Theodicy and foreign policy: The U.S. is not omnipotent

Theodicy and foreign policy: The U.S. is not omnipotent May 2, 2013

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

Wislawa Szymborska,The Century’s Decline

Yesterday, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered had a segment debating U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war: “Analysts Divided on U.S. Arming Syrian Rebels.”

The guests were two people I wasn’t familiar with: Andrew Tabler, “senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” and Joshua Landis, “who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.”

Landis argued that the U.S. should avoid getting entangled in the Syrian war because he doesn’t think this is a problem that America can solve:

I think the United States should stay out of this. This is a civil war, ethnic civil war, which America cannot adjudicate and we can’t solve. The Syrians ultimately have to figure out who they are, if they can live together and what their national identity is going to be. And if America jumps into the middle of it, we’re going to want to kill the extremists and we’re going to want to destroy the Assad regime and we’re going to be fighting a two-front war in Syria.

And we’re not going to get the outcomes we want and we’re going to spend a fortune doing it. And, you know, there’s got to be one of these wars we just don’t get involved in.

Tabler, on the other hand, is urging the U.S. to begin arming the rebels in Syria, and he’s disappointed that America didn’t get involved sooner:

If it had occurred earlier, it would have been easier, but unfortunately, now we have more extremists who have moved into different areas that are controlled by the opposition. So you can’t guarantee that every bullet would not make it into the hands of an extremist.

But overall, you could strengthen the mainline nationalist local and franchise battalions and it would help deal them back in. And the reason why I still think that’s a good idea, you know, with groups that we vetted and we can work with is because I just don’t think this conflict is going to end any time soon.

By the end of the segment, this disagreement got pretty nasty — in a very familiar way:

LANDIS: Could I have one rejoinder? Andrew just said that I’m a regime-supporter for making this argument and therefore trying to scare Americans away. I think that’s an unfair accusation. I’m an American.

TABLER: You’ve got to be kidding, Josh. You have been one of the biggest supporters of Bashar al-Assad for a long time, and look, that’s your position. And I think the argument you make…

LANDIS: That’s completely untrue. And I’m an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.

TABLER: I think that you are…

LANDIS: What you are saying is that Syria’s not like Iraq.

TABLER: I’m sorry I don’t agree with you.

LANDIS: And Syria’s exactly like Iraq. This is not about the regime. This is about America staying out of a quagmire, Andrew.

TABLER: Josh, I just think that your positions have come consistently on side of the regime.

It’s like a trip back in time to 2003.

Andrew Tabler is trying to revive one of the nastiest, most illogical of all the nasty, illogical arguments that misled America into the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. He’s repeating Glenn Reynolds’ ugly, foolish slur that anyone who opposed invading Iraq was “objectively pro-Saddam.”

This accusation doesn’t make any more sense in 2013 than it did a decade ago, but I think I’ve finally figured out why people like Reynolds and Tabler trick themselves into thinking it does.

They’re not really talking about foreign policy. They’re talking about theodicy. They’re making a theological claim, with the United States in the role of God.

“Theodicy” refers to the problem of evil. I like Archibald MacLeish’s pithy summary of that problem in JB:

If God is God, He is not good,
If God is good, He is not God.

JB is a modern retelling of the story of Job, but MacLeish doesn’t have any better answers than the author of Job did. Here are the two seemingly incompatible ideas that story tries to reconcile:

1. God is “the Almighty,” or — as theologians say — “omnipotent.”

2. God is good (just, fair, loving, righteous, benevolent, etc.).

Now consider any evil, unjust, painful, horrible incident or context. Any will do, and you have an infinite array of choices: the Lisbon earthquake, the Boxing Day tsunami, 9/11, childhood leukemia, AIDS, a car crash, a drive-by shooting, tyranny, calamity, pain, disease, flood, famine — take your pick.

The existence of any or all of those seems to suggest that God cannot be both omnipotent and good. A God that was both omnipotent and good ought to have intervened to stop such horrors, or to reverse them. That’s what any of us would do if it were in our power to do so, even those of us who make no claim to be anything like as good as the ultimate goodness we attribute to God.

