Why I'm a Mormon and Support President Obama, Part 3/6: Foreign Policy

Post by Randy Astle -

In my last post I tried to examine the personal standards set forth in scripture—and through common sense and decency—for all government leaders. My assertion was that we could safely approximate a politician’s moral mettle by looking specifically at his integrity, his honesty, a position I believe is upheld by Doctrine & Covenants 98:10: “Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently….” I tried to show how Mitt Romney’s actions for years now have led me to believe that he places very little value on his integrity compared to attaining office and how, therefore, Americans concerned with electing the most honest leaders could not conscientiously vote for him. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time or space to give the same amount of attention to President Obama, and though my intention was not to exclusively attack Governor Romney personally I admit it was difficult to discuss his record without impugning him as an individual. So it was an incomplete essay, but I want to reiterate the importance of the main point, which is that Mitt Romney has run a very dishonest campaign, with other examples of questionable ethics dating back years earlier, and therefore does not deserve our trust—and I wrote the piece two days before the release of the Mother Jones video. If it is impossible to divorce Romney’s public persona of dishonesty from his private character as a loving, caring individual, I think he has consistently shown us which way we have to cast the dye, even into last week’s debate. And if that’s the only thought from that essay that readers are able to present to their more right-leaning acquaintances, then I’m satisfied. Greg Prince came to a similar conclusion in his Huffington Post op-ed soon after the fundraising video emerged.

My purpose for these six posts is not to draw conservative Mormons over to the left, really, but merely to explain how my religious beliefs as a Latter-day Saint influence my political convictions as, generally, a progressive. I was therefore intrigued by Patrick Mason’s closing argument in the Mormon Matters podcast on Mormonism and Politics, in which he claims that Mormonism has never really established a political theology, a philosophy of how its tenets should affect political belief regardless of partisanship. That’s essentially the process I’ve been trying to go through on my own—mentally, informally—for many years, and it has landed me primarily, though not exclusively, in the Democratic camp (sometimes I’m to the left, sometimes to the right). So while I don’t have the ability to fully expound a political theology of Mormonism here, I’d like to take some initial steps by looking at how my Mormonism influences my beliefs about foreign policy. Subsequent posts will attempt the same thing for different issues, but with foreign policy the focus of Governor Romney’s recent comments and the next two debates I thought I’d begin here. These are just initial thoughts, of course, rough drafts really, but hopefully they’ll be helpful as Mormons with differing political philosophies discuss their views.

So how does foreign policy situate in Mormon theology? The Book of Mormon has a wealth of information by way of example; it’s almost entirely a history of different nations negotiating an often hostile relationship, after all. I’ll come back to that occasionally, but I think we can find some even more fundamental principles in scripture. In fact, this little dialectic guides virtually all my political philosophy—including my thoughts about foreign policy:

1) We are all children of God, equally valued and equally valuable. His desire is to bless everyone on the earth equally.

2) People around the earth are not physically and temporally blessed equally; there is great inequality.

3) Therefore, it is incumbent on those who have been blessed abundantly to use the resources God has given them to bless others as much as possible.

At first blush this may seem rather naïve, and maybe it is, but I prefer to think it’s just plain and simple. It’s completely possible, in other words, that nearly all political matters can be boiled down to essentially these three points and that the plainness and simplicity of them, which might prove a stumbling block to some, is precisely their strength. Nephi obviously gloried in what was plain and simple, and even said that the Lord “doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Ne. 26:33; I also appreciate how he uses plain and simple in 2 Ne. 25:4,20; 32:7; and 33:6).

I like his international and egalitarian language in that verse, as it directly connects the simplicity of many doctrinal matters with their global universality. And although he’s emphasizing the accessibility of the core gospel invitation to come unto Christ and receive eternal salvation, I think language like “all are alike unto God” strongly states that all should receive equal temporal blessings—food, water, medical care, education, protection from violence and poverty—as well as spiritual blessings—revelation, scriptures, a knowledge of the gospel, the opportunity to receive its ordinances and hold the priesthood, companionship of the Holy Ghost, etc. How could it be otherwise with a just and merciful God? Besides, it also seems that the Lord would not distinguish between temporal and spiritual blessings, and that if it is incumbent on us to share our knowledge of the gospel it is equally required to provide educational opportunities, vaccinations, and any other “temporal” goods to those who need them:

“Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created. Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual.” (D&C 29:34-35)

Thus this principle—that when we’ve been blessed we should use every means to equally bless others—has no division between temporal and spiritual dimensions. It is a spiritual commandment when the Lord tells us to care for the poor, which I suspect is also one of the most repeated commandments in scripture. King Benjamin makes explicit the connection between our state as beggars for spiritual mercy and others’ state as beggars for physical relief in Mosiah 4:15-27, which includes statements like this, from verse 26:

“And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”

Brigham Young taught this in his typically salty style: “Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.”

