January 01, 2006

Spring-Time for Realist Blogging?

A New Year, a new blog. Via Fletcher-bound Drezner, I see Nikolas K. Gvosdev, the editor at the excellent National Interest, has recently started up a blog, The Washington Realist. I particularly liked his description of realism in his inaugural post back in November:

Foreign policy realism has a bad name in Washington. The "realists" are the ones blamed for the carnage of the Yugoslav wars and the sorry state of the Middle East--after all, doesn't Walter Lippman's famous maxim ("Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs") caution against crusades and interventions, preventing the rapid deployment of American power to do good in the world?

We all know the drill--the realists idolize "stability" above all else, and really they must be "un-American" because they dislike freedom and democracy, preferring the company of autocrats and dictators. Every time the neo-Wilsonians want to castigate any realist concerns about policy, they trot out good old Prince Metternich as their straw man...

...This ignores the emergence of American streams of realism that do understand the importance of values and aspirations as a component in shaping foreign policy--a point even Henry Kissinger, the "uber-realist" lightning rod for both the left and the neo-conservative right in the United States--acknowledges. "Ethical Realism"--the viewpoint propounded by Hans Morgenthau and Rienhold Niebuhr--is well described by John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest....

..There is a great deal of diversity among those who call themselves realists, as I noted in a piece for the Winter/Spring 2005 issue of SAIS Review . But realists of all camps--liberal, ethical, democratic, hard, communitarian, etc--adhere to two "organizing principles": The first is a skepticism about utopian projects, no matter how noble in inspiration. The second is an appreciation for the limits as well as the uses of power; that lacking unlimited energy or resources, power must be used selectively. In keeping with this realization, a country's interests must be prioritized--with the greatest effort reserved for averting threats that first and foremost affect a country's very survival.

That's a pretty nice precis, and I've omitted some click-throughs so go the original post for more interesting content/links. With a lot of Jacobin-style absolutist exuberance (particularly primitive variants through much of the blogosphere, causing me frequently to wonder whether I should hang up my blog-gloves and retreat to calmer climes), it's nice to see people like Gvosdev entering the fray...

Posted by Gregory at January 1, 2006 01:55 AM | TrackBack (0)

Caution is no excuse for inaction, the penultimate sin of the 'realist.'

Posted by: Vercingetorix at January 1, 2006 07:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In keeping with this realization, a country's interests must be prioritized--with the greatest effort reserved for averting threats that first and foremost affect a country's very survival.

Ah yes, the glorious status quo. Keeping in mind that a country's interests can be prioritized into stasis.

Which is the beauty of criticizing pre-emptive action. If the action is too successful, then there was obviously no reason for it in the first place. And if it isn't successful enough, then the negligent cowboys didn't think things through to the end, didn't consider all the possibilities, didn't know what they were doing.

So that Bush & Co. can be skewered at both ends!

Win-win for the critics. With nary a knit eyebrow.

Ah, sweet perfection.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at January 1, 2006 09:04 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Inaction may be the penultimate sin, but the final sin is action that makes things worse. Because people with exaggerated senses of their abilities to influence events but weak imaginations convince themselves that the risks of acting are outweighed by the risks of not acting.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 1, 2006 03:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Would things be better if we reinstalled Saddam? We could do that. Your criticism of 'having made things worse' would then be remedied, back to the status quo.

Posted by: Vercingetorix at January 1, 2006 04:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Of course it wouldn't be remedied. Tens of thousands of people are dead, US credibility is in tatters, Islamist sense of grievance is heightened, erstwhile foes are emboldened -- and re-installing Saddam wouldn't do a damn thing about that. It wouldn't fix any of the things that have gone wrong. I can think of a whole lot of ways that re-installing Saddam would be even worse than what we're doing now.

Which, with our insistence on creation of a national army unmoored from allegiance to either Shia or Kurdish nationalities, may very well amount to re-instralling Saddam-lite. (Three years from now, if we have our way, the officer corps will be substantially Sunni. This will be a triumph of our national integration strategy, right up until a Sunni general stages a coup.)

