16 September 2006

Leave Realism to the Realists

Excellent column by George Jonas in today's National Post explaining America's foreign policy motivations. It echoes something I've extensively argued and written about, discussing why the US went into Iraq in 1990 and 2003. An excerpt:
Nations can pursue two types of policies. One is customarily identified as realpolitik, the cold, calculating, Machiavellian pursuit of what is perceived to be in the national interest. I’ll use the term moralpolitik for a committed pursuit of what a nation perceives to be right, and argue that in the past 16 years America’s policies in the Persian Gulf have been motivated by moralpolitik. The tenets of realpolitik would have called for the U.S. to twiddle its mighty thumbs when Saddam invaded Kuwait and started menacing Saudi

Jonas focuses a good deal on Bush Senior's decision-making in 1990, but he does make the error of ignoring Bush 41's own realism (Bush's admission of a shortcoming in "the vision thing" department highlights this). He had calculated that Saddam would have used Kuwait's oil as a tool of extortion against the West, raising the price drastically to put on the squeeze. So there was indeed some calculation of the national interest involved.

However, as is typical of "the nation with a soul of a church," realism only went so far in America's Iraq policy. Ultimately, when George W. Bush threw down the gauntlet at Saddam, he was doing so on the grounds of democracy promotion and changing America's Middle East policy to support the region's democrats and end the support for those who contribute to the region's worst pathologies. In the end, then, Jonas's awkward "moralpolitik" label for American foreign policy is simply a euphemism for democratic globalism, often erroneously called neoconservatism by those who subscribe to caricatures of international relations instead of actual international relations.


wolfvillewatch said...

There is one main reason why the US went into Iraq (in our view). That is - to focus the fight overseas, to provide a magnet other than America for attacks, to put US fighting men in harms way not US civilians. It has done this. Unfortunately it is Iraqis who are paying the price. But Iraqis must work for Iraqis and instead they are working against their own long term interests and in the interests of special interest groups, including of necessity the US. That, from the US point of view, is their problem.

C. LaRoche said...


IMHO the current brand of neo-conservatism is part-realism, part-international liberalism. There were strategic interests in going into Iraq, and there were liberal ones, too. Who knows which set was the real catalyst -- although it is obvious the strategic reasons have taken a large rhetorical backseat to the liberal ones as of late, since the public strategic reasons were WMD and terrorism, neither of which panned (this is to say nothing of the other strategic elephant in the room, oil).

The blend isn't what defines neo-conservatism, in my view. Since "neo-conservatism" is mostly a media title, not an IR one, I'd argue that the media is framing it as a strain of thought that is taken up with Cold War, black-and-white ideologies (hence "neo" "conservatism"): Us versus them, the U.S. against the evil Other. This was not the case in Clinton's administration, where the Other was not as easily definable. Clinton, as you know, combined realism and liberalism just the same.

Unfortunately for the neo-con cause, the Other seems to be a method of warfare (terrorism) rather than anything in and of itself (communism; fascist Germany; Napoleon; you name it). This lets the "simplicity" element of a conservative, us vs. them foreign policy elude the Bush admin. Who are we really fighting? Terrorism? Fanatical Islam? Fanatical Islamist Terrorists? Saddam's regime was none of those. It was a secular dictatorship. So is North Korea. We're fighting those too.... but on what underlying principle?

They all use "terror"?

Seems like the whole Bush neo-con argument is mostly inconsistent rhetoric. I'm siding with Fukuyama on this one.

RGM said...

I heartily agree with you when it comes to your appraisal of what neoconservatism is. The level of hysteria I regularly encounter from people when it comes to Bush or any perceived "neo-cons" is largely based on media caricatures. The main focus of the neocons is not merely to be the dominant roleplayers of the Republican Party, but rather to make the playing field entirely theirs and have both parties contending within the parameters of democratic globalism/realism, neoconservatism, Wilsonian realism, whatever you may want to call it.

The big gatherings of the AEI are routinely separated into the groups that are more "realist" and those that are more "liberal" in their inclinations, which further highlights your point. And I have little difficulty with that, given that there are aspects of both the traditional IR theories which I like and aspects of both that I don't like.

Quite often I find myself agreeing wtih Fukuyama as well, with the notable exception of Iraq. He's got a lot more ammo in his belt now, too, given the problems the US has encountered with its Iraq social engineering project. Also, The Other just doesn't have the capabilities of the Soviet Union, so it simply cannot be the existential threat of the USSR; if it were, it would be entire American cities being wiped out.

