July 16, 2006

"Realist" fatuity

I think this NYT Op-Ed, An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With, is totally muddled...[NOTE: This is a long boring fisking you can skip if you like. The "new foreign policy" is an attempt to be effective without giving up leftist moral relativism, and admitting that we are the good guys. A flat-out impossibility.]

Robert Wright writes:

AS liberals try to articulate a post-Bush foreign policy, some are feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.

They have always thought of themselves as idealistic, concerned with the welfare of humankind. [Turns out, not so.] Not for them the ruthlessly narrow focus on national self-interest of the “realist” foreign policy school. That school’s most famous practitioner, Henry Kissinger, is for many liberals a reminder of how easily the ostensible amorality of classic realism slides into immorality. [Nixon and Kissinger were liberals.]

Yet idealism has lost some of its luster. Neoconservatism, whose ascendancy has scared liberals into a new round of soul-searching, seems plenty idealistic, bent on spreading democracy and human rights. Indeed, a shared idealism is what led many liberals to join neocons in supporting the Iraq war, which hasn’t turned out ideally. [Are you saying that idealism is only OK if everything works perfectly? Some idealism.] In retrospect, realists who were skeptical of the invasion, like Brent Scowcroft and Samuel Huntington, are looking pretty wise.[Not to me.]

It’s an unappealing choice: chillingly clinical self-interest or dangerously naïve altruism? Fortunately, it’s a false choice. [It's false because there's a third possibility. But this article isn't it, just realism with some frosting on the cupcake.] During the post-cold-war era, the security landscape has changed a lot, in some ways for the worse; witness the role of “nonstate actors” last week in India, Israel and Iraq. But this changing environment has a rarely noted upside: It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.

Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. [Since "progressive" is the latest sneaky pseudonym for leftist, this is really stupid] This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives.

With such crossover potential, this paradigm might even help Democrats win a presidential election. But Democrats can embrace it only if they’re willing to annoy an interest group or two and also reject a premise common in Democratic policy circles lately: that the key to a winning foreign policy is to recalibrate the party’s manhood — just take boilerplate liberal foreign policy and add a testosterone patch. Even if that prescription did help win an election, it wouldn’t succeed in protecting America. [At least you admit that "boilerplate liberal foreign policy" is not about protecting America.]

Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests. [Which are what? Exactly?]

But these days serving American interests means abandoning another traditional belief of realists — that so long as foreign governments don’t endanger American interests on the geopolitical chess board, their domestic affairs don’t concern us. In an age when Americans are threatened by overseas bioweapons labs and outbreaks of flu, by Chinese pollution that enters lungs in Oregon, by imploding African states that could turn into terrorist havens, by authoritarian Arab governments that push young men toward radicalism, the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable. [Yes. Clearly true.]

In that sense progressive realists look a lot like neoconservatives and traditional liberals: concerned about the well-being of foreigners, albeit out of strict national interest. But progressive realism has two core themes that make it clearly distinctive, and they’re reflected in two different meanings of the word “progressive.”

First, the word signifies a belief in, well, progress. Free markets are spreading across the world on the strength of their productivity, and economic liberty tends to foster political liberty. Yes, the Chinese government could probably reverse the growth in popular expression of the past two decades, but only by severely restricting information technologies that are prerequisites for prosperity. Meanwhile, notwithstanding dogged efforts at repression, political pluralism in China is growing.

Oddly, this progressive realist faith in markets seems to be stronger than the vaunted neoconservative faith in markets. After all, if you believe that history is on the side of political freedom — and that this technological era is giving freedom an especially strong push — your approach to fostering democracy isn’t to invade countries and impose it. And if you believe that the tentacles of capitalism help spread freedom, you don’t threaten to disrupt economic engagement with China for such small gains as the release of a few political prisoners. [In other words, "faith in progress" means you don't have to actually DO anything. Dems should love that.]

