What Could Be Wrong With a Little ‘Moral Clarity’?


During the 2004 presidential campaign, George W. Bush would defend the prosecution of the war he started by reiterating Bennett’s themes — the vigilance and courage required for single-minded action, the flaccidity of dissent.

“I will continue to lead with clarity,” Bush said during one news conference, “in a resolute way.” This clarity, of course, proved more perishable than first believed: American momentum in the Middle East soon petered out inside a self-made labyrinth, replete with traps and dead ends.

An administration that had crowed about resolution and clarity soon found itself waffling, brutally and helplessly, between what Donald Rumsfeld parsed as “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” If suppressing Al Qaeda meant taking over Iraq, did maintaining a hold on Iraq imply bombing Iran? How should the American state engage with the various hostile factions emerging from the cinders of Iraq? What, precisely, would be the morally crystal-clear approach to Syria?Over the past 15 years, the association of “moral clarity” with a bellicose approach to overseas affairs has faded only slightly. “Rarely does international politics present a moment of such moral clarity,” Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post in 2014 — defending what others perceived, no less clearly, as an Israeli war of collective punishment that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly civilians. (“Moral clarity” has been a euphemism in constant use through this conflict, as in Alan Dershowitz’s book “The Case for Moral Clarity: Israel, Hamas and Gaza.”)

After the death of John McCain, a fierce advocate for any and all wars, the senator was praised for his “voice of moral clarity” by Jennifer Rubin, another conservative columnist at The Post. Rubin contrasted McCain’s enthusiasm for doing the right thing overseas with the Trump administration’s indifference to human rights, but President Trump himself was no stranger to the discourse of clarity regarding Muslims.

“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” he said during a 2016 campaign speech, adding that “anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our president.”There seemed to be an opening, after Barack Obama’s election, for “moral clarity” to become a liberal watchword.

Perhaps the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose 2008 book “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists” argued for a liberal re-embrace of such language, could have served as its Bennett. Yet by 2011, it had become clear that, regarding foreign policy and economics, the Obama White House would lean instead toward pragmatism and accommodation, not the stubborn force of moral commitment. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional bid was preceded by a decade in which many youthful nonreactionaries despaired of democratic institutions’ ability to deliver any kind of systemic change — and chafed at the obtuse contempt with which older, more established liberals frequently reacted to demands for bolder action.

It’s only natural that, having been chosen to replace one such established Democrat, Ocasio-Cortez would argue that “moral clarity” was not the province of radicals or dreamy idealists, but exactly the kind of principled action her constituents had voted for.