Altruism and the Cave-in to Iran

[This article was expanded into “Dealing with Iran: Self-Interest vs. Self-Sacrifice.”]

Forget about the intricate details of our nuclear agreement with Iran—the number of centrifuges permitted, the degree of uranium enrichment allowed, the amount of advance notification required before inspectors can visit a nuclear facility. There is really only one question that matters: If an Iranian nuclear capacity poses an objective threat to America—if we have reason to fear that such weapons will be used aggressively against us—why are we relying for our safety on an agreement with the aggressor?

England has nuclear weapons. So does France. So does Israel. Yet we don’t have a need to sign treaties in which these nations promise not to take actions that threaten us. Their weapons are not a danger to us because they are essentially free countries and they do not live by conquest. They do not dictatorially subjugate people, neither their own citizens nor those of other countries. They recognize—however inconsistently—the value of liberty. They do not regard America as a fundamental enemy. A nuclear Iran, by contrast, is a danger to us. It is a theocracy which subjugates its own people and which seeks militarily to extend its power beyond its borders. If its government is willing to initiate force against us, how will it be deterred by its promise not to? A “contract” with Iran makes as much sense as a “contract” between the police and a criminal gang.

To put it differently, the only party with which an agreement to refrain from using force can have any meaning is a party with which such an agreement is unnecessary.

Why, then, is this disastrous treaty with Iran being pushed? Largely because of the ethics of altruism. Here is an excerpt from my book The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest (written in 2004):

What explains a foreign policy under which the strongest nation on earth regularly allows itself to be thwarted by petty despots? America wages a putative War on Terror, while Iran—the world’s most active state-sponsor of terrorism, the patron of the terrorist group that is second only to al Qaeda in the number of Americans it has slaughtered, the theocracy that stormed our embassy and held fifty-two Americans captive for over a year as its ayatollahs’ minions pranced in the streets and chanted “Death to America”—escapes any military reprisal from us. . . .

Why are we reluctant to stand up to other nations, when we enjoy undisputed military superiority? There is certainly no physical impediment that keeps us from protecting America’s interests. There is, however, an intellectual one: the widely accepted idea that the pursuit of self-interest is morally tainted.

The premise shaping our foreign policy is that we must sacrifice ourselves for the sake of weaker nations because self-interest can’t be the standard of our actions. . . .

This is why our government does not respond self-assertively and unapologetically to all foreign threats. We don’t want to focus only on our own security. We want to accommodate the concerns of the international community. We don’t want to use force “unilaterally” against nations that pose dangers to us—we have to consider their needs too. So we can’t tell the North Koreans that if they don’t destroy their nuclear-weapons facilities, we will; we must sympathize with their point of view. We can’t demand that Syria stop running terrorist training camps; we must respect its political needs. We can’t punish China for downing our aircraft; we must resolve all conflicts through compromise. After all, the North Koreans or the Syrians or the Chinese may have their own complaints against America.

The precept of self-sacrifice pertains not only to material goods, but to intellectual assets as well. Just as you are urged to hand over your money for the sake of others, so you are urged to surrender your convictions in the cause of altruism. Who are you to insist self‑righteously on the truth of your viewpoint?—this precept demands. What about your opponent’s viewpoint? Isn’t one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom‑fighter? You can’t condemn any countries as part of an “axis of evil”; they probably think the same of you. Never believe that you know the truth—that is too self‑confident. Never decide on your own to resort to force against other nations—that is too self‑assured. Be flexible, negotiate, give in, give up.

The result of these admonitions is a U.S. foreign policy whose hallmark is self-doubt. . . .

Invading a sovereign state [would be] selfish “unilateralism” on our part. . . . Who are we to kill others just because we think they threaten us? Shouldn’t we have some empathy for people living in desperate straits? How can we ignore the world’s disapproval? Shouldn’t we try more diplomacy, so that both sides can air their grievances? And if that means increasing the risk to us—our policymakers cautioned—well, we can’t be so parochially consumed with our own problems.

This attitude is what explains the bizarre phenomenon of a military power being paralyzed by a patently weaker opponent, whose arsenal consists essentially of the disarming idea that the strong must sacrifice to the weak.

But there is an alternative to this self-inflicted impotence: a foreign policy based on self-interest. This is a foreign policy that views the protection of Americans against international threats as its all-encompassing goal. The advocates of such a policy would reject any duty to sacrifice the wealth and the lives of Americans to the needs of other nations. And they would not seek the approval of other countries before deciding to use force to guard America’s interests. Under such a foreign policy, Washington would not attempt to defend America in fits and starts, futilely trying to straddle the two roads of self-interest and self-sacrifice, attacking one terror-sponsor today while mollifying others the next day. Nor would it attempt to uphold self-interest as an amoral expediency—as advocated by the impractical pragmatists and their school of “realpolitik.” Rather, the designers of a rational foreign policy would understand that self-interest can be successfully defended only if it is embraced as a consistent, moral principle—a principle in keeping with America’s founding values.♦♦ 

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