A state is not a church. A state exists not to redeem humankind or to do God’s work but to provide for the security and well-being of the people who reside within its boundaries. This defines the primary, indeed the overriding, moral obligation of those who govern. This dictum applies to those who govern the United States. The Preamble of the Constitution specifies with admirable succinctness this nation’s purposes. In doing so, it makes no mention of defending the oppressed or punishing the wicked, and Americans have shown little inclination to amend it to incorporate a salvific mission.

That said, Paul Miller is by no means the first writer to cite the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan as a model for American policy. Henry Luce did so in his famous essay “The American Century,” published in Life magazine in 1941. Luce, too, was keen to send young Americans to fight for purposes he deemed consistent with Christian teachings. Yet deploying the teachings of Jesus as a rationale for foreign policy is, at the very least, problematic.

States are not disinterested. For a state that is a great power, altruism can never figure as more than an afterthought. Considerations of power will necessarily exercise an overriding priority. Paul Miller may think that the United States is different”that the “leader of the free world” has a “special duty” that it discharges on behalf of others”but the historical record suggests otherwise.

Notably absent from Miller’s impassioned call for perpetuating the war in Afghanistan is any serious discussion of the war in Iraq. In that regard, he is one with his fellow citizens, most of whom have wasted little time in forgetting that unhappy chapter in American history. Yet the experience in Iraq is exceedingly relevant to the matter at hand, far more relevant than Miller’s strained attempt to equate the Taliban with Nazi Germany. Here, after all, was a war undertaken in 2003 by George W. Bush to fulfill America’s “special duty.” The stated purpose of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to overthrow a wicked dictator, to liberate an oppressed and suffering people, and to protect the United States from a putative (if largely imagined) threat.

No doubt President Bush genuinely believed that the United States was invading Iraq for high-minded and beneficent purposes. Yet I am persuaded that Bush’s neo-Wilsonian justification offers an incomplete and utterly inadequate explanation for American actions. For Miller to ignore the other, less idealistic considerations involved”establishing a precedent for preventive war, asserting hegemony over the oil-rich Persian Gulf, ensuring the security of Israel”is simply naive.

Regardless of motive, there is this undeniable fact: The consequences that followed from the American invasion were themselves wicked: murder and mayhem, hundreds of thousands forced to flee, many thousands of lives lost, many thousands more irreparably shattered. To say that the Bush administration neither intended nor foresaw any of this does not relieve the United States of responsibility for what occurred. There’s a lesson here: Even as a means for doing good, war really ought to be a last resort.

Miller wants the United States “to continue the war and to rebuild Afghanistan,” arguing that such a course both serves American interests and constitutes a moral obligation. Yet he wildly overstates the threat posed by the Taliban. To categorize the Taliban as “part of the jihadist attack on the West” qualifies as blatant scaremongering”they do not seek to overthrow the West, but to end the West’s occupation of their country. Worse, Miller is silent on what rebuilding Afghanistan will entail, how long it will take, and what it will ultimately cost. These are hardly trivial details.

In passing, Miller notes that Pakistan, with Afghanistan, serves as al-Qaeda’s headquarters and supports the “densest network of jihadist groups in the world.” Yet if war to pacify and rebuild Afghanistan is essential to American security, logic would dictate a comparable commitment in Pakistan. What would that entail? How long would it take? What would it cost? Eliminating the putative threat from Afghanistan without doing likewise in Pakistan would be like fortifying Arizona’s southern border against illegal immigrants while leaving the Texas“Mexico border wide open.

Ultimately, Miller’s argument for staying the course in Afghanistan emphasizes moral and humanitarian considerations. Wary as I am of taking at face value claims emanating from Washington that it has acted to eliminate wickedness (and not wishing to provide a rationale for others to cite wickedness”including our own”as a basis for armed intervention), I agree that citizens require some sort of criteria for evaluating when military action on explicitly humanitarian grounds is justifiable or required.

In that regard, a Bacevich Doctrine would find armed intervention on moral or humanitarian grounds permissible only in circumstances that yield satisfactory answers to the following four questions:

Why here and not there? With regard to the matter at hand, why should the United States’ moral obligation to Afghans take precedence over its moral obligation to Iraqis? How about our moral obligation to Vietnam, a nation where the U.S. wreaked havoc on a scale orders of magnitude greater than anything we have done in Afghanistan? Does the mere passage of time negate that obligation? For that matter, what about our moral obligation to Mexico, on the verge of becoming a narco-state as a direct consequence of our insatiable appetite for drugs? Shouldn’t our near neighbors come first?

Why war as opposed to any alternative? If Afghans should come first, in what sense is the perpetuation of armed intervention the best way to acquit our debt? Rather than prolonging the longest war in our country’s history, why not offer threatened Afghans sanctuary in the United States, where their safety will be assured? We have a big country. Surely, we can accommodate a few million Afghans, as we have accommodated many millions of other immigrants. Would not a program of voluntary resettlement prove both more effective and more economical than continuing to wage a war that we have been waging without evident success for more than a decade?

Who pays how much? If Afghans should come first and there is no alternative to war, then who should cover the costs? I refer to “costs” in two senses: those exacted through blood sacrifice and those enumerated in dollars. Since the United States slipped into a condition of perpetual war after 9/11, Americans have imposed the burden of service and sacrifice onto the backs of our very small professional military. As for fiscal costs, those have been transferred to future generations. From a moral perspective, both of these practices are dubious, if not unconscionable. If, indeed, the nation has a moral obligation to continue the war in Afghanistan, then the American people collectively should meet that obligation rather than sloughing it off on others. That would entail a bigger army and higher taxes.

Who gets to decide? Finally, given the expanded war-making prerogatives that the chief executive has claimed in recent decades, there is little doubt that President Obama could , if he wished to, adopt Miller’s course and get away with it. Yet, as a candidate for re-election, Obama promised to end the Afghanistan War by the end of 2014. His opponent concurred with that position. Obama could change his mind, of course. But would that be moral? Let’s vote.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Articles by Andrew J. Bacevich

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