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 1, 2006 05:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Saddam's inviolate regime, with the 'containing' sanctions of course, would have preserved the lives of tens of thousands and US credibility, thwarted our enemies and satiated Islamist grievances? Maybe that prophetic Sunni coup will restore to us the realist 'stability' that we've been so missing in our misadventures, yes no?

Posted by: Vercingetorix at January 1, 2006 05:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

although neo-realists like Gvosdev and yourself (greg) are a vast improvement over the "we create our own reality" types that currently determine our strategic policies, these neo-realists still bear a greater relationship to the magical realism of Borges, et al than actual realism.

The "magic" of course is the assumption that Bush can genuinely change, and perhaps even more crucially, that the rest of the world would perceive the change as not merely genuine, but permanent.

The true "realist" looks at foreign policy from a perspective of damage control -- how can the US minimize the damage of three more years of Bush leadership?

Of course an "idealistic" realist will soon conclude that attempts to contain the damage are simply inadequate -- and the real realist understands that "Regime Change" in the US is the best course of action.

Posted by: lukasiak at January 1, 2006 06:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's a question:

After eight years of Nixon, Ford and Kissinger the international environment had changed dramatically -- in Asia, in the Middle East, and with respect to America's relations with its European allies -- largely though not completely in response to American initiatives. After four years of the elder Bush and Scowcroft the international environment changed almost entirely as a result of actions outside the American government, which confined itself mostly to reacting to events. Yet Kissinger, Bush and Scowcroft are routinely spoken of as representatives of the "realist tradition" in American foreign policy.

Does this make any sense at all? Does it make sense only in the same way that Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk might be considered Achesonians? And which kind of realist is Gvosdev?

Posted by: JEB at January 1, 2006 07:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

V -- I said you can't put Humpty back together, and I'm right. Could Saddam have been dealt with in a way that was much less harmful to US interests? I think so. You apparently don't. Alright, Prof. Pangloss, I guess there's no point in talking further about that.

Surely you recognize from both a moral and a foreign policy perspective, it matters who is responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths, though. Maybe not to the corpse, but to the deceased's relatives, friends, tribe members, it's a big deal. I understand there's a school of thought that it's advantageous to be thought a bad-ass -- and so a positive that people think we're responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. I think the empirical evidence actually goes the other way on this, as we see from Chechnya, Iraq 2004/05, and many other insurgencies -- there's not so much deterrent effect from overreaction short of total annihiliation, and what little there is is outweighed by the desire to go down fighting the monster.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 1, 2006 07:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JEB, I think the world owes a great debt to GHWB who, ably advised, managed a very effective 'soft landing.' Post-communism was ugly in the Balkans, but it could have been a lot worse in a lot of other places. And the primary reason for their success is that they kept their eyes on the ball, and while they did not have grandiose illusions about their abilities to mold events, they understood that their charge was to manage consequences.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 1, 2006 07:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The world and a good portion of the United States believe American right-wing nationalists are about as sincere about spreading democracy and liberty as the Branch Dravidians and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple was sincere about spreading the Gospel of Jesus.

No one questioned the sincerity and resolve of these cult members, and their devotion to Jesus and biblical prophecy could not be denied…BUT WHO CARES, they were delusional and separated from reality!!!

Using Bush as a leader of freedom is tantamount to announcing David Koresch and Jim Jones are great passionate theologians of The Word!!!

Posted by: NeoDude at January 1, 2006 09:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

CarlyCarp, you made the assertion, not I, that Iraq was worse for our efforts; by reduction, that in another timeline Y, 2005 with Saddam Hussein would have been better in our timeline X, 2005 post OIF. I see that you have wisely changed your focus for what is scarcely possible to prove and impossible to believe. Then you made the assertions, not I, that those tens of thousands would still be alive [this under a Stalinist dictatorship, fat chance], that our presence in Iraq mattered more than our presence in Saudi Arabia [necessary to contain Iraq], that another baker’s dozen of UN resolutions [much less the dissolution of the sanctions regime under Oil-For-Food] would preserve US credibility, and that we’ve done our enemies a favor, ‘emboldened’ them. Hardly. But on the first part, the tens of thousands dead, no, you are right.

