Book Excerpt: Because I Say So The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority

Like a number of progressives, skeptics, and humanists, author Nikki Stern resisted the wholesale rush to judgment after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Stern, whose husband died in the attacks, found herself in an uncomfortable position at a time stripped of any ambiguity about good and evil; right and wrong. In the course of writing a book about the moral certitude that gripped so many Americans after 9/11, Stern came to question assumptions about the longstanding notion of “America’s moral authority.”

Stern is an author and blogger whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and she is the editor/publisher of Does This Make Sense? (, an online magazine and social networking site for thinkers. She is past director of Families of September 11; in 2005, she and the group were co-recipients of an award from Search for Common Ground for sponsorship of a post-9/11 outreach program to Muslim-Americans. Stern also sits on the advisory boards of Project Rebirth, Americans for Informed Democracy, and the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The following excerpt is published with permission of the author.

Chapter 4: Right Makes Might

“America can lead again, but we must restore our moral authority.”
Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), 2007

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were so devastating, so personal, and so unexpectedly shocking that they seemed to negate any kind of nuanced response. We Americans believed the attacks represented an assault on our way of life, our freedom, and our values. Sometimes it seemed as if we viewed ourselves as having been exclusively injured, as if the awfulness of terrorism had not already penetrated many corners of the globe. No matter; a great wrong had been committed and action was needed to make it right. What that action was occasioned some debate, but not much. Most people couldn’t have agreed more with our president when he said, “You’re either with us or against us.” The situation was that clear.

Not to me. Yes, I saw the attacks as representing humanity at its worst. Targeting civilians for death or commandeering them as part of a suicide mission directed at others was wrong in every sense of the word. I believed my husband had been murdered by terrorists, not freedom fighters. But those terrorists were also dead. People were clearly itching for the government to do something; but what? Go after the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden? Fine, do that. And then? Because as angry and shocked and devastated as we all were, I felt strongly that a measured response was the only response that made sense.

Some of my colleagues professed to be stunned by my hesitation to support an all-out war. One woman who had become completely unnerved at the thought of another attack got right up in my face not even a month after 9/11, screaming, “They killed your husband! You of all people should understand why we have to do whatever it takes to get these bastards.” No point in asking which bastards she meant; she was ready to bomb the entire, unfamiliar, suddenly threatening Arab world.

She wasn’t alone. While Americans seemed initially inclined to unite in the spirit of resilience, our political leaders were clamoring for retaliation. The focus was on the moral injustice of the attacks and the moral justifications for a “swift” response. The media was brought on board to deliver the message repeatedly and unequivocally. The emphasis on offensive action was in part a calculated bid to mobilize support at home for a series of foreign policy decisions while also sending a message abroad. But the approach also grew out of a black-and-white worldview promoted by those who envisioned the United States as having the moral authority to do whatever was necessary to eradicate evil.

William J. Bennett wrote a book in 2002 with a title supporting that worldview. In Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, Bennett was incredulous that anyone could express any doubts whatsoever about our mission. He asked:

How was it that, in the wake of the bloodiest and most devastating attack on American citizens in our history, sensible and patriotic people could ask, “Did we bring this on ourselves…?” Or “If we go to war against them, does that make us as bad as they are?” …that [those questions] could have been asked in all innocence… bespoke a deep ignorance about not only the rest of the world but more urgently and much more disturbingly about America. And it bespoke an even deeper want of clarity about the difference between good and evil…

The problem, in Bennett’s view, wasn’t the enemy, but weaknesses in America’s moral understanding, which he tied in part to an education that fails to emphasize the superiority of American values in its attempts to support multiculturalism. Mostly, however, he deplored our lack of backbone. “Why were not more of us angry…?” he asked; “Why wasn’t anger itself considered a moral response to unprovoked attack?”

