The value of compromise and the compromising of values – applying both to the War on Terror
This blog argues that both liberals and reactionaries made fundamental errors in their approach to the security challenges that have faced the world since 2001. Liberals have erred in believing threats like terrorism can be defeated with good words and good intentions. They have been unwilling to compromise on their values, which is an essential requirement in achieving any political objective. Reactionaries have made a similar error in being unwilling to compromise on who they would talk to in order reach political solutions to global security problems.
The end of the Age of Terrorism
It was September 11 just recently. The date slips by without much fanfare now. There have been too many disasters and crises in the last 21 years for it to be remembered in quite the same way. One could also argue that an age has recently ended, that the cycle of events that was set in motion that day has concluded. The reestablishment of Taliban rule over Afghanistan in August 2021 was probably the moment the Age of Terrorism ended. Western politicians no longer invoke 9/11 and we are living in a post-9/11 age. Terrorism is no longer a serious concern to wealthy states: it has been almost completely exported to Africa and parts of Asia now. Disease and conventional warfare have replaced terrorism as the forces that divide us, that reinforce the terrible loneliness of human existence. To be clear, the world is in bad shape and is much worse than it was in 2000. But terrorism, loosely defined here as the use of violence by the weak against the strong to achieve political objectives, has almost totally ceased. Terrorism is now practiced by the weak against the very weak. Daesh established their miserable regime over the territory of states that had been savaged by years of domestic conflict. Boko Haram practice their brand of savagery against people in remote villages in African states that most Europeans cannot find on a map.
Liberalism and reactionary thought are not presented here as direct opposites. I am using a classical definition of liberalism that is conservative in nature. This type of liberalism is the political philosophy that emphasizes individual freedom and self-determination over the idea of community identity. Its opposite might be communitarianism, which suggests that human identity is best realised by interaction with other humans in most aspects of society. In short, liberalism presupposes that we are individuals first and social animals second. We might choose to engage in social interactions with other persons, for example by getting married and starting a family or by becoming part of a religion. However, there is no compulsion to make a particular choice and no penalty if we do or do not. Liberalism emphasizes the idea that the state should only interfere with individual rights where individuals so consent and/or it is absolutely necessary to do so. This version of liberalism encourages people to give to charity, but does not tax them to make them do so. Liberals can exist on the left, right or centre of the political spectrum, but this version lies on the centre-right.
Reactionaries oppose the general emancipatory trends of liberalism. They believe that the existing order is preferable to unrealistic prospects of radical change. It is therefore better to hold onto the systems and values we have, than to risk them on projects that may make things worse. Reactionaries thus support political structures such as monarchies, where they already exist. They would not argue for their introduction in place of existing democratic systems. Reactionaries are skeptical that the world can be improved by conscious interventionist actions and are more likely to believe in organic change. Reactionaries tend to be on the right of the political spectrum. Reactionaries tend to be less enthusiastic about human rights than liberals.
The place and function of human rights
Human rights are not quite what they are often claimed to be. There is a commonly held view that human rights are ‘trump cards’ in any legal dispute. To put it another way, it is suggested that they are a form of argumentation that defeats all other forms. The obvious objection to this is what to do about competing legal claims based on human rights. An example is where a celebrity’s right to private life may conflict with the right to freedom of expression of a newspaper. The less obvious objection is that even when a rights claim is opposed by a non-rights claim, we sometimes favour the non-rights claim. This can be seen in the position taken by European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments on the prohibition of religious dress in France (see SAS v France  ECHR 695). Other European Convention of Human Rights states have similar laws.
When rights claims compete with rights claims the answer offered is usually simply utilitarianism-based. This is often couched in the language of hierarchies of rights, the idea that one right is superior to the other. But analysis of these cases often reveals that the hierarchy is inconsistent. For example, the right to life should surely always defeat every other rights claim, but it does not. Thus, they are better seen as examples of contextual utilitarianism. When rights are defeated by non-rights claims we can pretty much abandon the idea that human rights are in any way special. This sounds like heresy for a lawyer. Another view is that it may be useful in offering us an escape from the intellectual strait-jacket of a global human rights system that was cast in stone before we were born.