A strong Democratic emphasis on economic engagement always threatens to alienate liberal human rights activists, as well as union leaders concerned about cheap labor abroad. But the losses can be minimized, thanks to the second meaning of the word “progressive.” [Toss 'em some Tranzi bones, to shut them up.]


The American progressives of a century ago saw that as economic activity moved from a regional to a national level, some parts of governance needed to reside at the national level as well. Hence federal antitrust enforcement and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Analogously, problems that today accompany globalization call for institutionalized international responses.

In the economic realm, progressivism means continuing to support the World Trade Organization as a bulwark against protectionism — but also giving it the authority [What kind of authority, exactly? And do we get to VOTE on this stuff? Of course not.] to address labor issues, as union leaders have long advocated. Environmental issues, too, should be addressed at the W.T.O. and through other bodies of regional and global governance. [And if they fail? As they usually do? Or if they act against American interests...The "Progessive" does...what?]

Nowhere does this emphasis on international governance contrast more clearly with recent Republican ideology than in arms control. The default neoconservative approach to weapons of mass destruction seems to be that when you suspect a nation has them, you invade it. [Simply a LIE. This has never been the Republican OR neo-con position.] The Iraq experience suggests that repeated reliance on this policy could grow wearying. The president, to judge by his late-May overture toward Iran and his subdued tone toward North Korea, may be sensing as much. [Neither country has ever been a good candidate for invasion. And if we are planning invasions, they are not on the back burner because we are "weary," but because our will to prosecute the WOT has been deliberately sabotaged and undermined by traitor Democrats.]

Still, he is nowhere near embracing the necessary alternative: arms control accords that would impose highly intrusive inspections on all parties. [Because they ALWAYS FAIL against rogue regimes, and are unnecessary against all others. You write "impose." WHO imposes? By what amount of force? What army? The UN? The World government?" As soon as one asks the question, one sees that only the USA could "impose" anything of the kind.] Neoconservatives, along with the Buchananite nationalist right, see in this approach an unacceptable sacrifice of national sovereignty. [And YOUR position on national sovereignty is? Could you be specific here?]

But such “sacrifices” can strengthen America. One reason international weapons inspectors haven’t gotten a good fix on Iran’s nuclear program is that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives them access only to “declared” sites. Wouldn’t Americans be willing to change that and let inspectors examine America more broadly — we have nothing to hide, after all — if that made it harder for other nations to cheat on the treaty? [Is this stupid, or what? Why would the Iranians or other rogue nations become more cooperative just because inspectors inspect our weapons, which everyone already knows exist?]

There is a principle here that goes beyond arms control: the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will). [And if they DON'T? You are left with...what? But even before that, the absurd thing about this kind of thinking is that "progressives" only get EXCITED about the "restraining America" part. We see this every day, in the WOT. They will ALWAYS go mushy when it comes to "constraining other nations."]

This doesn’t mean joining the deepest devotees of international law and vowing never to fight a war that lacks backing by the United Nations Security Council. But it does mean that, in the case of Iraq, ignoring the Security Council and international opinion had excessive costs: (1) eroding the norm against invasions not justified by self-defense or imminent threat; (2) throwing away a golden post-9/11 opportunity to strengthen the United Nations’ power as a weapons inspector. The last message we needed to send is the one President Bush sent: countries that succumb to pressure to admit weapons inspectors will be invaded anyway. Peacefully blunting the threats posed by nuclear technologies in North Korea and Iran would be tricky in any event, but this message has made it trickier. (Ever wonder why Iran wants “security guarantees”?) [It was only the threat of invasion that got the inspectors into Iraq, where they were blatantly hindered from doing anything. And Blix was put in charge, against our wishes, precisely because certain nations on the Security Council knew he could be trusted to "see no evil." And if WMD's had been found, it would still have been the USA and the Axis of Good that would have to force action. The same if inspectors found WMD's in Iran.]

