I recently heard someone else describe what I once described as
the 'we had to destroy this village so as to avoid destroying all those other villages' logic of inexorable arms buildup and extension of threat
as 'tragic realism'. Apparently it's the appropriate term of art. It is appropriate, I think. The sense that a morally responsible person could not avoid in the steadfast, if doubtless somewhat misleading, attention that view pays to the nastier side of international politics is overwhelmingly of tragedy: that, it claims, the cost of avoiding obliteration is the willingness to obliterate others, a kind of classic example of, if true, the falsity of the idea that ought implies can, a set of choices, all of which are morally terrible. That's not to say that there aren't other phenomenologies of that view: the idea of a steely-eyed violence, transcending petty moral scruples, for example, undoubtedly has an appeal for some. It is, presumably, to describe those other attachments to this view as morally irresponsible.
I am not a tragic realist. There are a plurality of logics of action in international politics, some of which have more of what could be called a moral character than others, and whilst there may be a place for the logic associated with tragic realism, the way in which formal and less formal international institutions have clearly created divisions of the spoils which are not zero-sum illustrates that other logics have their place too. The one thing that you could not accuse tragic realism of though, when it is genuinely tragic, is an unwillingness to acknowledge the moral costs its logic creates: indeed, that is the whole point of it being tragic.
It is something of a recurring theme here, the idea that there are serious moral losses involved in most serious choices. After all, what makes those choices serious is precisely the fact that there are genuine and weighty considerations for each option, which typically cannot easily be reconciled, if at all. To operate with some other idea of the moral universe is, for this view, to be utopian, to refuse to face up to the pluralistic and conflictual structure of value in the world, to fail to confront that structure's unavoidable incompatibilities. Acknowledging those incompatibilities is of course the only first step towards negotiating them, for better or for worse, but it is a necessary first step. In its absence, various sources or locations of value are dismissed, and as a consequence of their dismissal, suffer, sometimes to the degree of obliteration.
The failure of some people (via) to come to terms with this idea is, undoubtedly, a cause of much suffering in the world. What is so frustrating, even odd, about Geras' argument is that refusal to acknowledge costs he must know exist. For example, his argument would run just as well if used to argue in favour of invading North Korea. After all, the core of his argument is the undoubted hideousness of Saddam's regime:
the regime had been responsible for, it was daily adding to, and for all that anyone could reasonably expect, it would go on for the forseeable future adding to, an immensity of pain and grief, killing, torture and mutilation. It's been said before, including by me, and so I won't labour the point too much here; but this was not merely an unpleasant tyranny amongst many others - it was one of the very worst of recent times, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on its hands, to say nothing of the lives torn and wrecked by it.
This is the argument that no-one has an answer to, the sheer moral horror, which few dispute, of Saddam's regime. It is that moral horror which calls us to act. I'm not quite sure that it is, as Brian Leiter thinks it is, a consequentialist argument: it might simply point to that moral horror, and demand that something was done about it, that it was not allowed to continue. Yet North Korea is at least as hideous a regime as Saddam's, so presumably Geras thinks, just as strongly as he thinks that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, that invading North Korea would be the right thing to do.
That's clearly mad though. Invading North Korea would destabilise the region enormously, lead to casualties probably at least in the hundreds of thousands, and have all kinds of other assorted moral costs which, unfortunately, make it an incredibly unwise, let alone immoral, thing to do. Geras must know that, which is must be one reason why, so far as I am aware, he has never argued directly in favour of invading North Korea. All those are reasons, though, which applied to invading Iraq. Maybe Geras can call on other considerations, not mentioned in this particular argument, to differentiate the two: maybe they are even morally respectable. I haven't the patience to find out.
Compare Geras' view to tragic realism, its blank denials of the costs of its own pronouncements - or lack thereof - seem to commit it to an admission of to the haunted air of moral difficulty lingering around genuine tragic realism. I don't think it's hard to see which comes off better.