The claim of God’s goodness makes such intervention necessary. The claim of God’s omnipotence means that such intervention would be guaranteed to succeed. The relentlessly evident lack of such divine intervention therefore suggests that one or the other of these attributes of God is wrongly attributed. Either an all-powerful God could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but chooses not to — and is therefore not good. Or else a good God wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not all-powerful.

That’s the conundrum. (I would say that’s the crux of the problem, but the literal crux of the matter is something else entirely.)

I think the illogical logic of the Neo-conservative “objectively pro-Saddam” argument comes from taking this framework of theodicy and applying it to American foreign policy. In the framework of theodicy, goodness always entails an obligation to intervene. Interventionist foreign policy draws on that, I think. For interventionists, America is good and therefore America must intervene.

From this view, the evil, horror and injustice of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq — like every evil, horror and injustice — demanded an active response. Wouldn’t you have put a stop to it if it were within your power to do so? Of course you would have. And thus the U.S. was obliged to invade Iraq, because with its unrivaled military might, the U.S. did have the power to do so.

This isn’t a military or strategic argument. Nor is it a discussion of just-war theology. It’s an analogy from theodicy. Either the mighty U.S. could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil in Iraq, but chooses not to — and is therefore objectively pro-Saddam. Or else the U.S. wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not mighty enough and needs to further increase the Pentagon’s budget.

The dilemma of theodicy has two horns — ultimate goodness and ultimate power. Both of those are problematic in this analogy. But here let’s set aside the problem of trying to equate the U.S. with ultimate goodness. And let’s set aside as well the host of other troubling factors, like the seemingly arbitrary choice of elevating one particular unjust context above all others as uniquely requiring intervention. Here let’s just focus on the simple and obvious fact that the United States military, while quite powerful, is not omnipotent.

I don’t simply mean that U.S. military firepower is finite, rather than infinite. That’s obviously true, but it’s not really the problem with this analogy.

The United States spends more on its military than any other country. It’s not even close. American politicians love to boast of the nation’s military prowess, and they’re not wrong. The U.S. has more and better weapons than any other nation on the planet. So even though U.S. military firepower is finite and limited, it’s so far beyond that of most potential military foes that those limits don’t matter much. America’s nuclear arsenal could destroy the entire planet several times over. If you can kill everyone on earth more than once, it hardly matters that you’re unable to kill them all an infinite number of times.

The main reason that the U.S. military is not omnipotent is that it’s military might is only that: military might. The U.S. military cannot cure cancer, end a drought or feed the starving millions. The U.S. military can solve only those problems that are exclusively military problems. And it can address the military aspects of problems that are partly made up of military aspects — but only those military aspects. It cannot solve every problem or correct every injustice.

To put it crudely, the U.S. military is very, very good at killing people. But many problems — most problems, actually — can’t be resolved by killing people. Some few, perhaps, can. The vast majority cannot.

That reveals the confusion of our interventionist friends when they make the leap from theodicy to foreign policy. The idea they draw from the discussion of theodicy is that goodness requires intervention — that to be good means one is obliged to intervene against evil, suffering and injustice. I think that’s right, but it does not mean that one is obliged to intervene by killing people. It does not mean that this specific form of intervention is the only specific form of intervention called for — or that it is the best, or the first, or the most effective form of intervention.

Just-war theory addresses this in at least two ways. One is the principle of last resort, which says that military intervention and the use of military force must never be used unless everything else has been fully and legitimately tried first. The second is the principle of “reasonable hope.” That doesn’t mainly have to do with the prospects for military victory, but rather with the question of whether or not such a victory would likely produce a just outcome. (Generals often understand the wisdom of this better than civilians do.)

Those two principles are among the most ignored and sorely abused of the entire “just-war” school. I think that’s true mainly because we spend so much money and time preparing for war that we’re unable or unwilling to imagine other, prior resorts — other ways of intervening that would likely have a more reasonable hope of achieving a just and desirable outcome.


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  • flat

    this is a clear case of choosing which battles to fight or not to fight.a battle you can’t win.