The administration’s misjudgment in Iraq highlights the distinction — sometimes glossed over by neoconservatives — between transparency and regime change. Had we held off on invasion, demanding in return that United Nations inspections be expanded and extended, we could have rendered Iraq transparent, confirming that it posed no near-term threat. Regime change wasn’t essential. [This simply ignores the ever-more clear support of terrorism by Saddam, the massive humanitarian crises, the crumbling of the sanctions regime, and several other pressing reasons for invasion.]

To be sure, authoritarianism’s demise is a key long-term goal. Authoritarian states never have the natural transparency of free-market democracies, and the evolution of biotechnology will make an increasingly fine-grained transparency vital to security. But this degree of transparency will only slowly become a strict prerequisite for national security, because the bioweapons most plausibly available to terrorists in the near term aren’t effective weapons of truly mass destruction. (Anthrax isn’t contagious, for example, and there is a vaccine for smallpox.) For now we can be patient and nurture regime change through economic engagement and other forms of peaceful, above-board influence. [Oh right. Let us NURTURE! We've heard that stuff before. It always means "don't make waves."]

The result will be more indigenous, more culturally authentic paths to democracy than flow from invasion or American-backed coups d’état — and more conducive to America’s security than, say, the current situation in Iraq. Democrats can join President Bush in proclaiming that “freedom is on the march” without buying his formula for assisting it. [You there! Yes YOU, the 8 million Iraqis with purple fingers. Your democracy is not "culturally authentic." You risked your lives for nothing. The all-wise "Progressives" think your democracy should "evolve." Slowwwwly. Out of "authentic" sources, which presumably means the Ba'ath Party, which was surely going to "evolve" soon. But only If "nurtured."]

When expressing disdain for international governance, the Bush administration morphs from visionary neocon idealist into coolly rational realist. Foreign policy, we’re told, is not for naïve, “Kumbaya”-singing liberals who are seduced by illusions of international cooperation. [Everything I've read here so far says that Bush is right.]

Yet the president, in his aversion to multilateralism, flunks Realism 101. He has let America fall prey to what economists call the “free rider” problem. Even if we grant the mistaken premise that the Iraq war would make the whole world safer from terrorism, why should America pay so much blood and treasure? Why let the rest of civilization be a free rider? [Why? 1. Because we are the good guys, not selfish "realists." 2. Because things always only get fixed if the strong LEAD. 3. We BENEFIT the most, because we benefit the most from Globalization, which is really the spread of OUR system throughout the world. And the blood and treasure are trivial compared to past wars.]

The high cost of free riders matters all the more in light of how many problems beyond America’s borders threaten America’s interests. The slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue, given how hospitable collapsed states can be to terrorists. But if addressing the Darfur problem will indeed help thwart terrorism internationally, then the costs of the mission should be shared. [Nothing will happen unless America leads. That's the brutal fact that this article is trying to squirm away from. And because the President's political capital is limited, he must focus on only the most pressing issues. If the Democrats SUPPORTED America, we could fix Darfur tomorrow, and probably drag in some reluctant partners too. DEMOCRATS, LIBERALS are killing blacks in Darfur, right now, by hindering the President, instead of urging him to action. The blood is on your hands, lefty. Pacifism kills.]

President Bush’s belated diplomatic involvement in Darfur suggests growing enlightenment, but sluggish ad hoc multilateralism isn’t enough. We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. [Sudan is part of the UN! Plus China, which is hungry for oil from Sudan, and many countries who wish mostly to thwart our interests, or who think Moslems killing blacks is no bad thing. To expect ANYTHING good to come out of the UN slimehole is fatuous.] America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.

And the accounting rules are subtle. As we’ve seen lately, the cost of military action can go not just beyond dollars and cents, but beyond the immediate toll of dead and wounded. In an age when cellphones can take pictures and videos of collateral damage and then e-mail them, and terrorists recruit via Web site imagery, intervention abroad can bring long-term blowback. [Uh, and if the UN were involved such things would not happen?]

