Living in the world of moralpolitik

Boston—It was the pictures. Everybody says so. This is the common wisdom about the common images that intrude into our living rooms and our minds. One picture is worth a thousand pages of foreign policy analysis. One picture is worth a hundred think tanks.

We agreed to go into Somalia when we saw, literally saw, people starving. We clamored to get out when we saw, literally saw, a soldier’s corpse dragged through the streets. It was the pictures that provoked the public, turning opinion as quickly as the focus of a lens.

But pictures do not have a life of their own, some automatic imprinting effect. The impact is not only from the images television brings to us. It’s from what we bring to those images. Our own moral sense and our sense of limits.

The cameras and videotapes that report from the scene also illustrate ancient moral texts. They are a powerful engine of foreign policy in this new world order because foreign policy is often seen as a struggle between moral impulses and practical concerns.

During the Cold war, when the future warlord Aidid was a cabdriver in Washington, when Soviets and Americans were both arming Somalia, American policymakers talked in the hard-edged terms of realpolitik. Our policy toward other countries was routinely judged by the conflict between East and West.

Right and wrong was us and them. The moral consideration that trumped all the others was that democracy had to prevail over the “evil empire.”

When the Cold War ended, the lid came off old hatreds and ethnic struggles in parts of the world. But there was also a fragile belief that perhaps realpolitik could be replaced by moralpolitik.

We could use our power now as the rescue squad, the Red Cross, the good guys. Our national interest—what interested our nation—included a humanitarian interest.

In some way Somalia is a test case for moralpolitik. There was no ambiguity in a U.N. mission to bring food to starving people. Many of us worried about the moment when missionary soldiers would be seen as an occupying force. But unlike Bosnia, unlike the Persian Gulf War, Somalia seemed to offer what the stockbrokers call “a pure play” in the humanitarian business. There was a moral clarity to the pictures.

Now they are out of focus again. An American soldier is captured and then released. Aidid is unsuccessfully hunted and then invited to make peace. Lives are saved in this country and then lost in the city. The administration struggles to get out without, as Sen. John Glenn put it, “bugging out.”

I worry now that Somalia will teach Americans to turn away from the next set of pictures. Will we learn to avoid looking the world in the eye, the way we have learned to avoid looking at the homeless in our streets? There are all sorts of isolationism. One of them is moral isolationism, a cynicism about any moral role in the world.

James Q. Wilson, a UCLA professor and author of “The Moral Sense,” says emphatically that “it would be a great mistake if Americans said we ought not allow our feelings to be affected by pictures of starving children. In a democracy foreign policy should be driven to some degree by moral concerns.”

The problem is always to figure out “the relationship between moral sentiments and tactics,” between what we feel and what we can do about it. Especially in a world that can always overwhelm our ability to help with its needs.

In our own cities, Wilson says, “Americans were willing to help the homeless as long as there were relatively few and we believed they were homeless through no fault of their own and that help would be put to good use.”

When problems here begin to seem intractable, when problems in the world seem overwhelming, when help seems futile, we withdraw. We protect our own peace of mind and our belief in a just world by deciding that the fate of these people is their own fault. We learn to turn our backs—but at a fierce price to ourselves and the world.

This test case is now Clinton’s test. We went to Somalia because, as he put it, “Our consciences said, ‘Enough.'” We want to leave because our gut says “enough.”

This is a president who has tried to draw connections between values and practical politics in domestic policy. Now he must negotiate a fragile exit route in foreign policy, a way out that leaves the Somalis with “survival rights.” And a way that leaves Americans with a set of pictures we can bear to see.