Thus far, of course, this sounds like essentially an economic argument. I admit that’s true and I’ll return to domestic economics in my next post, but how does this apply to international affairs? To me it means that given limited time and resources our primary focus for foreign policy should be relief: the global eradication of violence (i.e. war), disease, poverty, ignorance, and discrimination. Disagreements over trade, like the U.S. and China both complained about with the WTO recently, are secondary and, really, rather petty when compared with these larger issues. Yes, issues like trade imbalances are important in their sphere, but my point is that ending war and suffering is a greater and globally more beneficial goal—which will help things like trade disputes more easily fall into place.

So let’s look at war. Perhaps Christ’s blessing upon the peacemakers has no greater relevance than in the sphere of national conflict, where the stakes are highest. In Doctrine & Covenants 98:16 the Lord commands us to “renounce war and proclaim peace,” in what is probably the single most important scriptural pronouncement on large-scale violence. He goes on for essentially the rest of the revelation to explain to the Saints, beleaguered by the initial persecutions in Missouri in 1833, when to justify themselves in self-defense, and there are explicitly instances when they are justified (v. 33). But throughout the section He values peace, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek as much more moral and revered than self-defense: “And again, if your enemy shall smite you the second time, and you revile not against your enemy, and bear it patiently, your reward shall be an hundredfold” (v. 25); “And then if thou wilt spare [thine enemy], thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness” (v. 30); “And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them. And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue...” (v. 33-34).

Accordingly, the ancient Nephites averred they were justified in defending their families and religion from foreign aggression (Alma 43:46-47) but held the pacifist Anti-Nephi-Lehies up as having a much higher standard: “For behold, they had rather sacrifice their lives than even to take the life of their enemy . . . And now behold I say unto you, has there been so great love in all the land? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, there has not, even among the Nephites. For behold, they would take up arms against their brethren; they would not suffer themselves to be slain” (Alma 26:32-34). The Nephites never lived this higher law, but when righteous they strove to suffer multiple offenses before retaliating, as Hugh Nibley explained about Captain Moroni and the futility of preemptive war. And, finally, whenever the Nephites ignored even the lower law of not giving the first offense they were swept before their enemies (as in Morm. 4:4).

I’ve thought about all of this often since September 2001. My belief in scriptures like these made me initially wary of and eventually completely opposed to invading Iraq specifically and the Bush doctrine in general. The potential threat from Iraq did not warrant the level of violence and disruption we inflicted upon that nation, and thus I have for years seen ending the Iraq War and beginning to make restitution for our national sin as one of our country’s highest moral imperatives. Ending the Iraq War and shifting the tenor of international diplomacy from one threatening violence to one eschewing it as much as possible is the President's greatest foreign affairs victory, and one that has made him worthy of his Nobel Peace Prize that so many thought premature; the point was that the shift in global feeling between Bush and Obama was palpable, and had a real ripple effect that's still going. On the other hand, Governor Romney’s comments that Guantánamo ought to be doubled and, later, that the rapid drawdown in Iraq was tragic, even when taken in context, are lamentable and seem to place his worldview on the morality of war completely outside my own.

