The Limits of Moralism in Israel and Gaza

Foreign policy can make a mockery of moral certitude. You’re trying to master a landscape of anarchy policed by violence, where ideological differences make American polarization look like genial neighborliness, where even a superpower’s ability to impose its will dissolves with distance, where any grand project requires alliances with tyranny and worse.

This seems clear when you consider the dilemmas of the past. It’s why the “good war” of World War II involved a partnership with a monster in Moscow and the subjection of half of Europe to totalitarian oppression. It’s why the “bad war” of Vietnam was only escaped at the cost of betraying the South Vietnamese and making a deal with yet another monster in Beijing.

But in active controversies the tragic vision can seem like a cold way of looking at the world. Lean into it too hard, and you get accused of ignoring injustice or recapitulating the indifference that gave cover to past atrocities.

Sometimes those accusations have some bite. A “realist” foreign policy can slide from describing power to excusing depredations. It can underestimate the power of a righteous cause — as I underestimated, for instance, Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself in 2022.

But seeing statecraft as a tragic balancing of evils is still essential, especially amid the kind of moral fervor that attends a conflict like Israel’s war in Gaza. The alternative is a form of argument in which essential aspects of the world, being inconvenient to moral absolutism, simply disappear.

For example, reading the apologia for pro-Palestinian protests from certain left-wing intellectuals, you have a sense of both elision and exaggeration, a hype around Israeli moral failures — it’s not enough for a war that yields so many casualties to be unjust, if it’s wrong it must be genocide — that ends up suppressing the harsh implications of a simple call for peace.

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