Bennett wrote approvingly of George W. Bush’s revival of the language of good and evil. He lampooned the “sophisticates” who reacted with disbelief and horror at the president’s attempt to “place our response on an unassailable moral footing.” In his view, hard-line anti-Americanism was indistinguishable from reasonable questioning. To make his point that American unity was countermanded with a homegrown anti-Americanism, Bennett used as examples provocative comments and writings from a left-wing coterie of academics, people he referred to as apologists for terrorism.

It’s true there were those who argued that the victims “brought the attacks on themselves.” University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill caused an uproar with a widely circulated partial quote that described the World Trade Center workers as “little Eichmanns.” Evangelist Jerry Falwell apparently blamed the attacks on a culture of permissiveness that included pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians. Both the statements were outrageous, yet Bennett focused on Churchill’s statement in order to launch an attack against “terrorist sympathizers.” The group included those who were trying to understand the underlying ideology that motivates terrorism.

“The problem,” in Bennett’s opinion, “is not that Americans are unpatriotic… The problem… is that those who are unpatriotic are, culturally, the most influential among us.” I’m not sure what culture he’s referring to; the vast reach and enormous influence of conservative talk show programs and hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity were and continue to be a factor in American life. Those commentators had no problem after 9/11 labeling those who questioned the Bush Administration as unpatriotic, unappreciative, or even traitorous.

How could anyone believe that asking questions or demanding accountability of our government was unpatriotic and that those who did so didn’t appreciate the great freedoms our country gives them? Didn’t our Founding Fathers emphasize that the government was beholden to its citizens and the citizens were responsible for making certain the government was acting in their best interests? That sounds reasonable, but reason is often a casualty of fear, and fear was the order of the day: duct tape, gas masks, and gloves to pick up anthrax-tainted mail; confusing color-coded alerts that had us waiting for, if not expecting, an imminent attack.

We were at war against a shape-shifting target: one day a madman hiding in Afghanistan, then a rogue group crossing borders and operating independently of any nation-state, then suddenly a ruthless dictator in another Middle Eastern country without any clear ties to the 9/11 attacks. All of the targets were tied instead to our unending war on terrorism. To garner support, the Bush Administration cast the struggle in noble, heroic terms, which is how governments generally seem to mobilize public support. Selling a war can’t be simply about politics, geographical advantage, or economics. The stakes have to be higher: freedom or justice or national defense. It helps if whatever entity is waging war can rely on a shared sense of identity that can be translated into solidarity for the mission.

America’s citizens have in common that strong national identity, along with a tendency, as Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes put it in their 2006 book, America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, “in times of crisis especially, [to] cast national challenges in religious terms.” Our battles become, in a sense, righteous struggles. It’s easy to see how even an enlightened citizenry like ours might be made to believe doubt is unacceptable and certain acts are morally justified and thus beyond question. In this instance, moral authority resisted challenge and sanctioned the actions that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Madeline Albright’s 2006 book, The Mighty and the Almighty, directly addressed the role of moral judgment in American foreign policy. While recognizing that questions of morality should and will enter into foreign policy judgments, she wrote, we still must determine what is moral and how much weight morality should carry, given other, more practical considerations.

Albright had been accused of being ruthless during her service as secretary of state, a practitioner of pragmatic politics to the detriment of humanitarian impulses. She addressed the issue in later chapters, acknowledging the criticism that followed severe sanctions imposed on the Iraqi republic after the first Gulf War and expressing regret for the way she presented her decisions. But she is known to advocate a foreign policy approach that mixes realism and idealism. I was especially interested in her use of examples of what might seem to be good, moral decisions, such as support for refugees of ethnic cleansing, among whom were both victims and killers, to illustrate that “efforts to pursue an ethical course in foreign policy are frequently undermined by unintended consequences.”

She continued: “To achieve moral results, a policymaker would have the conscience of a saint, the wisdom of a philosopher, and the prescience of a prophet. In reality, we stumble along as best we can despite shortcomings in all three qualities.”

Albright was forthright about the influences on and the limitations of trying to proceed on a purely moral basis when it comes to practicing foreign policy. A political moderate and a profoundly religious person, she made clear her belief that while church and state can and should be separated, religion is going to and should be a part of our public life. She warned, however, against casting any struggles as a contest between good and evil, especially since we could never say with certainty that anyone is completely good.