Even in October 2001, when the U.S. launched the first missile strikes into Afghanistan during an LDS general conference, my first thought was not about al-Qaeda but about Lachoneus. As the news was breaking, President Hinckley stood at the pulpit, explicitly comparing the September 11th terrorists with the Gadianton robbers. Lachoneus and his people faced a force of robbers that threatened to completely annihilate them—more than al-Qaeda or the Taliban could ever plausibly threaten the U.S. with. Yet when the people prodded his chief general Gidgiddoni to “pray unto the Lord” for his blessing and go attack the robbers in their mountain strongholds, he responded, “The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands” (3 Ne. 3:20-21). Thus I wondered if the complete overthrow of the Taliban and long-term nation building in the mountains of Afghanistan was really the right choice. During that address President Hinckley said that “the terrible forces of evil must be confronted and held accountable for their actions,” but he also warned that “now we are off on another dangerous undertaking, the unfolding of which and the end thereof we do not know.” Overthrowing the Taliban in order to scramble al-Qaeda in Asia seemed a justifiable mission, but I wondered even then if the same results couldn’t have been achieved with a much smaller hammer. Unfortunately I feel my misgivings have played out as Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history—one Governor Romney wants to continue indefinitely. President Obama, unlike Bush and Romney, conceived a much more nimble strategy and eventually killed bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders throughout the region while reducing troop numbers; we can judge the scope of this accomplishment by remembering that Gadianton himself was never caught.

So, to summarize so far, my religion causes me to believe that pacifism is better than belligerence, and that when we do fight it should only be after several offenses and only in self-defense. But to renounce war and proclaim peace means, I think, something even more than that: that we should seek to be our brothers’ keeper and strive for the end of all violence throughout the world.

How do we do it? As far as our Church and other churches are concerned it means working to spread the gospel throughout the world: when the Nephites were faced with a dangerous border community that might incite the Lamanites to violence, their record states: “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5). Roughly fifty years later, the righteous Lamanites were faced with the growth of the Gadianton robbers among them and responded with a mixed campaign of military strikes and proselytizing: “And they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites” (Hel. 6:37). So much fighting has been carried out in the name of religion, it’s good to remember that religion can also be the primary cure.

As far as our government and other governments are concerned it means robust diplomacy aimed primarily to curb tyranny, violence between states and communities, violation of international law, and human rights abuses. It means we have a responsibility to stand up for those who are most defenseless—like the Nephites who suffered Lamanite aggression for protecting the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (Alma 28:2 calls it the most “tremendous battle” in their entire history)—and intervene as much as our resources permit in cases of genocide or large-scale oppression—including, at present, possibly Syria and certainly Palestine, where the United States’ opposition to recognizing Palestinian statehood in the UN is one of the low points of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. I feel it is our duty to pay the most attention to those who are most defenseless, and any nation, like Palestine, without a state certainly falls in that category. This, by the way, is an example of where my Mormon beliefs cause me to take a position—that the United States needs to support a measured but determined process for Palestinian statehood—that neither American political party has ever really embraced.

But I’m not suggesting America needs to invade every country with a popular insurrection or throw its military might around unnecessarily. The responsibility, real or imagined, to be the world’s policeman can overstretch even the world’s largest military, and one often makes the mistake of sending forces into areas where our intervention isn’t necessary, the largest recent examples being Vietnam and, as mentioned, Iraq. Any Commander-in-Chief this soon after Bush will be wary of that, and President Obama’s response to Libya seemed measured but effective, using technology to assist rebels fighting a superiorly armed despot without endangering the lives of American ground forces. Of course, it can be argued that this assistance came only after Gaddafi’s position became untenable and that U.S. support for the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia (and Syria) lasted far too long—and should never have existed in the first place; supporting a regime that does not have its people’s best interest at heart just because it supports American economic interests is not a tenable position: we should be just as concerned for each and every citizen of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iraq as of the United States.

This raises a second point that has dogged the U.S. since at least the Mexican-American War: that our own foreign policy should not have a direct negative impact—such as when our unmanned drones kill civilians then name them posthumously as “enemy combatants”—or, as much as possible, any negative externalities. This is most obvious with military interventions but can come from other sources: NAFTA, for instance, was intended to increase efficiency in North America by reducing trade barriers—Economics 101—but it had the negative affect of underselling many Mexican farmers, especially corn farmers, putting them out of work, and forcing many of them to come, undocumented, to America to work in our farms, causing personal strain on them and their families specifically and also on Mexico’s economy as a whole. Latin America unfortunately has many other examples, as the conservative regimes the U.S. and the CIA propped up during the Cold War often turned out to be some of the worst human rights violators in the world, decimating populations and economies in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and other countries. Other instances—such as arming the anti-Soviet rebels who became the Afghan Taliban—have come back to haunt us as well.