If we had not invaded Iraq, tens of thousands of people would still be alive. See, in Desert Storm we killed thirty 30,000+ Iraqi conscripts sitting in their holes. We certainly have killed another ten thousand more. But of the 30K or so killed so far in Iraq, we have killed regular Saddamite soldiers and irregular Baathists, jihadists and finally civilians. And our enemies have killed too, civilians, in run-of-the-mill crime, and Iraqi government. If we say half of the dead were civilians, a generous percentage, and half of those died by our hands, that is a pittance (~7,500 over nearly three years, ~3000/year) compared to Saddam’s reign of terror.

The low estimates for Sod’em’s tenure range from 300-400,000 dead, and up to a million. In case you were keeping score, that averages out to three times the civilians dead per annum for the Saddamites over the current, which is remarkable considering that there is, you know, a war going on and Saddam earned his spurs in ‘peace.’ And if you add sanctions in there with the usual Mukhbarat fun and joviality, taking ‘action’ is at worst par for the course, if not a remarkable improvement.

Posted by: Vercingetorix at January 1, 2006 09:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why shouldn't there be references to Big Brother? I give you the "unnamed senior administration official" quoted by Ron Suskind:

"That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Here is part of the torture scene in 1984 (O'Brien speaks):

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else see the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.

Draw your own conclusions.

Posted by: ral | January 01, 2006 at 02:51 AM

Posted by: NeoDude at January 1, 2006 10:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

V, you can make any claims you want about timelines X, Y, and Z. I'll note that Saddam's reign of death didn't kill people at a steady rate -- there were specific events, like the 1991 and 1998 campaigns against the Shia, so you can't take the overall total, divide it by the number of years, and say how many people would have been killed in some given year (like 2004) by the Iraqi dictatorship.

Whether the final result is better or worse for us remains to be seen. The Iraq status quo 2002 wasn't as bad for us as some people thought at the time, and we had other business that was, in my opinion, more pressing. The supposed impact of the Iraq project on that other business was one of the principal reasons for embarking on that project: I didn't think the claims were realistic then, and I don't think they're even remotely realistic, or acheivable, now.

Put simply, I don't think your humanitarian concerns for the fate of the Iraqi people justified invading Iraq before bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the other leaders of the undeterrable non-state entity were dead or captured. I think the invasion of Iraq was a step backwards in accomplishing this goal, and not a step forwards, and that's what I meant with my initial comment.

I guess I'm just not as sentimental as you are: you assumed that I meant that life for Iraqis was made worse, while I was thinking that our hunt for bin Laden was made worse.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 2, 2006 01:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The elder Bush and his retainers certainly thought the world owed them a great debt. I myself always believed events in Europe over the 1989-90 period demonstrated that a preference for reaction and passivity need not always lay the foundation for later misfortune. It does, however, most of the time.

Posted by: JEB at January 2, 2006 05:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There has been a general orientation against Kurds, Shia, & Jews, in the Baathist political architecture, due in large part to founder
Michel Aflaq's predeliction of fascists or more properly Vichy
political development. In Saddam's case, the first two targets
refelct the influence of Uncle Khairallah, an officer in the collaborationist militia of the Iraqi quisling; Rashid Ali Al Kailani, and
his Golden Square. the architect of the '41 coup and the subsequent farhud or pogrom, following the UK's intervention there.
The pattern began with Saddam's term of duty, as an "pain management engineer at the Palace of the End, through his stint
as Vice President. The Anfal campaign against the Kurds, along
with his reaction against the Shia in places like Duhail, in 1982;
is symptomatic of that. Baathism, is of course, a extreme version
of the authoritaritarian Arab nationalist tradition shared by Gamal Nasser, Sadat ,and in a more modified way, Mubarak. In fact, in
so far as the CIA, had any role in supporting Hussein, it was the
same clique of officials, who bet on Nasser, as a moderating
technocratic source (Critchfield, Eichelberger, & Copeland) some
of these same officials, supported the introduction of 'exiled German intelligence technicians,' like Alois Brunner, to train the
native intelligence services in Syria and Egypt. This tradition in
some way, filtered down to the training of terrorists like Ali Hassan
Salameh, the conductor of the Munich massacre, and one suspects
the propaganda departments often cited in Memri. As some are known to say" it's not a bug, it's a feature"

