Obama and the Rotten Compromise

Soldier's shadow on barricade

Manish Swarup/AP Images

The shadow of an Afghanistan National Army soldier on a barricade on the outskirts of Kabul, September 21, 2009

In reading the reports on President Obama’s Nobel speech in Oslo, one gets the impression that the President was offering a dose of realism to a gathering of fjord-loving well-meaning village idiots. He reminded them that an imperfect world should be governed not only by a pacifist vision of non-violence, but also by a theory of just war that tells us under what conditions a war is morally justified. This invocation of just wars was praised by both conservatives and liberals, who have applauded what they call Obama’s “Niebuhrian realism” and his drawing on a “venerable moral tradition” to give legitimacy to military engagement with “hostile regimes and networks in the world.” But having a realistic view of what a war can accomplish is part and parcel of just war doctrine, and it is precisely Obama’s realism about the war in Afghanistan that we should question.

For a war to be just, there must be moral grounds for going to war and moral conduct in the war. Thus, going to war requires having a just cause, whereas correct behavior in the war requires discriminating between combatants and civilians. Obama mentioned both conditions as well as some others. But then there are also conditions that must be met for continuing a war, among them having a reasonable prospect of success. Yet in his Nobel speech, Obama omitted this important condition for continuing the war in Afghanistan. It is not only stupid, but it is also immoral, to go to war, or to continue a war, when there is no prospect of victory. Having the right cause on your side is not enough; your chances of winning are just as important.

As an admirer of President Obama I have listened attentively to his recent speeches on Afghanistan. But at no point has he made a plausible case for how he will win the war. He counts on our taking a leap of faith to support his strategy, but leaps should be reserved for frogs, whereas we should subject our faith to critical thinking.

The main declared objective of the war—defeating al-Qaeda—is not a matter for helmeted marines but for bespectacled bank accountants, computer whiz-kids, and people who can speak the relevant languages. The war in Afghanistan, by now, has very little to do with defeating al-Qaeda. Vice President Joe Biden got it right when he argued that fighting al-Qaeda is not the same thing as fighting in Afghanistan. Moreover, the conflict in Afghanistan bears little relevance to the problem of keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons out of the hands of radical Islamists; the Pakistani army is as much of a problem as the Taliban.

Adhering to just war doctrine requires having the right intent for continuing to fight in Afghanistan. Continuing the war out of fear of being accused of not giving the generals the resources they need to finish the job does not count as the right intent. At the end of World War II, George C. Marshall refused to compete with the Soviet Union in a race to reach Berlin—in spite of the clear political advantages that would accrue if the Americans got there first—saying “I would be loath to hazard Americans lives purely for political purposes.” And Marshall, let me remind you, was one of the very few on the embarrassingly short list of Nobel Peace Prize laureates who really deserved the prize.

In Oslo, Obama sought to inject realism into this celebration of pacifism not only by invoking the concept of a just war, but also by discussing what he takes to be realism in conducting international agreements and making compromises with states that are controlled by antagonistic or hostile regimes. Here is what he said: “In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable – and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty, and connected to open societies.”

In my most recent book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, I define a “rotten compromise” as an agreement to establish or maintain a regime that engages in systematic cruelty and violation of human rights. A “rotten compromise” is a compromise we should not make, come what may. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a paradigm case of cruelty and humiliation. The best we can say about Nixon’s agreement with Mao is that it didn’t do much to maintain Mao’s inhuman regime. Nixon didn’t pave the way for China to end the Cultural Revolution, any more than Reagan’s “Star Wars” ended Communism in the Soviet Union. If day comes after night it does not mean that night is the cause of day. In both Russia and China, these sweeping changes were caused by internal implosions rather than by US policies. To suggest that Nixon’s rotten compromise with Mao helped set China on its subsequent path toward progress is bad. But coming from Obama it is doubly bad: for all his faulty appeals to realism, his idealism is still one of the very few sources of hope in the world.


In my book I claim that peace and justice are not always complementary, like fish and chips, but are often competing, like tea and coffee. To achieve lasting peace, we must in the name of realism give up on some justice. This is not Obama’s view. “Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting,” he said in his speech. In a sense, it is impossible to object to what Obama says any more than one can object to motherhood and friendship. But insistence on a “just peace” is an invitation for irredentism and the aggravation of unresolved conflicts. Here, instead, is where we should summon our sense of realism. In the name of realism we should seek just a peace rather than a just peace.

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