Strange bedfellows

by Henry on August 18, 2005

Something that’s been bothering me for a while – the ever-smushier and less critical lovefest between leftwing opponents of the Iraq war and rightwing realist opponents of same. Steve Clemons, who has contacts in both camps, quotes an unnamed Nation person yesterday as saying that “realism has become the new liberal foreign policy ideology.” When it isn’t (quite rightly) ripping shreds out of the “liberal hawk” establishment, Ari Berman’s Nation article reads like a mash-note to an emerging dissident establishment that unites left and right against foreign policy adventurism. Now there’s a lot to be said in favour of building a short-term alliance to push back against the lunacy of recent years, and inject a little reality into foreign policy thinking. Rightwing realists have smart and interesting things to say, and are, all in all, a vast improvement on the crew of yahoos and me-too cheerleaders who gave us Operation Wishful Thinking. I’d be delighted to see the Perles, Boots and Ledeens of the DC foreign policy establishment consigned to the outer darkness. But leftwingers who rush too quickly to embrace their new friends on the right should meditate upon the malign example of Henry Kissinger, and the implications of Realpolitik for the causes and issues that they’re committed to. We should all be in favour of the reality-based crowd taking over Republican foreign policy making – it’ll mean that our arguments with them will be conducted on a saner basis. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that those arguments will magically disappear. Whatever realism is, it isn’t a good basis for a leftwing approach to foreign policy (though it may have valuable lessons to impart to such an approach).

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The Sharpener » Slouching towards realism
08.19.05 at 11:23 am

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1

Dan Kervick 08.18.05 at 7:47 pm

I won’t comment on this hear, other than to refer readers of CT to a comment I posted at Steve Clemons’s blog in response to the post you cite.

2

Doctor Slack 08.18.05 at 9:10 pm

First: AFAICS there’s very little that is “uncritical” or “smushy” about the cross-spectrum dissident movement (if it can be called thus). That movement is, to a perhaps surprising degree, heavily contentious and well aware of its diverse intellectual pedigree; I don’t know of many leftists who have been converted to Pitchfork Pat’s views of foreign policy because he happens to have had the minimal amount of sense required to foresee disaster in Iraq. Arguments have not “magically disappeared” in the course of building the new brand of dissidence; I highly doubt there is any significant amount of people who believe they will “magically disappear” in the future.

Second: Any left that’s worth its salt should embrace policies because they are realistic, pragmatic and morally sound. This should always provide some common ground with genuine foreign policy “realists” if they are living up to the pretensions of their moniker — Kissinger became a war criminal because he was not one of these — and provide cautions against policies that obviously fail the first two criteria.

Third: “Left” and “right” in North America have in general spent too many decades whacking away at straw caricatures of each other in any case. It’s worth acknowledging that being compelled to join forces in a protest movement can actually provide people an opportunity to learn from each other and develop respect for political persuasions they had previously seen largely in terms of stereotypes. We shouldn’t be over-utopian in our expectations of this process, but neither should we denigrate it — it’s a positive thing IMHO.

3

lamont cranston 08.18.05 at 9:32 pm

Heretical thought for the day–was Kissinger really that bad? do you prefer the folks who got us into Vietnam, that is, or the folks who got us out?

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/18/opinion/18rose.html

:0)

lc

4

BigMacAttack 08.18.05 at 9:57 pm

When a democratically elected government asks for assistance against a group of thugs looking to impose a tyranny upon their fellow citizens via armed conflict, how do you say no my progressive foreign policy principles prevent me from helping you?

I can see how a realist says no my realist principles prevent me from helping you.

I can see how your progressive minded foreign policy principles could have prevented you from getting stuck in that situation.

But I cannot see any way they can get you out.

Anyone have an answer?

5

neil 08.18.05 at 10:08 pm

“Rightwing realists have smart and interesting things to say… “

well they opposed intervention agianst Melosevic and the Taliban. Which adds up to straight forward don’t give a toos about the rest of the world. At least the neocons consider that it is in everyone’s interest to make sure things go well for people in countris other than the US. One may disgree with the means but at least there is some agreement on ends. Which is at least a start and more than you get with realists.

6

pain 08.18.05 at 11:36 pm

You implicitly assume that the anti-war left is cohesive on foreign policy. Just as there are liberal hawks who enabled the war, there are liberal hawks and “internationalists” who opposed the war, there are realists, isolationists and everything in between. Just read any liberal blog thread about foreign policy, there is no agreement among liberals.

This war has caused an identity crisis within both parties’ elites, Republicans have just been better at preventing division among the base. Foreign policy views don’t break down along party lines cleanly. There is simply a general sentiment that leads to the pro/anti-war divide breaking along Republican/Democrat lines, and it helps that the “war president” is a Republican.

As something of a realist, I’m OK with Democrats becoming more realist. It will temper both the isolationist and adventurist sides of the party. I don’t think Democrats would ever adopt the cold-blooded realism of Kissinger, but it would be far better if the national debate was between a “humane” realism and a cold-blooded realism than what we have now.

7

snuh 08.18.05 at 11:41 pm

the idea that henry kissinger’s great error was his foreign policy realism is too hilarious. i mean, sure, you can invoke realism to explain some things he did, like normalising relations with china and abandoning the kurds. but it’s drawing a rather long bow to pretend a realist would act as kissinger did in indochina, by expanding an already lost war into 2 previously neutral neighbouring countries.