Commitment to human rights is and always has been contextual. A certain percentage of people will support torture if the need for it is advocated strongly enough. The ‘ticking-bomb scenario’ can be adapted in such a way that people will end up voting for torture. In any event, opposition to torture is often predicated on two false assumptions. First, liberals who want to sound tough will argue that torture does not work because it does not necessarily lead to reliable information. A torture victim will say anything, both truth and lies, to stop the pain. This is flawed because it can just as easily be read as an argument in favour of more and better torture. Second, this assumes torture is always aimed at obtaining information, when it can equally be aimed towards the infliction of misery. In other words, torture can be an end in itself. Western liberals often despair of the fact that other people on this Earth do not understand the importance of human rights, that they do not ‘get it’. There is an obvious arrogance to this. It may be that reactionaries across the globe ‘get it’ perfectly clearly: they just do not agree.
The armed conflicts that Western governments have engaged in since 2001 have been in pursuit of liberal objectives. I do not doubt the sincerity of the leaders who initiated these campaigns. It is easy to assign completely fictitious objectives to them. These are often little more than badly worked out conspiracy theories that validate the sense of victimhood felt by disenfranchised people throughout the world. Thus, the US-led operation in Afghanistan initiated in 2001 was nothing to do with the Taliban’s support for terrorism but was really about encircling Russia. The fact that the US left Afghanistan in 2021 and Russia began its special military operation in Ukraine immediately afterwards can somehow be ignored. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was not about changing the regime in Baghdad, but about oil, despite the fact that the easiest way to get at Iraq’s oil would just have been to start buying it again. Some events are attributed to Western influence despite there being no clear evidence of this at all, such as the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions which began in 2010. The liberal explanations are the only ones that make much sense in these contexts. This does not excuse them. Liberal objectives can be just as stupid as reactionary ones. Liberals also tend to be much worse at prosecuting their campaigns than reactionaries.
The overall difficulty with this has been identified by Lawrence Freedman: wars are an illiberal means of achieving a liberal objective. Humanitarian intervention is the ultimate expression of the idea that wars can achieve liberal objectives. A humanitarian intervention involves the use of force by a political disinterested state to save the people of another state. By ‘disinterested’, I mean that the intervening state does not stand to gain anything by the intervention. But there have been very few examples of humanitarian interventions, perhaps two: the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, 1978; the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, 1999. Even these are heavily disputed. In the Cambodian example, a politically isolated Vietnam was condemned by the UN Security Council. In the Yugoslavia example, the Security Council did not authorise the action. This means in both cases the humanitarian intervention was definitely illegal but, perversely, probably moral.
