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  1. The Weekend Essay
28 January 2023

Robert Kaplan’s tragic realism

Haunted by his misguided support for the Iraq War, the American writer turned to tragedy to understand the delusions of the West.

By John Gray

The medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali believed one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny. It is a hard saying, the truth of which the American writer Robert Kaplan was persuaded only after bitter personal experience. A veteran correspondent who had reported from the Balkans, Yemen, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, he supported the Iraq War in the belief that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny could only benefit the country. Instead, when he returned embedded with US marines in the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, he found

“something far worse than even the Iraq of the 1980s: the bloody anarchy of all against all that Saddam’s regime, through the most extreme brutality, had managed to suppress. The clinical depression I suffered for years afterward because of my mistake about the Iraq War led me to write this book. I had failed my test as a realist… I helped promote a war in Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. These, taken together, have burdened my sleep for decades, wrecking me at times and motivating me to write this book.”

[See also: Nietzsche before the breakdown]

The root of Kaplan’s mistake, he came to see, was his failure to think tragically. Tragedy is the conflict of one good with another. Justice and freedom are great goods, but so are peace and order – and they can be at odds with one another. This conflict of values is denied by those who believe liberal values of democracy and human rights are spreading throughout the world and aim to speed the process by wars of regime change. Some of them have held senior positions in the world’s pre-eminent military power:

“To believe that the power of the United States can always right the world is a violation of the tragic sensibility. And yet significant elements of our foreign policy elite in Washington have subscribed to this notion. Because policy itself is a process that seeks to improve – ideally to fix – innumerable positions abroad, the elite trusts that every problem is fixable, and that to disagree with this constitutes fatalism.”

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Kaplan first became widely known through an influential essay, “The Coming Anarchy”, published in the Atlantic magazine in 1994, in which he warned:

“The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh – developments that will prompt mass migrations and, in turn, incite group conflicts – will be the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate.”

Later expanded in a book, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War (2000), Kaplan’s sombre prognosis has stood the test of time better than Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian prognostications or Samuel P Huntington’s simplistic account of clashing civilisations. As Kaplan expected, many of the states constructed in Africa on the basis of colonial boundaries have buckled under the strain of resource wars and environmental degradation. Haiti and stretches of Mexico are ungoverned spaces where the use of force is dispersed among contending criminal gangs. In China Xi Jinping’s dictatorship owes much of whatever popular legitimacy it retains to the fact that it has prevented any reversion to the anarchical violence of the Cultural Revolution. The world is littered with failed and failing states.

This spare, elegant and poignant volume has more wisdom in it than any number of turgid studies in “political science”. If there is a single contemporary book that should be pressed into the hands of those who decide issues of war and peace, this is it. Ranging widely across the humanities, Kaplan harvests insights from ancient Greek drama, Shakespeare, Melville and other writers who have explored intractable human dilemmas. From the depths of his depression, he has salvaged a cluster of pearls. But what are the sources of tragedy in politics, and why has it been so insistently denied?

One of the scholarly sources on which Kaplan relies is Sophoclean Tragedy, published in 1944 by the Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra (1898-1971). Like Kaplan’s, Bowra’s insight into tragedy was hard-won. During the First World War he fought in the battle of Passchendaele, where he “saw and smelt death on a daily basis”, wrote a biographer, in trenches containing the decomposing bodies of men and horses. (In the weeks between 31 July and 6 November 1917, Allied and German casualties at Passchendaele exceeded half a million.) At one point, Bowra was buried alive in a dugout 20 feet below the surface. He survived with a deep loathing of war, but also came to despise pacifism. Having watched Hitler at a mass rally, he became one of the fiercest critics of appeasement. While war was terrible, Nazism was worse – and there was no way of avoiding a choice between them.

Kaplan is right in thinking the core of tragedy is not a problem of evil. “The Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide were not tragedies: they were vast and vile crimes.” The heart of tragedy is fate, that human beings face inescapable choices in which whatever is done incurs irreparable loss.

Tragic realism is not cynicism or passivity. The famous question that troubled a student of Jean-Paul Sartre was a conflict between two ends worth cherishing. Should he leave France to join the fight against fascism, or stay and protect his devoted mother? Either way a precious good would be sacrificed. Such dilemmas testify to the nobility of which human beings are capable, not their depravity.

As understood by Sophocles, tragedy was imposed by the gods on humans in order to teach them humility. Bowra writes: “Sophoclean tragedy turns on a conflict between gods and men. For this conflict the gods have a reason. They wish to teach a lesson, to make men learn their mortal limitations and accept them.”

Originating in a pagan theology in which unbounded ambition is the surest path to disaster, the tragic sensibility was eclipsed with the arrival of Christianity. Tragedy is intimated in the Old Testament when Job questions the justice of God’s dispensations, but Christianity is an anti-tragic faith: through the agony of Jesus on the cross, humankind is redeemed. In Greek tragedy, on the other hand, even the greatest human beings suffer complete and final defeat. Sophocles’ heroes, Bowra concludes, “end by subjecting themselves to the gods in consciousness of their own utter weakness”.

