Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2005 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan,
Realists who aren't
Is there a less realistic school of American foreign policy than the one whose leaders go by the name realists?
Again and again, these realists tend to be ambushed by reality. Which is what happens when you try to formulate a foreign policy for a country based on certain ideals like all men having been created equal with certain unalienable rights without taking those ideals and their universal appeal into account.
Tyrannies collapse, freedom buds, yet the realists are always surprised. Because they hold it self-evident that American foreign policy should be about strategic interests and nothing more. Ideals just get in the way, or, worse, can lead to a dangerous, Wilsonian moralism in foreign affairs.
Each generation of Americans seems to produce its apostles of realism in foreign policy. Especially when the country hits a rough patch abroad. For defeat is the health of what is called realism, an approach that can at times bear a marked resemblance to traditional American isolationism, the unrealistic belief that we can withdraw from the world.
Today's realists seek out every American setback; each one can be cited as a sign of things to come unless the country disengages from the world's troubles. It's unrealistic, we're told, to think that democracy will ever take hold in Iraq or any place else in the Arab world. (Just as we were once told that Germans and Japanese were incorrigibly autocratic; it was built into their nationalistic genes.) So forget those successful elections in Iraq; only bad news is real news.
No wonder Brent Scowcroft, a key adviser to the first President Bush and an honor graduate of the Kissinger school of realpolitik, construes even the good news out of the Middle East as bad. In a long interview in The New Yorker magazine, he deplores every sign of freedom in that dysfunctional region. Far from encouraging peace and stability, he explains, the rise of freedom abroad will only upset things.
No one can say General Scowcroft isn't consistent. In a much photographed and still indelible moment, he toasted China's Communist leaders just after the massacre at Tiananmen Square and has been trying to explain away that revealing scene ever since.
The Scowcroft Doctrine is simple in essence: Freedom is destabilizing. Have the Syrians been obliged to end their long occupation of Lebanon, giving that country a hope of freedom at last? That's bad news, very bad. It could lead to instability in the Middle East. For who knows what forces will be let loose if Syria's grip on Lebanon is loosed? Why, Syria's own dictatorship might be the next to go.
General Scowcroft would prefer what he sees as the good old days when Washington propped up kings and dictators, and there was no trouble in the Middle East. His is an idyllic past that, of course, never was. At one point he refers to the "fifty years of peace" that his kind of statecraft brought to the Middle East. He doesn't seem to have noticed all the wars, coups and revolutions there over the last half-century, including one in 1973 that put both superpowers on nuclear alert.
Like most "realists," the general never has been comfortable with acknowledging real evil. That might oblige us to do something about it. He still doesn't approve of Ronald Reagan's having called the Soviet Union an evil empire even though that act of candor eroded that regime's legitimacy at home and abroad. And soon enough the Soviet Union would collapse, and the Cold War end.
If there is one strategic factor in international relations that realists like Brent Scowcroft never seem to consider, it is the very real power of moral indignation and moral imagination. Even now the general can't seem to account for Ronald Reagan's effectiveness on the global stage.
The practitioners of realpolitik have always been uncomfortable with the idea of radical evil loose in the world; to them it smacks of moral theology rather than practical judgment. And it also risks real sacrifice. As in Iraq today. Better to stay in denial when evil stalks.
To quote Lewis Mumford, who shocked his fellow intellectuals on the left back in the '30s by advocating a policy of active intervention abroad:
"One of the reasons liberalism has been so incapable of working energetically for good ends is that it is incapable of resisting evil: In its priggish fear of committing an unfair moral judgment, it habitually places itself on the side of . . . fascism's victories." Today's Islamofascism feeds on the same moral paralysis, which is now being marketed under the brand name Realism.
Strangely enough, Brent Scowcroft is the man who brought Condoleezza Rice to Washington; he was her mentor and sponsor. Now she's secretary of state and the personification of everything he despises about the country's current foreign policy especially its dedication to spreading freedom around the world.
Condi Rice may have started out as the general's kind of realist, but the reality of September 11th seems to have changed everything for her, as it did for so many. Brent Scowcroft, 80 now, still doesn't seem to have noticed September 11th, at least insofar as it's changed anything about the way he perceives the world. For him, foreign policy is all a matter of power politics. He's not about to get sidetracked by anything as troublesome as an ideal.
Or as he puts it in this interview, fairly enough: "I'm a realist in the sense that I'm a cynic about human nature." Come to think, that might be the best description of the realist school of foreign policy: cynicism.
Alas, all the realists' fine calculations of just whom to appease when and at whose expense seem to lead inevitably to a day of reckoning a December 7, 1941, or a September 11, 2001. Just because a policy is cynical doesn't mean it'll work.
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