Op-Ed: When U.S. 'realism' means pining for the status quo

By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 25, 2005

Last Monday, in a speech before the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Salt Lake City, U.S. President George W. Bush declared: "As more nations replace tyranny with liberty, and replace hatred with hope, America will be more secure. Our nation has accepted a mission, and we are moving forward with resolve."

The grandiloquence of the phrase must have provoked a gnashing of teeth among those who oppose the war in Iraq, but also those who see Bush's idealism as intolerable puffery. Political realists count themselves in the latter category, and last week one of theirs, Foreign Affairs managing editor Gideon Rose, published an impudent commentary in The New York Times informing readers that "the Bush doctrine has collapsed, so the administration has embraced realism, American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure." And what is realism, in Rose's formulation? The pursuit of "interests rather than ideals and conciliation rather than confrontation."

Rose went on to argue that a dichotomy has existed in American foreign policy since the start of the cold war (though, in fact, it far predates the last half-century), between presidents pursuing grand moral objectives and more "realistic" counterparts who favor prudence abroad and have frequently been brought in to clean up the mess left by the dreamers. Against the "idealistic" Harry Truman, Rose places the temperate Dwight Eisenhower; against John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who "set about paying any price and bearing any burden for their ideals," he places Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who extricated the United States from Vietnam, forged a new relationship with the Soviet Union and started a rapprochement with China, earning them vilification as "cold-blooded amoral schemers out of touch with American principles and values."

The idealist-realist debate is usually conducted tongue in cheek, largely because both sides tend to so shamelessly downplay what contradicts their arguments, while rarely admitting what should be obvious after almost a century of watching America navigate global politics: all administrations have blended idealism and realism, albeit in different doses, so that Rose's sharply-drawn lines are, in the end, unconvincing.

For example, he highlights the three pillars of the Bush doctrine, which were most clearly expressed in the administration's September 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), as "preemption, regime change and a clear division between those 'with us' and 'against us.'" In fact, the supposedly realist Eisenhower and Nixon administrations were eager advocates - if not always successful ones - of regime change, whether in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, or in Chile and probably Cambodia in the early 1970s. The two Nixon administrations could be as undiscerning in imposing "us" and "them" categories when it came to third-world countries that risked siding with America's communist foes, as they could be flexible when dealing directly with the Soviet Union and China.

In fact, the Bush administration's NSS is an uncanny hodgepodge of idealism and realism. It does indeed outline what Rose says it does (though he missed its main assertion, namely that the administration would not allow states to seek parity with or surpass American power), but it also promises to "create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty."

And if that reference to "balance," a mainstay of realist thought, isn't enough, the NSS goes on to insist, in a phrase that Rose would surely applaud: "No nation can build a safer, better world alone. Alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations. The United States is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States, and NATO as well as other long-standing alliances."

Why this mishmash of intentions? Because government papers are written by contending bureaucracies, so that if everyone does his job right, the end result is contradiction or, at best, "constructive" ambiguity. More specifically, the person who oversaw preparation of the NSS was then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, avatar of the document's paradoxes: a realist by temperament, she was obliged to adopt Bush's extravagant ambitions after September 11, so that, as author James Mann noted in his indispensable "The Rise of the Vulcans," the very phrase quoted earlier about the balance of power was really a compromise between administration realists and neoconservatives. Abutting the word "balance" was the neocons' resolve to advance human freedom.

How is this debate useful in the Middle East? It would be unfortunate if the Bush administration were to fully retreat to the dry gulch of realism in the region, for three main reasons.

First, it would mean returning to the allegedly untroubled "balance" provided by dealing with dictators, since a (much ignored) tenet of realism is respect for sovereignty: states deal with states, so it should not be a U.S. concern if an ally is also a thug. However, surrendering the dissemination of democracy as a foreign policy instrument would be irresponsible, particularly in a changing world where the pull of open societies is far more vigorous than ever. The fact that the Bush administration has engaged in "rendering" - sending terrorist suspects to Arab countries to be interrogated and possibly tortured - underlines how adulterated is its idealism in this regard. However, its strategy of strongly favoring democratic behavior by regimes has been effective, even if much more can be done.

A second reason is that the realists' fondness for state-to-state relations may soon prove anachronistic as the shockwaves of Iraqi federalism hit the Middle East. With religious and ethnic communities emerging as definers of state relations in Iraq, multi-communal or multi-ethnic societies in the region may also begin realigning themselves according to primary loyalties. This doesn't necessarily mean the end of the Arab state, but as communities gain the upper hand over centralized authority, many states will be redefined so that their powers are dramatically reduced. In other words, the possible collapse of the traditional Arab state system may leave realists minus the partners with whom they are familiar.

Finally, realists never fessed up to the fact that their policies in the Arab world, by justifying tolerance for dictatorships whose brutality provoked a violent Islamist backlash, made September 11 possible. This was the neocon critique, and it remains relevant. Realists regard international affairs as a perpetual negotiation over interests; and while they accept the force of ideology, they often err in miscalculating its sway, because they are so mistrustful of ideology in the first place. That's why idealists have an advantage over realists in understanding the clout of militant Islam, and it's why neocons had a response to Sepember 11 when the realists did not.

Bush is indeed resorting to more realism in Iraq, and no one should be surprised; even his administration never believed in absolute unilateralism, which is, anyway, a political impossibility. However, democratic idealism and the U.S. ability to shape Iraqi politics are perhaps the only potent arrows the administration has left in a much-depleted quiver. Sadly, it seems to be steadily abandoning both, hence the realists' delight - a delight that confuses success with embrace of the status quo.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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