War is arguably the greatest evil that man can perpetrate on man. A true statesman will do everything in his power to avoid it—including communicating with his enemies (as Captain Moroni did)—and would never delegate that authority to even his allies. Thus the friction between the Obama administration and Hamid Karzai or Nouri al-Maliki is actually encouraging, while Governor Romney’s close personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu is, more than anything, troubling. In his speech on foreign policy Monday Romney said that “the world must never see any daylight between” the U.S. and Israel. Romney can’t seriously expect to defer to Netanyahu on Middle East policy—particularly not after the latter’s performance at the United Nations. There must be daylight there, and I think most Republicans would agree with that.

More importantly—because it’s more possible, if not practical—someone who wants to renounce war and proclaim peace should not attempt to enlarge what is already by far the largest military force in the history of the world. Romney has consistently vowed to enlarge the military, but it seems more in deference to his financial backers than to wise national policy. In Monday’s speech Romney said, “I’ll roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.” As David Ignatius wrote, “that’s pure demagogy. One of Obama’s more thoughtful efforts was the defense budget guidance announced last January in which all the service chiefs agreed to balanced reductions in forces—including agreement by the Army and Marine Corps to significant cuts in ground forces on the understanding that we won’t be fighting more wars like Iraq and Afghanistan in the near future. Romney should credit that kind of careful, consensus planning rather than trashing it.” Similarly, Romney's aggression toward Russia and opposition to nuclear draw-down--a major theme of Obama's Russian relations--seems geared toward increasing the possibility of war rather than decreasing it--and was cited by Putin as strengthening his resolve against NATO's European missile network (and possibly its announced withdrawal from Nunn-Lugar).

Indeed, in foreign policy as in everything else, the current President is nothing if not a careful, thoughtful pragmatist. His evolving firmness with China evinces this, and it is evident through his and Secretary Clinton’s dealings throughout the world, even up to the lifting of international banking restrictions on Myanmar a few days ago. (Hillary Clinton, in fact, has been a stellar Secretary of State, actually reminding me of President Hinckley in her vivacity and record-breaking travels; she'll be missed next year no matter who wins the election.) I quite appreciate Jamie Zvirzdin’s evaluation of the President’s foreign policy successes and failures that was reposted on Mormons for Obama in August: “Even [Obama’s] supposed failures in foreign policy reflect good thinking in my mind.”

I’ve basically talked about war and not even touched on aid, which is actually just as big an issue, if not bigger; many more people live in poverty than in conflict zones, after all. I might get back into my beliefs here next time as I discuss how Mormonism influences my beliefs about economics, but suffice it now to quote Doctrine & Covenants 104:17-18:

“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves. Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.”

“For of him unto whom much is given much is required” (D&C 82:3), something as true of nations as of individuals. If the Americas are truly a promised land that have been blessed beyond proportion, then we must use that blessing to eradicate poverty throughout the Americas and the rest of the world. It’s a process that might not be complete until the end of the millennium, but all the more reason for starting now. And it will take a mixture of individuals, organizations, and governments to accomplish it; without any one of these three it will be impossible. (One notable example of these coming together is the Half the Sky movement to empower women and girls in developing nations.)

So that’s roughly how my Mormonism influences my thoughts on how nations and states should interact, and the United States’ specific responsibilities. By and large my understanding of these doctrines causes me to support the Democratic party in foreign policy matters: even before getting down to brass tacks, Republicans often seem to place too much emphasis on American exceptionalism over global equality, which is where I feel the scriptures’ emphasis lies (as in 1 Ne. 17:32-36, 2 Ne. 29:7, and 2 Ne. 30:8), and hence feel justified in throwing our country’s weight around more broadly and dangerously than appropriate (and, Republican readers, I’m here thinking of Bush, Cheney, Romney, and Rice—not you). In contrast, the scriptures cause me to believe that completely unfettered self-interest is damaging for society at any level. Ayn Rand, Machiavelli, and Korihor all stand, each in their way, equally in stark contrast to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Zion has always been about all of society, not just the individual, about putting the interests of others above your own. Foreign policy reflects how nations of individuals navigate this on a global scale. At its heart, every decision should ask if this choice, this policy is as beneficial for the whole global community as it is for our own self-interest (speaking of national self-interest, let alone individual politicians’ self-interest). And if not, perhaps it’s time to rethink that policy and what it means to be sent by God to this earth, which is everyone’s second estate, at this time, with these blessings and these responsibilities that God has given us today.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Subscribe Share


get updates