Most Americans believe our country has been singled out for God’s blessings, according to the results of a 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. That doesn’t necessarily translate to belief in the moral authority of our country’s leaders to conduct foreign policy but it’s easy to see how some of those leaders might assume it as a given. Albright is less cavalier about such assumptions, noting wryly, “We have the right to ask—but never to insist or blithely assume—that God bless America.”

George W. Bush appeared to assume God was directing his decisions about the prosecution of the war. Whether he believed God gave him specific instructions or whether he was simply guided by God was a matter of some debate. Former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath recalled that in a meeting in 2003, President Bush said to him: “I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.” What is beyond question, however, is that the president of the United States was convinced he had been given the moral authority to make decisions about what actions to take to protect and defend our country. The moral nature of the authority granted, in his view by God, once again discouraged discussion or criticism.

It’s entirely likely that all of our presidents believe in America’s moral authority; the notion is ingrained into our political and cultural psyche. Our belief is not one shared by people living in other countries, however. The idea that America sees itself as special worries our friends and enemies around the world even as they note America’s exceptionalism, its singular mix of history, government, and people. Exceptionalism has also come to have a more negative, post-Iraq connotation that equates it with an aggressive sort of American patriotism that exempts the United States from answering to international law.

America is exceptional in that it is atypical. Think about it: so much space, so much freedom, so many diverse people bonded together by their belief in the ideals America represents, even if these ideals aren’t always realized. To acknowledge that this country offers its citizens so much and has the potential to offer more, do more, and be more does not, we need to remember, mean that its leaders have the right or the obligation to claim moral authority. To want the best for American and world citizens, and to support their efforts to achieve a life free from terror, fear, or subjugation are worthy moral goals for our country. To assume our good fortune has rendered us morally superior and has given us permission to do what we wish is simply hubris.

We might imagine the view from abroad is—or at least was, before the election of Barack Obama—based on misunderstanding mixed with resentment and perhaps even a little envy. Europeans and others pointed out that while we Americans claimed to be willing to criticize our government’s presence in Iraq, we nevertheless returned to power in 2004 the same administration we’d been criticizing. During my visit to an academic conference in Spain in 2005, my colleagues were all too quick to view the reelection of George W. Bush as proof that Americans, like their leaders, were primarily bent on some form of world domination.

We really aren’t. Americans strongly support their country and what they fervently consider to be American values. But as the Pew researchers discovered, while Americans think those values might be good for other people, they aren’t particularly interested in forcing the issue. Aggressive democracy promotion is not something most Americans are interested in pursuing, preferring a more “take it or leave it” position.

The issue of whether America ought to assert its moral authority in global affairs remains a sensitive issue abroad. At the end of April 2008, the Royal Geographic Society of London hosted a debate on the motion: “America has lost its moral authority.” As the New York Sun reporter Daniel Johnson observed, this might have been nothing more than an excuse to vent displeasure with America’s diplomatic and military actions up to that point. Before the debate had begun, a majority of the audience had decided to vote for the motion. At the end of the debate, when the vote was taken, the motion failed, in part because of a vigorous defense that included a question posed by one American journalist: “America has ceded the high ground—to whom, exactly?”

The debate hinged on whether any government, country, or entity other than the United States could claim moral authority. No one argued about whether moral authority was a legitimate aim for any government or whether such an authority might be required for a peaceful or just world. The point of the debate and of Johnson’s article may have been to illustrate the depth of anger against the United States at the time but it also highlighted European ambivalence concerning the idea of moral authority. While European nationalism doesn’t appear to have a religious component, I’d guess that many people in Europe wouldn’t object to an America they could trust to help or protect them in times of trouble.