  • Boris Borcic

    In the case of Saddam at some point the Iraqi leaders were sufficiently desperate (about US demands about WMDs impossible to meet, because premised on a counterfactual) that they proposed the issue be resolved in some form of single combat or dueling between US leadership and Iraq leadership. This could have been taken up by Bush and acolytes while prettying the proposal for minimizing expected human cost: repeat russian roulette duels top-down the chains of command. Saddam would have had a 50% chance to be the first to die, and only 0.1% chance to survive the sacrifice of the 10 first links in the US chain of command. Lots cheaper to either the US or Iraq that what it cost.

    Given this, it is wrong to imply that Bush etc were objectively anti-Saddam. They were objectively pro-bloodbath and pro-waste.

  • Carstonio

    Exactly the point I was trying to make. The mentality I’m criticizing treats good and evil as innate qualities or allegiances.

  • Andrew Galley

    “why does the UN even exist if not for stuff like poison gas attacks?”

    Well, this is pretty much what the UN is worst at, but thankfully it’s not its only or primary reason for existence! Without the UN we’d still have smallpox, for example, and a whole, whole lot of children would never have made it to age 5. The amount of value created and preserved (including human lives extended) by UN agencies and UN-brokered cooperation is staggering.

    But ultimately, the UN can only do what nation-states can (mostly) agree is a good idea. Polio has no advocates. Secret police do.

  • Martin

    Sam – that wasn’t quite how i did the calculation, but that’s the general idea

    PJ, Marc – those are the provisos. They are somewhat interlinked. Like all climate change, a nuclear winter may not be uniform over the surface of the planet and so certain areas could remain viable for the growing of plants (essentially the limiting factor for life on earth).*

    Radiation may or may not be a large factor – long lived isotopes (tens or more years) are in effect not very radioactive, and so not very dangerous. Short lived isotopes (hours, days) are so radioactive that they will have decayed before they settle, or at least before they reach our putative surviving settlement. Isotopes with intermediate half lives (weeks, months, a few years) could cause substantial problems, but that would depend upon the type of radiation they release. Alpha emitters would be a big issue, beta less and gamma essentially a non-problem compared with the lack of a NFL post season to go with the winter weather.

    Anyway – my point being, that we can’t kill everyone, you can destroy the ecosphere and wait for them to starve (as it seems some people want to try out…), but i don’t see that as quite the same thing.

    *There could be a bigger issue from the damage to the ozone layer. That would be due to the massive efflux of high energy photons causing a “bleaching” in the free radical process that drives the replenishment of the layer. That could lead to the plants being sunburned out of existence (i know, the irony that “nuclear winter” may actually cause extinction because of too much UV getting to the surface!)

  • You know, I have never understood the way liberals always claim that the conservatives are “authoritative.” I admit that some of them are, but most conservatives I see are of the never-progressed-emotionally-beyond-age-ten, I’m-allowed-to-do-whatever-I-want-to-whenever-I-want-to type – whereas I always felt that progressives were the kind of people who were more inclined to sit down, shut up, do their part, and just generally accept their rights and responsibilities within a smoothly functioning society. I mean, Fred is as liberal as they come, and he’s always talking about what we must do – not what we might do if we happen to feel like it, but what we must do in order to be acceptable people.

  • Plus, even if you just hit the major capitals you’ve sown enough panic and chaos that infrastructural breakdown can start to happen of its own weight.

    Look at Jericho: The bombs involved were 20kt high-yield, and yet setting off 20 of them was enough to nearly shut down the country, because it provoked an EMP attack from somebody which just accelerated the final collapse of the USA.

  • Well, they see themselves as the authority.

    I’ve also seen the point made about how conservatives and liberals view their nation, and why conservatives tend to have this whole “My country, right or wrong” attitude. And that reflects back on how these two groups view parental roles. Conservatives view parents as this ultimate authority and arbiter of morals in families, where liberals see parents as flawed individuals who mostly try the best they can, and that these attitudes inform how they view government, as either the ultimate authority and arbiter of morals for the world, or a flawed system that mostly tries the best it can.