The other problem with humanitarian interventions is that they tend to involve less discriminate use of force. Humanitarian interventions involve the infliction of violence in order to stop violence. The amount of violence stopped has to be greater than that which is inflicted. It is not always clear that this is the case. This is particularly problematic in the Yugoslavia example, where NATO restricted its intervention to an airpower campaign. Interventionist governments like to use airpower because it allows them to intervene whilst keeping the number of potential casualties in their armed forces very low. A combat aircraft might occasionally get shot down during one of these operations. More likely one or two will just accidentally crash as the law of averages catches up with them. But there is no chance of getting bogged down in a counter-insurgency operation, which can happen with a land campaign. The downside is that airpower tends to be tremendously destructive. There is a narrative in military thought which suggests that airpower used ‘dumb’ weapons until the 1970’s. From about 1982 onwards, ‘smart’ weapons started to take over, with the Israeli campaign over the Beqaa Valley being the first campaign where smart weapons were regarded as a significant asset. This is misleading. ‘Dumb’ weapons have no guidance system and will simply follow the laws of physics in going where they are thrown by the aircraft. ‘Smart’ weapons have a guidance system and can make alterations in their flightpath towards the target. But they are not in any sense intelligent. If the pilot of the aircraft has been given bad targeting information, if the supposed home of the terrorist is actually the home of a completely innocent family, then that family is doomed. Smart weapons are only as smart as the people using them. In The Yugoslavia campaign, there were several instances of NATO hitting civilian targets with great loss of life. In the most infamous example, NATO managed to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
We were not in Afghanistan so girls could go to school
The military like the use of force to be directed at clearly defined and achievable political objectives. These should be measured in days and weeks rather than months and they must therefore involve an ‘exit strategy’. An exit strategy simply means that the conditions for the cessation of combat operations are defined before the operations begin. The exit strategy can only be completed once the pollical objectives has been met. It can also refer to the literal, physical exit of the forces as they return home. Thus, when the US-led Coalition launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the clearly defined objective was the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The build-up to the conflict lasted months, because it takes time to move large amounts of military equipment by sea, but the conflict itself lasted only 42 days. The ground campaign lasted only 13 days. Most coalition forces were home by June 1991, with this again involving a huge logistical exercise.
Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011) had political objectives that were initially narrowly defined in both cases – the removal of the Taliban from power and the removal of Saddam Hussain and his family from power. But whilst these political objectives had the advantage of simplicity, they also had the disadvantage of being simplistic. They did not address what was to happen after the respective states were left with no functioning government. In Iraq, the operation was based on the vague idea that Iraqi’s would be pleased to see Saddam Hussein gone, so they would cooperate with the invading forces. Exactly how this cooperation was supposed to manifest itself had not been considered: Iraqi’s were living in a failing state, with central government that had either fled, been killed or taken prisoner, without a functioning police or military. It was perfectly reasonable to suppose that they would loot and use violence to protect themselves and the coalition did not have enough troops to take over the law enforcement function. The operation in Afghanistan was, understandably, motivated by revenge. But the people of Afghanistan were poor targets for revenge – most of them had nothing to do with 9/11 and this was immediately obvious to the Western troops that arrived in Afghanistan. As with Iraq, the operation quickly became addressed to the two types of military function that the George W. Bush Administration really hated: nation building and counter insurgency.
Early on in Operation Enduring Freedom, it was usual to hear commentators state that we were not in Afghanistan so that girls could go to school. This is a human metaphor for the larger question of whether a post-Taliban Afghanistan should be turned into a democracy, with liberals arguing that it should. The suggestion that it should not is a reactionary position. As the conflict wore on, some of the reactionaries tended to adopt the same view as the liberals. The reactionaries initial response is an example of ‘realism’ in international relations. A realist response is one that sees the utility of action only in terms of how it directly benefits the acting state. Girls going to school in Afghanistan does not do this for the US or other Western states. Realism faded for two reasons. First, the initial US response to 9/11 was anger and anger is a poor baker of bread or teacher of children. This anger dissipated over time. Second, between 2001-2010, it looked as if the Western forces were winning. They could thus afford to be magnanimous. It would not be an operation premised on mere revenge, but rather on rebuilding. The speculative argument that a democratic Afghanistan would not be a danger in the future came to be seen itself as realistic. An Afghan government which truly represented all of its people would be less violent than the previous, male dominated examples.
