Wading in Seas Not Shining.

While Peter Beinart's foreign policy has improved markedly since he was equating progressives with Truman-era fellow travelers, his conception of what "morality" means in foreign policy still seems to have precious little to do with actual consequences. Here he is attacking the Obama administration for "downsizing" -- that is, abandoning a broader "war on terror" in favor of targeting al-Qaeda:

But downsizing also has its costs. The first is moral. Obama may be right that the U.S. can't vanquish movements like Hizballah and the Taliban or even an embattled regime like Iran's. Legitimizing them, however, will be hard for some Americans to swallow. Already, hawks have slammed Obama for negotiating with Iran's mullahs while the blood of Iranian protesters is still fresh on their hands. And "reconciliation" with the Taliban, while necessary for the U.S.'s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, might be a horror show for Afghan women. It is worth noting that while many historians applaud Nixon's retreat from global containment, his decision to cozy up to dictators in Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere elicited revulsion from Americans on both left and right.

I'll grant the Afghanistan example -- though as I argued yesterday, cutting out the Taliban entirely still wouldn't result a great situation for Afghan women -- but the Iran example is revealing. Beinart does not specify how negotiating with Iranian leaders would have actually harmed dissidents on the ground, or how refusing to speak with them would have helped the movement. All he has is a vague reference to "legitimation." But if "legitimizing" a regime like Iran's has the practical consequence of setting back its nuclear program without impacting its treatment of domestic dissidents, how is that not moral?

This applies to Nixon as well. No one denies that Nixon and Kissinger cared little for human rights considerations. But the most persuasive criticisms of the Nixon and Ford administrations focus on American actions -- like bombing Cambodia or encouraging Suharto to invade East Timor -- that led directly to increased civilian casualties. Détente with the Soviet Union and normalization with China were not only morally justifiable inasmuch as they decreased the likelihood of a catastrophic war erupting against either, but because they also led to human rights gains. The Helsinki Accords -- which codified human rights standards in the Soviet Union, encouraged dissidents there, and resulted in the creation of Human Rights Watch -- were adopted as a direct outgrowth of détente, and as a part of American and allied recognition of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. "Legitimizing" the Soviet Union might have "elicited revulsion," but it represented real progress for Soviet dissidents.

Of course, none of this matters if "morality" just means "not talking to icky people." This definition seems to still apply for Beinart, unfortunately.

--Dylan Matthews