  • Come to that, I know a lot of authoritarian ten-year-olds.

  • A lot of conservatives I encounter also belong to conservative Christian denominations and make appeals to authority on a roughly picosecond basis because only they have correctly interpreted the Bible and know that God sent them to reign in the rest of us. :p

  • Charles RB

    re Landis’ “ethnic civil war”, that’s actually not true – yet. Ethnic divisions are getting nastier though, as well as religious extremists like the al-Nasru Front becoming stronger and more widespread. It’s a self-fulfilling claim.

  • Ross Thompson

    I believe the entire quote is “My country; right or wrong. If right, kept right, and if wrong, made right.”

    I kight be wrong, but I like that version, anyway.

  • Persia

    Thanks for posting on this. I was so angry when I heard that on Wednesday.

  • ngotts

    The OP and most of this discussion seem to me remarkably naive. American intervention in Syria would not be about doing good, but maintaining and strengthening American hegemony in the Middle East, just as the invasion of Iraq was. If the Obama administration really wanted to help resolve the Syrian civil war, it would start by repairing relations with Iran, which has more influence over Assad’s regime than any other outside force. But that would mean treating the Islamic Republic – which is far less oppressive and far more pluralist than, for example, Saudi Arabia – as a legitimate, independent actor, which no administration since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been prepared to do. See Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett Going to Tehran: Why the United States must come to terms with the Islamic Republic.

  • I am no war history buff, but I think the difference was that Hitler was trying to take over the world and he probably would have come after us sooner or later.

    Kind of. As usual, It Is More Complicated Than That.

    Going back to WW1, part of the reason for the U.S. joining was actually due to a lot of moneyed interests in the U.S. that had a lot invested in England and France, which stood to lose that investment should they become too destabilized by the conflict. It was at their urging that the U.S. finally got involved (showing that Wall Street having influence over the country’s direction is hardly anything new.)

    WW2 was in part more of the same (the two wars were more like one big war with an extended intermission between the acts.) However, the U.S. had a harder time justifying intervention. When U.S. interests in China were threatened by the Japanese invasion, again at the urging of investors the U.S. got involved, at least in a roundabout way by imposing an embargo against Japan getting oil, without actually declaring war. However, by that point the saber-rattling and rising tensions meant that both powers knew war was inevitable since neither would back down. Hence the annexation of Hawaii in order to use Pearl Harbor as a military staging area (Hawaii being perfectly located as major base midway between North America and Asia.) The Japanese, reasoning that the Americans were building up for a possible attack (which they pretty much were) decided that if they had any hope of winning that fight then they needed to land the first punch, hence the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    After that, it was much harder to justify not getting involved in the European theater, since the axis powers were forming alliances and they had to be hit from multiple fronts to win on any of those fronts.

    At least that is my understanding of the lead up to it. The core element to each of these wars was “Does it threaten our national interests?”

  • (I would say that’s the crux of the problem, but theliteral crux of the matter is something else entirely.)

    I see what you did there!

  • Well, you know how sixteen year old white males can be; they are ingrained to think that all this macho posturing will obscure the fact that their overwhelming privilege makes their adolescence essentially an extended spoiled childhood.

    Oh wait, those aren’t two pimple-faced teenagers trying to sound tough on an internet message board? Well damn, then there really isn’t any excuse.

  • ngotts

    G.K. Chesterton. I think Orwell quoted it somewhere.

  • ngotts

    Hawaii was annexed in 1898.

    It’s true that the oil embargo was imposed in an attempt to force Japan to withdraw at least partially from China, but war was not perceived as inevitable by either side until late November 1941, when Japan received American demands that went further than before (including complete withdrawal from China and Indochina). The USA was still taken completely by surprise by Pearl Harbor, as on no rational calculation could Japan hope to win a war.

    Germany declared war on the USA, not vice versa, so there was no need to justify getting involved at that point, although as Hitler understood, war against the USA was likely inevitable at some point. Had Hitler not declared war, Roosevelt might have found it impossible to get a declaration of war against Germany through Congress at that point.