Further, when you consider the various ways information technology helps terrorists — not just to recruit more fighters to the cause, but to orchestrate attacks and spread recipes for munitions — and you throw in advances in munitions technology, an alarming principle suggests itself: In coming years, grass-roots hatred and resentment of America may be converted into the death of Americans with growing efficiency. [But the UN NEVER stimulates hatred of the US...]

That domestic security depends increasingly on popular sentiment abroad makes it important for America to be seen as a good global citizen — respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors. One of President Bush’s most effective uses of power was the tsunami relief effort of 2004, which raised regard for Americans in the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia. Much of the war on terror isn’t military. [No duh! And WHO DID IT? Bush, and the incomparable US military, with some help from the Axis of Good. While the UN and Old Europe were utterly useless and selfish. So what is the lesson here, Mr Wright?]

Of course, some of it is, and we’ll need the capacity to project force anywhere, anytime. Still, a full accounting of the costs of intervention makes it clear that we can’t afford to be the world’s army... [Rubbish. Our current military spending is roughly comparable to the rest of the world's combined. Yet we are not straining our economy, and our spending as a % of GDP is well below Cold War highs.]

[I'll snip out a section where Wright says, correctly, that Globalization is causing a decline in world conflict, and then calls for--this will surprise you--yet MORE international institutions!]


And I'll nip out a section on "realism," and how it requires--surprise, surprise--more international institutions. Here's the crux:

....This sounds harsh, but it is only acknowledgment of something often left unsaid: a nation’s foreign policy will always favor the interests of its citizens and so fall short of moral perfection... [That is a failed idea. I think so, and George Bush and Condaleeza Rice think so. America is a profoundly moral nation, grounded in Christian and Jewish principles. "Realism" is an amoral policy that often serves to advance evil. ]

...Harnessing this benign dynamic isn’t the only redemptive feature of progressive realism. Morgenthau emphasized that sound strategy requires a “respectful understanding” of all players in the game. “The political actor,” he wrote, “must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does.” [Bullshit. One should chart a moral and world-uplifting course, and attempt to LEAD in that direction.]

This immersion in the perspective of the other is sometimes called “moral imagination,” and it is hard. Understanding why some people hate America, and why terrorists kill, is challenging not just intellectually but emotionally. [And somehow it always leads to the conclusion that we should do little or nothing.] Yet it is crucial and has been lacking in President Bush, who saves time by ascribing behavior that threatens America to the hatred of freedom or (and this is a real time saver) to evil. [Which somehow usually leads to vigorous moral action. (And, as in Kissinger's famous joke, it has the additional advantage of being true.)] As Morgenthau saw, exploring the root causes of bad behavior, far from being a sentimentalist weakness, informs the deft use of power. Realpolitik is reality-based. [No, it's a twisted fantasy. If "realists" had been in charge, much of the world would still be groaning under Communist tyranny. (And we'd still be supporting an army three times as big as now!) If "realists" had been in charge Iraqis would still be going feet-first into the shredders.]

Is progressive realism salable? The administration’s post-9/11 message may be more viscerally appealing: Rid the world of evil, and do so with bravado and intimidating strength. But this approach has gotten some negative feedback from the real world, [Negative feedback! Oh dear! We can't endure that!] and there is a growing desire for America to regain the respect President Bush has squandered. [That wasn't respect. Complicity in ignoring evil is more like it.] Maybe Americans are ready to meet reality on its own terms. [We are.]

You know what I really DESPISE about realists? (And pacifists and liberal Christians and leftists?) Whatever they do or say, it's always someone else who has to suffer for their ideas. They put on a big show of being "realistic" (or moral, or peaceful, or spiritual) but by some mysterious alchemy it's always some poor devil in another country, or another neighborhood, who has to pay the price.

Posted by John Weidner at July 16, 2006 3:47 PM
Weblog by John Weidner