There was talk, following the election of Barack Obama, that we had entered a new political age, one focused on the renewal of public diplomacy and “soft power” (The term, coined in the early nineties by Harvard Kennedy School professor and former dean Joseph Nye and reintroduced in his 2004 book by that name, refers to using persuasion instead of force in conducting foreign affairs). The assumption has been that our political leaders won’t attempt (at least in the near term) to formulate a foreign policy based on identifying and casting out evil; as Madeline Albright pointed out: it’s a task that is “for mortals, an impossible job.” But I’m disconcerted to see that the term “moral authority” is still in play when it comes to discussions about America’s role in the world. True, one would hope if America is going to set the bar in terms of global leadership, it had better be able to clear it and then some. But does exemplary leadership require moral authority? I think not.

Still, many political thinkers from the left, right, and center continue to see such an authority as a prerequisite for American engagement with the world. Some fear America’s lost moral standing post 9/11 impacted humanitarian efforts to address regional famine or genocide, although those efforts have gone forward despite world opinion. Others are concerned America’s battle against terrorism was compromised by apparent violations of international law. The implication—and sometimes it’s far more than that—is that the restoration of America’s real moral authority is tied to our renewed commitment to what used to be called truth, justice, and the American way. If we simply take that route, if we do what is good and right, we’ll become once again the world’s role model.

The central tenant of journalist Ron Suskind’s 2008 book The Way of the World was a sort of “right makes right;” we win our way back to world leadership by regaining “the moral power that the world now desperately needs [America] to possess.”

Suskind’s book was notable for its interviews with insiders who appeared to substantiate claims about the Bush Administration’s efforts to suppress or ignore information in making its case for the Iraqi war. But Suskind’s primary theme concerned moral authority, as he made clear during his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: “The book is all about the fact that America’s moral authority is bled away and [about] the need to restore it to fight the battles we need to fight—and the way you do it is with truth.”

Truth is a noble goal, one this nation fortunately gives us the freedom to pursue. But pursuing truth in order to restore moral authority presents a greater challenge. Will we really know when we’ve arrived at the truth—or The Truth? If we decide we’re there, does that then give us moral license to do whatever we feel we need to do? Perhaps Suskind’s “good” moral authority allows for doubt or debate, but my experience and observation suggest that people who believe themselves in possession of the truth tend to believe they’re also in possession of the moral authority to act on it.

Critics who oppose the idea that our country can claim—or reclaim—moral authority often insist that America has disqualified itself because of past misdeeds. That’s the position represented by one side of the Royal Geographic Society debate and embraced by DC Rapier, a blogger who wrote after Suskind’s August 2008 Daily Show appearance: “…there is, regrettably, one ‘Revelation’ that Mr. Suskind has not experienced; that regarding the prevailing myth of American moral authority… The vain, prideful fantasy that America possesses intrinsic moral authority is both a ludicrous and harmful one. It has been used to whitewash the ruinous, foul effects of American foreign and domestic policy for centuries.”

The piece, posted on the progressive website, goes on to detail America’s policy screw-ups, from “social injustice to the atrocities of war,” before inserting this caveat: “Granted, the American people and American administrations have undertaken many noble, humanitarian projects. The premise being argued here is not that Americans are wholly without merit or virtue. The contention is that Americans, demonstratively, do not have the right to claim intrinsic moral authority.”

Although I dislike the idea of intrinsic American moral authority, it’s not for the reasons DC Rapier presents. Our mistakes don’t prevent us as a nation from behaving morally and being regarded as capable of moral actions. Ours is a country with a civic commitment to tolerance. The problem is that those who insist America isn’t worthy of moral authority end up elevating the idea of moral authority itself. I’d flip that argument: The issue isn’t whether America deserves or is worthy of moral authority, given its past history. Rather, the issue is whether moral authority is a worthy goal for America to pursue.

If we’re hoping the world will look to America for moral leadership, we need to do what we do best: pursue truth, justice, and fairness to the best of our ability while remaining aware of our fallibility. We don’t need—and the world will surely forgive us for not having—some sort of moral authority. What should matter instead is, as Suskind puts it, “the attempt, messy and uncertain in its outcome… but handled according to established moral standards such as honesty and compassion.”