Moral Compass Astray

I’ve tried very hard the past few months not to talk politics on Facebook.  Minds are made up and positions are intractable.  And, although I believe that decency and kindness and fairness and commitment to our national values can be found in so many of us as individuals, I fear that the pressure of our “tribes” —heightened by those with their own agendas —  is leading fear, bias, and misunderstanding to give full throat with hateful rhetoric and a belief that it’s all OK in a world that has lost the mooring that civility, respect, and common courtesy had given us for so long.

But we can’t let tribalism guide us today as we face a new crisis that threatens war and the death of our warriors, our diplomats, and innocent men and women of our nation and of Iran as well.  Iran is indeed a major adversary vying for dominance in a region in which we have many interests and where Israel and Saudi Arabia and other actors also have stakes in the outcome.  It’s complex.  I don’t pretend to know the answers.  But I sure as hell would feel better if I believed that there had been a careful analysis of the risks and policy options prior to the decision to launch a missile strike at Major General Qassim Suleimani.  

Was he a foe of our nation? Yes.  Was he plotting attacks that could have led to the deaths of our citizens or our soldiers?  Very likely (though none of us has — perhaps understandably —seen the details).  

But we have learned of potential attacks before and we have thwarted them.  We have heightened security.  We have taken steps to keep our people safe.  And we have succeeded many more times that most folks can know.  Did killing Suleimani change the need for vigilance, for heightened security, for reducing profile?  It doesn’t seem that way to me.  Instead it seems that it has put more people at greater risk.  There is already a new leader of Iran’s Quds Force. New attacks are being planned.  The threat goes on.  I’m trying hard to see what we gained — but I remain unconvinced so far by the explanations I’ve seen.

When I was Ambassador in Uganda I applauded our efforts to take out the strategic planners and the ideological leaders of Al-Shabaab.  I never regretted our going after terrorists whose only legitimacy was that which they could gain by the threat of the gun and violence.  They did not lead states, they were outside the framework of international laws governing the conduct of state actors, and needed to be countered.  I got it, I supported it, and welcomed their removal from the battlefield.


But we aren’t at war with Iran.  Yes, they are a threat and have used their proxies against us to cause harm.  And we have responded in various ways, as we should.  

The decision to kill Suleimani, however, was the choice to kill a leading official of a sovereign nation.  One we don’t like, one that has worked directly against us, but a sovereign nation nonetheless — and one with whom we are not at war.  

The word for this is “assassination.”  As reprehensible as Suleimani and his actions may have been, as much as a threat as he may have been, he was still a foreign official and we chose to assassinate him because we believed him to be a threat to us.  Right or wrong in that assessment, we have chosen to disregard our own legal prohibitions on assassination (calling it “self-defense “ does not change the fundamental nature of our act).  Do we believe then that Russia, and China, and Israel, and India, and any other state should also have the right to order the assassination of foreign leaders that, in their own assessment, are threats?  What message do we send, and what kind of Pandora’s box do we open with this choice?  


Again…I know how complex these issues are.  I know there is much at stake and there are horribly difficult questions we must answer as we make some of the hardest decisions that leaders can make.  But I worry that the sober assessments that must accompany these choices are missing.  I worry that we may have acted on impulse rather than with care.  I worry that the costs may be higher than any of us want to pay and that the costs were never fully examined.  I worry that we will open the door for attacks that go beyond the scope of the acceptable because we have removed the constraints, just as the constraints of political rhetoric and hateful speech have been breached in ways inconceivable a few years ago.

I worry our moral compass is spinning wildly…and may not find true north in time to save us from what may prove to be the most ill-considered action we have taken as a nation in decades.

I hope that I’m wrong.  I fear I may not be.  Pray for the men and women who serve us.  Pray for our nation.   I think we will need it.

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