thousand years ago, the accepted norms required an elaborate ritual where combatants would ride out to the gates of the enemy capital and serve notice that they would be back the next day for battle; it was simply bad form to attack without proper warning. ("Meanwhile the attackers were invited inside the city for an evening of eating and drinking," notes Harold Courlander.) Most cultures have observed similar norms, at least up to a point – the point being where some realized that violating the norm conferred a competitive advantage. If that can be done with impunity, the norm doesn't last very long.

One of modernity's greatest claims is the advance and maintenance of norms in international law and war. In particular, the near-universal proscription on the use of chemical weapons is often cited not just as a great good in itself (after all, few take comfort in assurances that Assad cannot gas his people but can kill thousands as long as he uses other technologies), but also as a potential harbinger of possible further advances in humane conduct even in that most inhumane arena, warfare. That's what makes its violation serious.

Last week in this space, we surveyed the moral case against the failure to impose punishment on Assad. The short-term question in the wake of this charade is whether it has done lasting damage to the norm. The answer, thankfully, is probably not. This isn't the first time that the proscription of chemical weapons has been violated; famously, Iraq gassed Iranians civilians with, we recently learned, U.S. knowledge if not acquiescence. Nothing was done. The chemical-weapons norm still remains nearly universally recognized nevertheless. It likely will continue to be.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The larger question is what all this bodes for the future advance of norms-based state behavior. It was a good week for those who seek to weaken such norms. Governments bent on maintaining the "right" of states to dispose of their own people without outside intervention – primarily Vladimir Putin's Russia and the People's Republic of China, along with petty dictators everywhere – got exactly what they want. Putin even was able to wrap himself cynically in the mantle of peace and human rights – no wonder he then performed a touchdown dance in President Obama's own end-zone.

Of course, it's easy for someone who doesn't care about the hypocrisy to bomb Chechens, support Assad and still posture as the avatar of peace and human rights. If you purport to lead the world toward the sunshine, however, it helps to be a paragon of virtue oneself: Morals are constraining. That's why our own "realists" chafe at them. But it is the "realist" policies of recent years – wars with dubious justifications, torture, technology that distances us but increases "collateral damage" to civilians, and, most recently, the revelations of our spying on our allies – that have undermined both our role as an "Empire of Trust" and our willingness to play it.

The U.S. remains the one nation that could by itself insist upon and police international norms. A lot is now made of America's ostensible decline because of our inability to dictate outcomes in Syria (and elsewhere), but that's overwrought: If we didn't care at all about higher values, we could make short shrift of the rest of the world as easily as Indiana Jones. As events throughout the Middle East have shown, however, establishing rights-based regimes is hard perhaps because, as in Syria now, there is no good alternative easily at hand, and perhaps because it would be rather ironic otherwise. But we do not lack for strength of arms: The challenge is to our strength of convictions.

As this little survey shows, the moral high-ground historically has been eroded by the competitive advantage achieved by cheaters who then threaten everyone else's security. The problem here is the reverse: that we let weariness with maintaining the high ground lead us to abdicate it – and thereby weaken our own security.

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