For the military, this kind of sociological approach to the use of force rang very loud alarm bells. It sounded pretty much the same as the ‘hearts and minds’ approach partially adopted in Vietnam. Soldiers are necessarily violent individuals. Employing them as armed educators, builders, doctors and social workers, rebuilding a nation and its culture from the ground up, is unlikely to work. It did not work in Vietnam, and it did not work in Afghanistan. The moment the Western military forces stopped being used for actual fighting, transitioning to the role of military trainers, the Taliban’s return became likely. Afghan National Army (ANA) troops were poorly led by corrupt and stupid leaders. They had no real sense of national identity, were badly educated and had no discipline. Once it was clear that they could no longer rely on air support from coalition forces, they did the logical thing and surrendered. The ANA must rank as one of the least effective military formations in history. As Kabul was falling President Biden expressed his frustration at their lack of fight. He was correct in recognising the symptoms, but blind to the cause: will to fight is based on a sense of belonging to the cause and in the synthetic state that was Afghanistan from 2001-2021, belonging was hard to come by.
The reactionaries who had started to become liberal in outlook were swiftly forced back to being reactionaries again. With hindsight, the whole Afghan adventure seemed to have been based on unachievable goals and over-optimistic assessments of what could be achieved with guns. Over coffee at a Russell Group university in 2011, a lecturer from the history faculty suggested to me that the goals set for Afghanistan were impossible. History had shown that the place was ungovernable. The Russians had tried it, the British had tried it, the Soviets had tried it and now the British and Americans were trying it. The method he advocated was the same as the British had used in the Nineteenth Century: the Afghans were left alone, unless they threatened British interests. If this happened, the British Army would enter Afghanistan, wreck the place, and swiftly withdraw. This might be called a policy of destructive disengagement. Post-August 2021 the United States has committed to a similar policy: the Taliban are to be left alone, unless or until they threaten Western interests. They can then be disciplined by the use of drone and cruise missile strikes. Perhaps this should have been the policy since September 12 2001.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1
If it was true that the reactionaries went through liberal phases, then the opposite was not true. Liberals never really became reactionaries. Even the reactionaries move towards liberalism was only for a brief period of time and was a relatively modest accommodation. The reactionaries never went as far as they needed to on the key issue of engaging in dialogue with the Taliban and other enemy groups. This did happen to a degree, but not until very late in the overall cycle of events. Using Afghanistan as an example, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it was clear that the US would look to negotiate its withdrawal from combat operations within his term of office. This meant that the Taliban, who had been playing the long game and waiting for almost 20 years for the West to abandon Afghanistan, knew the end was near. They could thus expect to get favourable terms. The 2020 Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan was filled with vague and obviously empty promises from the Taliban. In an unfortunate conspiracy of circumstance, The White House was occupied by a President who constantly boasted of his ability to negotiate deals. The problem was that the West refused to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of relative strength, in the period between 2001-2010. The reactionaries got greedy and decided they did not need to negotiate with the Taliban, believing they could simply destroy them instead. The West only started to negotiate seriously as their commitment to continued military operations was beginning to waiver, around 2018. The Taliban knew this and could afford to simply tell lies in the negotiations. Liberals who said the conflict could only be resolved by dialogue were correct all along, but this was not recognised until it was effectively too late.
The value of compromise and the compromising of values
The value of compromise is that it can help us to get closer to our ideals. As used here, the word ideals has two complimentary meanings. First, it means the perfect conception or version of something, as in, the ideal way of resolving disputes is by negotiation. Second, it means the values we build our life around, as in, world peace is one of his ideals. But the values we build our life around can never expect to be applied in perfect versions. We might want to stop terrorism but we cannot expect to get there solely by employing negotiations. Nor can we expect to get there by refusing to negotiate with, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, ‘bad people.’ Effective compromise requires that we compromise our values as well. This seems obvious now, but it is striking how the language of September 12 2001 was so morally simplistic. It was bounded by terms such as good v bad, civilisation v barbarism and knowledge v ignorance. What is perhaps worse is that this language is now being deployed in relation to the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine. No lessons have been learnt.
Any use of violence to achieve a political objective already involves a compromise of values. Even liberals accept this. The only people who reject this are radical pacifists and I have never met one. Voices from both ends of the political spectrum need to be aware of this and to encourage the other side to compromise in the way they believe is right. Compromise from both perspectives will lead to sensible policy.