What is required to be a good person, and a good public servant, when serving in a genuinely bad regime?
When I was in college, Syria’s Ambassador to the United States came to visit my school – H.E. Imad Moustapha. He gave a lecture on Syrian foreign policy (in very broad terms), art, and culture, and then had a Q and A with a few students. The fellow was genuinely funny, engaging, self-deprecating, and bore my questions (largely variations on “so, you guys offed Hariri, right? How’s that working out for you?”) with good grace. The Ambassador seemed a genuinely good guy. Hell, he even has a blog: http://imad_moustapha.blogs.com/ Hard not to like the fellow.
And yet – this guy is a senior official in a genuinely unpleasant regime, a dictatorship that indulges in frequent human rights abuses, stifles its press, and does everything in its power to keep neighboring Lebanon a puppet state. (Largely by supporting Hezbollah – classy!)
I spoke my one of my profs after the lecture, and said what I’ve said here – that I was surprised by the extent to which Moustapha seemed a genuinely good guy. My prof grunted, looked uncomfortable, and said “Well, maybe he’s a good man in a bad job.”
So that’s the question – to what extent is it possible to be a good man in a bad job? And at what point, regardless of how much you try to be a good person, is that simply no longer the case?
I think that it’s certainly possible to be a good person, and a good public servant, in a bad regime. At least to some extent. For example – firefighters. I don’t care if you’re a firefighter in North Korea – you may be a public servant employed by one of the nastiest regimes on Earth, but people need firefighters, and there’s no question your community is better off for your service. Any firefighter is worthy of respect.
At the other end of the spectrum – if you’re actually making the policy that makes your regime loathsome to begin with, it’d be hard to argue you’re still a good person. If I’m disappearing political dissidents, I’m pretty clearly scum.
But there’s a whole range between those two extremes. To go back to the example of the Syrian ambassador – on the one hand, the world needs good diplomats. Diplomacy is how we keep accidents or misunderstandings from escalating into major wars. And I could see a man saying, “well, my government may be unpleasant – but through capable diplomacy, I can prevent my country from being entangled in unnecessary wars, thus saving lives. Surely this is to the good!” But on the other hand – such a person must necessarily advocate the interests of their government, and those interests will often be morally reprehensible. So, is such a person a “good” person?
I’ve always thought public service to be an honorable calling – but then, I’ve always lived in a nation that, whatever its flaws, is mostly governed by honorable men and women of good intent. What do you guys think about the cases when that isn’t so?
(Note: Though it certainly might make sense to talk about Syrian politics and Middle East policy in this thread, that isn’t really the main point – I mentioned the Syrian ambassador merely because I happen to have met the man, and he’s an interesting example of this moral question.)