Posted by: narciso at January 3, 2006 01:48 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think you should become more sentimental, CharleyCarp, because in practical matters the point fares extraordinarily badly. Fundamentally, saying that Iraq has ‘distracted’ from the War on Terror, say capturing/killing Bin Laden, is a non sequitur; we lack for Bin Laden’s head not in troops, logistics, international support or ANY other factor that might be traced to short supply because of Iraq. We have to find Bin Laden/Zawahiri first which is not a function of troop numbers and then have to engage them across into Pakistan, or Iran perhaps, none of which would be alleviated, or even affected, by Iraq at all. And that’s the negative argument.

In Iraq we have trained a generation of American soldiers to fight urban warfare, the hardest environment and the terrain of the future, we have, again, discredited the aerial fantasists’ claims for bloodless war, and we have opened the country of Iraq as an intelligence asset in the war on terror with it’s reserve of Arabic speakers (Saddamite Iraq, no matter how much you overstate its secular character, was NOT an ally in the war against jihad). Our military is stronger now for the effort and our erstwhile enemies have taken notice.

By opening another front, we also reduce the pressure on Afghanistan, a land-locked country surrounded by mountains which is hard to resupply and at least as overwhelmed with guns as Iraq. Fighting in Iraq is hard, but Afghanistan could still be murder especially if all the support that goes to Iraq now from donors and state sponsors of terrorism (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Saddamite Iraq) went to Afghanistan. We have bought Afghanistan space by investing Iraq. And we have also discredited the jihad by bringing the jihad to Muslims: Jordan has turned, Lebanon has turned, Iraq has turned, among the many others, against the jihadis because the jihad has turned against them. None of that would be possible without Iraq.

The war on terror has many fronts, from Somalia to Indonesia to Afghanistan and Iraq and has many leaders, not just Bin Laden and his merry madmen. This simplistic, linear thinking that we can win one place, one time, against one foe and the war is over, that’s the stuff of fantasy no less than the shock-n-awe enthusiasts. You would do better to get it out of your system.

Posted by: Vercingetorix at January 3, 2006 01:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The first is a skepticism about utopian projects, no matter how noble in inspiration. The second is an appreciation for the limits as well as the uses of power; that lacking unlimited energy or resources, power must be used selectively"

Like much of the quote, this is rhetorical tricks, (earlier ones including the creating of neowilsonian strawmen - indeed, if the democracy promoters always point to prince metternich, isnt it true that the stability lovers always point to Wilson himself - maybe Neo-metternichian IS the proper opposite to neo-wilsonian)

They are skeptical about utopian projects -well my god, man, who isnt? Isnt that what utopia means? No where? Something thats unlikely to be implemented anytime soon? The question is what IS utopian. Is a successful democracy in Iraq utopian? Is democracy in Iran utopian? In China? In Lebanon? In Egypt? Is the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt going moderate utopian? It was not so long ago that stable capitalist democracy in Poland and Hungary was considered utopian - economic collapse, followed by right wing authoritarianism was considered by some a more likely outcome. Is the EU a utopian scheme? Is FTAA? The above rhetoric assumes away exactly was it at issue between places like Oxblog, and yourself.

And of course its possible overuse power, to have overstretch. Again, folks like Oxblog, the Weekly Standard, etc know that. Its also possible to UNDERSTRETCH, to use your power so little that it weakens you. The difference here is not just ethics - sophisticated "neowilsonians" dont say that realists are conserving american power, while they are using it (wasting it?) for ethical purposes. They ALSO say that by using it we strengthen it. Now there is a more "left" clintonian version that says its realist to assert power because we have systemic interests, and we need to act to support them - to improve the international regime. And theres a right wing version, which says that assertions of power are self strengthening, because it demonstrates will, itself a component of power. Both share the fact that power can be underused as well as overused.

But maybe you are only interested in picking another fight with the belmont clubs, and the NR commentators, and other easy targets.

Posted by: liberalhawk at January 4, 2006 02:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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