I think that this is where preemption comes into play for the American Sparta (yes, not a perfect analogy, since America is a republic and Sparta was not). Combine the Wilsonian sense of threat--"might it come to threaten us?"--and the realist aspects of the Bush Doctrine--the US is and seeks to remain an unchallenged power--and any potential Athens (again, the weakness of the analogy is that the threats today are all non-democratic) seeking WMDs or sponsoring terror finds itself in the crosshairs.

One of the things about rhetoric is that it doesn't have to be consistent, as few folks can determine one type of hot air from another.

C. LaRoche said...
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C. LaRoche said...

"I think that this is where preemption comes into play for the American Sparta (yes, not a perfect analogy, since America is a republic and Sparta was not). Combine the Wilsonian sense of threat--"might it come to threaten us?"--and the realist aspects of the Bush Doctrine--the US is and seeks to remain an unchallenged power--and any potential Athens (again, the weakness of the analogy is that the threats today are all non-democratic) seeking WMDs or sponsoring terror finds itself in the crosshairs."

Well, I think you point out the problems in the preemption thesis very well here. America is no Sparta. It less warlike than Athens. Don't be fooled by the big military or international strategic interests. Public opinion in the U.S. is quite clear: it weighs domestic issues as being more important than foreign ones by a vast and unavoidable margin.

Preemption -- even a war on terror -- costs a lot of capital: political, rhetorical, moral, financial, and real. The War in Iraq has cost a lot of American lives. Its real cost in dollars is astronomical. The war is doable -- but in comparison to what are more important issues (social security???), the spending is a bit absurd. A social security collapse would be a lot worse for Americans than 9/11, or even a number of 9/11s. Instead of killing a few thousand civilians, domestic financial collapse would make the lives of tens of millions infinitely more difficult (and, of course, the absense of a social security net could lead to thousands of deaths, all of them senior, mind you).

Homeland security, and 9/11, are tied to domestic concerns. But the way in which the Bush administration had tied those concerns to its broader foreign policy resemnbles a poorly tied knot: the original tie failed, and now the administration is attempting to salvage it by simply wrapping more and more rope around the core in hopes something will catch. They are painting things in terms of Others. 9/11 involved a clear Other. Homeland security does not. Iraq was originally pitched at a clear Other; the current problems in Iraq are not.

(And, unfortunately for the Neo-Con rhetorical strategy, Social Security isn't an Other. It's a "we're doing a bad job, ourselves, with few others to blame.")

On to other costs:
-Political capital (let's wait for the midterms to put in a verdict on the Repubs as a whole; this administration is certainly more unpopular than ever before, though)
-Moral capital (the administration seems to be losing a lot ground on things like the CIA camps, Guantanamo... the entire "moral" justification for preemption as doing more good than bad is still unknown)
-Rhetorical capital (focus on Iraq means Bush cannot get word out on other things he is doing well, like increasing ODA to Africa)
-International capital (this doesn't need much explanation, although most people tend to focus on France and Freedom Fries instead of how preemption & the war on terror has throughouly fucked nonproliferation efforts in North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and potentially elsewhere)
-I'm sure there are others.

So what's the problem?

America isn't Sparta; its citizens are not Spartans. They tend to care more about domestic issues than foreign ones, and will shift their approach if it seems like domestic issues are getting the short end of the stick at the expense of foreign ones. The U.S., because it cannot go about waging war and spreading democracy in total war, absolute commitment fashion, cannot pursue any consistent foreign policy of preemption unless the costs are low. The cost of Afghanistan has been tolerable; Iraq much, much less so. The new knot is not one that ties domestic concern directly to Iraq, as the U.S. had hoped. Instead, it ties domestic concern to a great "anti-Tyranny" liberalism. Americans would buy this if the price wasn't so high. They did under Clinton, when the price was low and didn't involve flip-the-coin military interventions.

But imagine if the U.S. were to continue on with invasions of Iran, North Korea (!), Saudi Arabia (!), the UAE, Pakistan (!), Nepal, some of the Stans, Burma/Myanmar, and every other non-democracy on earth. Might as well event throw in Cuba and Venezuela. "Preemption" as a liberal principle simply can't work. Hence the realist selection of Iraq over the others; hence the realist selection of Iran over the others at present (a true realist would ignore or simply contain North Korea, not invade it). I'd still say this administration is predominantly realist, but they've let a lot of liberalism seep into the public aspect of Bush & Co's foreign policy and make them look hypocritical. I mean, we don't even know if Iraq will "turn out". More and more, signs point to "no." This may be something intrinsic to Iraq (in which case Bush & Co. picked the wrong country), or a problem with the preemption doctrine (in which case the cost, not the country, foils the doctrine), or (as I see it), both.

Southwick said...

I got directed here from LaRoche's site. But I must direct your attention to the dangling modifier underneath the title of your blog. (your blog isn't a recent Dalhousie grad student... or is it?)