[See also: Adam Curtis’s magic lantern through Russia]

The modern faith that every human conflict is fixable is a secular humanist avatar of the Christian promise of universal salvation, emptied of its transcendental content. Proponents of regime change explain the grisly fiascos that ensued as avoidable errors. With proper planning and sufficient determination, they insist, Afghanistan and Iraq could have been turned into something like Western democracies. The tragic alternative of tyranny and anarchy that Kaplan recognised too late in Iraq did not exist. In this world-view, there are no tragedies, only mistakes or weakness of will.

Yet the consequences of the Iraq War were not avoidable. When they have been one and the same for decades, overturning a dictatorial regime may destroy the state itself. When the underlying population comprises communities with a long history of antagonism, the inevitable result of such intervention is large-scale violence. As I wrote in the New Statesman in early March 2003, before the American-led invasion was launched later that month: “There is a risk that the Iraqi state, a rickety structure cobbled together by departing British civil servants, will fracture in Yugoslav or even Chechen fashion.” In fact the upshot, which included the rise of Islamic State and a genocidal assault on the Yazidi people, was worse than either of these disasters.

To this day, cheerleaders for the Iraq War in Washington and London decline any responsibility for the destructive forces they released. Kaplan is almost alone in acknowledging his role and where he went wrong. Our leaders have learned nothing. What they did in Afghanistan and Iraq was not tragic, though many have suffered grievous loss, but sheer folly. The danger is that this folly will be re-enacted, with hugely more damaging effects, in relation to Russia and China.

The war in Ukraine began not as a tragedy but a crime. Vladimir Putin has prosecuted his “special military operation” with unspeakable savagery. Torture, abduction, sexual violence and targeting civilians are routine procedures for Russian forces. Putin’s avowed aim of extinguishing Ukraine as a distinct culture approaches genocide. Confronted by expanding Russian barbarism, it is unthinkable that the West could have stood aside. In recent months, however, Western objectives appear to have changed. From seeking to defend Ukraine against aggression, the goal has become inflicting a devastating defeat on Russia. For some the aim is to topple Putin; for others it is to break up the Russian state.

By whatever route Putin leaves office, he will most likely be succeeded not by an opponent of the war but by an intelligence insider such as Nikolai Patrushev, the hard-line secretary of the Russian Federation’s Security Council. Others may join in jockeying for power, and a protracted period of instability could follow. In a not unrealistic scenario, the Russian Federation could fracture and fall apart. For evangelical liberals this would be a triumph of self-determination, not only for Ukraine but the nations currently confined in the Russian empire.

Here liberals are engaged in a high-stakes gamble against history. Because it left much of the state intact, the implosion of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful. But the disintegration of the Russian Federation could be closer in human cost to the complete collapse that occurred a century ago when the country descended into anarchy, with independent states emerging not only in Ukraine but also Siberia and the Caucasus, during the Civil War of 1917-1923. Around ten million people died in battles, pogroms, famines and pandemics. Millions more fled the country.

There are larger hazards. The prospect of nuclear escalation could return if Ukrainian forces threaten to advance on Crimea. Russia’s illegal annexation of the territory was not a Putinist anomaly. The seizure of the region, which is of pivotal geopolitical importance to Russia because of the port of Sevastopol, was supported by Mikhail Gorbachev; even the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has not suggested it should be reversed. Any attempt to recover Crimea will be treated as an existential challenge. If the barrier against small battlefield nukes is breached, anything could happen.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, full-scale nuclear war could kill more than half of the world’s human population through its effects on health and food production. No doubt some will assure us that Putin is rational enough not to commit suicide. The same people tend to tell us he is mad, but never mind. It would be piquant if the modern West – the most intellectually advanced civilisation in history, as everyone agrees – destroyed itself though an irrational faith in human reason.

In any new Russian offensive Ukraine must be strongly defended, with the US and Europe (now including the opaque and devious German chancellor, Olaf Scholz) giving it the arms it needs. But Russia can be permanently contained only by calling on the influence of China, also a repressive autocracy. There is no realistic scenario in which the West, a declining force in world affairs, can prevail over both powers.

This does not mean lowering our guard against Chinese penetration of strategic industries – on the contrary, vigilance must be increased. But soliciting Chinese support in restraining Russia will require moderating the West’s stance in support of Taiwan, a flourishing democracy. It is a hideous choice, and yet ineluctable if the conflict in Ukraine is not to drift into becoming a world war. As Kaplan observes, “Geopolitics – the battle of space and power played out over a geographical setting – is inherently tragic.”

[See also: Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness]

Robert Kaplan cites the American classicist Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) defining tragedy as “the beauty of intolerable truths”. She was referring to the art form, but unless the West recovers the capacity to discern and act on intolerable truths in global politics it risks turning its defence of Ukraine against criminal aggression into a vast tragedy. The peril is more urgent than in the past because of the unprecedented speed and destructiveness of computer-guided weapon systems. As Kaplan warns, “Never before has thinking tragically – and husbanding fear without being immobilised by it – been more necessary.”

The 14th-century English philosopher William of Occam proposed a maxim for constructing theories, which came to be called Occam’s Razor: do not multiply entities beyond necessity. We need an ethical version of this principle of parsimony: do not multiply tragedies beyond necessity. But can the West today, with its shallow, febrile faith that all human problems can be fixed, apply this painful logic? It is an open question.

John Gray’s most recent book is “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (Penguin)

The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power
By Robert D Kaplan
Yale University Press, 152pp, £20

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: Frank Turner interview: “Stop asking musicians about politics”]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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