For over two years, the civil war in Syria has been synonymous with cries of moral urgency. Do Something! shout those who demand the United States intervene militarily to set the situation there to rights, even as the battle lines now comprise hundreds of regime and rebel groupings and the rebels have started fighting each other. Well, then, shout the moral interventionists, if only we had intervened earlier!
Amoral goals, properly applied, do have moral effects. Indeed, in more recent times, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, rushed arms to Israel following a surprise attack by Arab armies in the fall of 1973. The two men essentially told the American defense establishment that supporting Israel in its hour of need was the right thing to do, because it was necessary to send an unambiguous message of resolve to the Soviets and their Arab allies at a critical stage in the Cold War. Had they justified the arms transfers purely in terms of helping embattled post-Holocaust Jewry—rather than in terms of power politics as they did—it would have made for a much weaker argument in Washington, where officials rightly had American interests at heart more than Israeli ones. George McGovern was possibly a more ethical man than either Nixon or Kissinger. But had he been elected president in 1972, would he have acted so wisely and so decisively during the 1973 Middle East war? The fact is, individual perfection, as Machiavelli knew, is not necessarily synonymous with public virtue.