Kagan’s New ‘Moral Purity’ Strawman

Back June, Robert Kagan criticized President Obama for being inappropriately unconcerned with the moral dimension of his foreign policy. Now he criticizes the president for being inappropriately obsessed with it.

In the aftermath of Iran’s presidential elections, Kagan published a pretty awful op-ed going after the president for his amoral “realism” in the face of the Iranian regime’s crackdown. Obama’s policy “requires getting past the election controversies quickly,” Kagan wrote, “so that he can soon begin negotiations with the reelected Ahmadinejad government.”

If you find all this disturbing, you should. The worst thing is that this approach will probably not prevent the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon. But this is what “realism” is all about.

In my response to Kagan’s item, I questioned whether Kagan himself could possibly believe his own simplistic interpretation of Obama’s “realism.” Well, it turns out that he didn’t believe it!


Here’s what Kagan wrote yesterday in response to President Obama’s description of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”:

[T]here is a deeper reason…for Obama to claim necessity in Afghanistan. It is part of what increasingly seems to be a striving for moral purity in international affairs by this administration. Obama and his top advisers apologize for America’s past sins, implicitly suggesting they will commit no new ones. And that goes for fighting wars. No one can blame you for fighting a war if it is a war of necessity, or so they may believe. All the inevitable ancillary casualties of war — from civilian deaths to the occasional misbehavior of the troops to the errors of commanders — are more easily forgiven if one has no choice.

So which is it? Is Obama a cold, calculating realist with no regard for morality in foreign policy, or is he inappropriately concerned with maintaining the moral high ground? Or is Kagan just throwing arguments up against the wall to see what sticks?

I should note that I agree with the idea (unoriginal to Kagan) that the war of necessity/choice distinction is not particularly useful. But it seems ridiculous to suggest that the president’s arguing for the strategic necessity of a particular action — whether or not one agrees with that argument — represents an attempt to absolve himself of the moral implications of the decision.