  • It’s a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs when one can accurately describe the USA’s international relations as being about on the emotional-maturity level of said privileged 16-year-old who thinks throwing down with someone else is proof of their worth as a human being.

  • Not even throwing down, but you know, a mix of armchair warriors eager to talk about death because they have no experience with it, blended in with rich old dudes who don’t mind sending poor Americans to go kill brown people & die on their behalf.

  • bmk

    “The idea they draw from the discussion of theodicy is that goodness requires intervention — that to be good means one is obliged to intervene against evil, suffering and injustice. I think that’s right, but it does not mean that one is obliged to intervene by killing people.”

    I think that’s the key to this whole post – I think it was Richard Rohr who applied the MBA-ese phrase “bias toward action” to Scripture. Probably the clearest statement of this is Proverbs 3:27 (“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”), but you can see the theme developed through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

    A group at my church spent the last month discussing what this meant in relation to poverty – clearly, we’re called to do *something*, but we each had a very different idea of what that “something” might be. When you add in the urgency, chaos, and casualties of war, then it becomes even harder to see the alternative “somethings” that we might do, let alone agree on one.

  • a mix of armchair warriors eager to talk about death because they have no experience with it

    I think that is the crux of it. This is why I mentioned earlier in the thread that I would rather people not generalize all Republicans as being eager for war. I have known more than one Republican who is both pro-military and anti-war at the same time, usually because they value the armed services as a tradition and have served themselves. But having seen actual action in combat, they have no desire to put others in harm’s way without damn good reason.

    On the other hand, the real political danger is the chickenhawks, the ones who value the military and want to see it used (particularly politicians who have big donors who work in defense contracting.) Those are mostly people who, as much as they make exalting statements about the military, have never actually served and do not have the same kind of perspective on armed conflict.

    Compare figures like Colin Powell and John McCain to figures like Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush for an example of what I mean.

  • I stand corrected.

    You are right, I got that mixed up with the aftermath of the Spanish-American war (where Hawaii’s location was still a major strategic consideration.)

  • Well with Rumsfeld I would also invoke the old adage of follow the money.

  • P J Evans

    Take out the US and Canada, and things would become much worse; they’re major sources of food: maize, wheat, soybeans, rice…

  • reynard61

    Part of the problem seems to be that quite a few of our politicians (encouraged by the FauxNoise punditry and Rushbo) seem to have regressed into a “Mad Men”- like pre-1960s view of the world — although, instead of the sexual gamesmanship/one-upmanship displayed in that show, they’re more about ideological gamesmanship/one-upmanship. (i.e. “I can get us into a bigger, more expensive war that’ll kill more people faster than you can!”)

    This would be all well and good if such penis-measuring were confined to the halls of West Point, the Naval and Air Force academies, the War College and various college and university classrooms; but they seem to have forgotten that their abstract “Let’s play War!” hue-and-cry doesn’t translate to playing a Modern-era-type RPG war-game in some suburban teenager’s basement, or a bunch of friends going out to do a weekend LARP with paint guns or Airsoft rifles. It translates into *real* men and women — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, etc. — being killed *for real* on far-away battlefields for little-to-no purpose other than to push a few defense contractor’s stock prices a few dollars higher on Wall $treet, let some pundit raise his or her ratings by appealing to their audience’s worst nature by using lots of “Rah! Rah! Let’s kill ’em all!”-style jingoism or help conspiracy- or war-mongering politicians win the next election.

    So, yeah; the Chickenhawks have absolutely nothing to lose by being Chickenhawks — or even wrong. (Apparently not even their good reputations among the Conservatives. The ones who aren’t still in government seem to have found cushy jobs at various think-tanks and universities.) Unfortunately, I don’t think that the same can be said for those who have to go fight and/or pay for their wars with this Nation’s blood and treasure.

  • Dan Riley


    I think you’re insufficiently cynical.

    Any analysis of our invasion of Iraq has to start with the observation that, throughout the 80s, Saddam was on our side. He was our bulwark against Iran. Under Reagan and Bush, the US removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, normalized relations, helped Saddam acquire weapons (including chemical weapons) to fight his war of aggression against Iran, gave him intelligence and tactical support, and helped Iraq avoid any consequences of his use of chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds. He was the same ruthless, tyrannical dictator, but he was OUR ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Then he invaded Kuwait, we kicked him out, and he ceased to be on our side.

    That much is well-documented fact, some of what follows is speculation, conjecture, and pop psychology.

    Saddam must have believed that the US would continue to support him through his invasion of Kuwait, and apparently believed that the US was free to do whatever it pleased. However, the Saudis weren’t happy with Saddam keeping Kuwait, and the US–particularly Bush–couldn’t afford to have the Saudis unhappy. So we threw Saddam under the bus, conveniently forgetting that he used to be OUR ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Thus Saddam became a continuing reminder to the neocons that the US can’t do whatever it pleases, while Iraq’s enforced weakness was an obstacle to containing Iran.

    The second invasion of Iraq was supposed to set all that right–erasing the embarrassing reminder of our limitations, letting the US install an Iraqi government that we could once again arm to serve as our bulwark against Iran. Of course, it didn’t work out that way; the result was more reminders of our limits, and a huge increase in Iran’s influence in Iraq.

    I think the interventionists are still searching for that one perfect intervention, the one that will put Iran back in its place and prove that the US really can do anything we want if we just try hard enough. That, I think, is why staying in Iraq and intervening in Syria are such big deals, especially to the people who advocated for our support of Saddam in the 80s.

  • Albanaeon

    Scary that this makes a great deal of sense. Particularly when you factor in various “purge Vietnam from our system” narratives that sprang up around the first Iraq War. The first intervention that didn’t work (because no one remembers Korea…) and I think we’ve spend an obscene amount of blood and wealth on trying to make it go the way neo-cons believe its supposed to.

  • P J Evans

    There are people who still believe that Vietnam was winnable if we had just had enough will (yeah, *right*) and that we could ‘win’ in Afghanistan if we clap our hands hard enough. Most of them are chicken-hawks.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yep. One of ’em’s my mom. Observe that the moment Dad got a whiff of his being deployed to Iraq, Mom pointed out that he had his twenty years in uniform and could retire instead of going on the deployment.

    Not that I wanted Dad to be deployed, but really, Mother?

  • Glenn Reynolds

    It wasn’t an “ugly foolish slur,” but an accurate report of what Saddam himself said at the time. I had more on it here:

    Perhaps you might have included a link, so that your readers could have read the post and decided for themselves if your characterization was accurate.

  • And let’s not forget why so many in Iran are pissed off at the USA in the first place.

  • ngotts

    I’ve followed your links – which both go to the same place – and yes, it was indeed an ugly, foolish slur. Note that I don’t say, and Fred didn’t say, that it was false. Something can be true and still be an ugly, foolish slur because it is simply an attempt to denigrate opponents without meeting their arguments, as your article was.

    Tell me (and this is a genuine enquiry, I really don’t know) – did you have anything to say about the Reagan administration being “objectively pro-Saddam” when they supported his war of aggression against Iran?

  • Orclove

    No it isn’t.

  • Orclove

    I have never, ever, heard of John McCain opposing a use of force. Not once.

  • Orclove

    *…but there are people suffering*

    And that’s sad. But it has nothing to do with us.

    *…the situation is not stable…*

    Which means nothing. Many situations are unstable. They eventually become so. So again: Not our issue.

    Mathias said, taking out the military strength of a dictator doesn’t
    guarantee disaster.*

    Of course it does. Name one–ONE–majority-Muslim country which is not either a theocracy or else en route to becoming one.

  • Orclove

    Of course we can: If we don’t fight, we win. We spend no dollars, risk none of our lives.

  • Of course it does. Name one–ONE–majority-Muslim country which is not either a theocracy or else en route to becoming one.





    Northern Cyprus.

    Oh, sorry. You wanted one.

  • Orclove

    Mali is a point for me, not you. Same too with Indonesia. I’ll grant you the rest.