8

bad Jim 08.19.05 at 2:19 am

There is, after all, a reason Le Duc Tho refused to accept his half of the Nobel prize for ending the Vietnam war, namely that Kissinger had not expedited its end, but rather prolonged it.

9

abb1 08.19.05 at 2:30 am

Crap, almost wrote already that I agree with BigMac, but then noticed that (s)he is saying something entirely different. For a moment there I thought (s)he meant the Bushies by ‘a group of thugs’. Silly me.

Anyway, when the boat is sinking (or rather when the inmates’re running the asylum), you have to forget ideological squabbles; there is a higher prority: survival.

This war is not a right vs. left issue, it’s the sane vs. deranged.

“realism has become the new liberal foreign policy ideology.”

Yes, but not Kissinger’s “realism”, just ‘realism’ from the dictionary, realism as ‘sanity’, as ‘good judgment’.

10

Kevin Donoghue 08.19.05 at 2:56 am

Realism is a very loose term, applied to Machiavelli, George F. Kennan and a host of people in between. Most of the saner people who are likely to get a chance to run American foreign policy are going to fit somewhere in that spectrum. Kissinger fits in there too, but he isn’t typical. Once you exclude him it seems to me that realists are a lot less scary than the liberal imperialists and neocons who are the main alternatives.

Sure, it would be nice to have leaders who would intervene in places like Rwanda and Darfur for genuine humanitarian reasons but such people don’t get the call.

11

Brendan 08.19.05 at 6:03 am

I think there is a difference in use between the words ‘realism’ (in the common or garden sense, i.e. someone who lives in the real world) and a ‘realist’ in the highly specialised use of that word pioneered by Kissinger (i.e. someone who thinks that politics is simply about power, should only be concerned with maximising self-interest and so on). I am a great believer in the first and an enemy of the second but mainly for the reason that Kissingerean realpolitik was a realism that wasn’t even real. As Christopher Hitchens (when he was sane and sober) once pointed out, even on his own terms, what, precisely, were Kissinger’s achievments? How was the United States safer or better off after he had finished his meddling?

The main problem with Iraq is that you can attack the war on so many grounds (Marxist, libertarian, ‘realist’, anti-imperialist etc.) and all these attacks have at least an element of truth.

The reason, I think, that some on the left are allying themselves with libertarians and conservatives is to make a simple point, which is nonetheless well worth making, and it’s this. Invariably, those who support the war argue that those who are against the war are of the ‘left’. This is an extremely useful rhetorical device.

But it’s false. In fact, people from all sides of the political spectrum oppose the war. Why does this matter? Because if you get people to believe that only the ‘left’ or even the ‘extreme left’ oppose the war, then you can get people to think that this is in some way a minority opinion, held only by loonies and extremists.

In fact the opposite is the case. In reality, the majority of the ‘body politik’, regardless of political stance, opposed the war. It was only a tiny minority of unrepresentative (and in many cases, unelected) ‘extremists’ (called, let’s never forget, by George Bush Senior, the ‘crazies’)who pushed for this war. It has never had majority support in Britain, Europe, or the rest of the world, and it only ever had majority support in the United States for a short period of time, for reasons mainly to do with 9/11. This will become increasingly clear in the years to come.

If you are an unreconstructed Leninist like Christopher Hitchens, who believes in rule by elites this doesn’t matter. On the contrary, he argues that in any given situation you have to identify the ‘vanguard’ grouping who are ‘progressive’ and then back them through thick and thin (this is unimpeachable from a Leninist point of view). Everyone else can be then smeared as a ‘reactionary’. In Hitchens case, this leads you to argue that the CIA, George Bush Senior, RESPECT, MoveOn, George Galloway, the majority of European public opinion and so on are all on essentially the same side, and that they can all be ignored because they are ‘reactionaries’ (and possibly ‘paper tigers’). Only the ‘neoconservatives’ and the ‘decent left’ (i.e. Tony Blair) are ‘progressive’ (and, therefore, ‘right’) in this sense.

The sailors of Kronstadt might beg to differ.

12

David Weman 08.19.05 at 6:22 am

“Second: Any left that’s worth its salt should embrace policies because they are realistic, pragmatic and morally sound. This should always provide some common ground with genuine foreign policy “realists” if they are living up to the pretensions of their moniker”

No, it shouldn’t.

13

nik 08.19.05 at 7:04 am

“When a democratically elected government asks for assistance against a group of thugs looking to impose a tyranny upon their fellow citizens via armed conflict, how do you say no my progressive foreign policy principles prevent me from helping you?”

I think you could make a justification for this. The elected government of Iraq are not nice people, and some very nasty things are being done in Iraq because of it and in its name. It’s also proposing doing further nasty things in the future. People in the US/UK would strongly disagree with the views of the political parties that were successful in the Iraqi elections.

But our support for the people currently running Iraq is – for example – allowing the south to become a quasi-Islamic republic. This is achievable largely because of the existance of our Iraq policy which provides them with a great deal of assistance. This makes us complicit in what the people running the place are doing. Because of this I would suggest that our progressive principles should stop us from helping them.

I don’t think this is an argument most of you will buy. Almost everyone who posts on this blog is a utilitarian; and if maximising happiness means helping people do stuff that’s wrong, so long as there’s a payoff elsewhere. They see no problem in this. I think there’s a case for absenting ourselves from things which are morally wrong. I think a bad situation that I am partly responsible for is worse that a terrible situation that I have nothing to do with, as the former relects upon me whereas the later doesn’t.

14

Dave D 08.19.05 at 8:13 am

“I think a bad situation that I am partly responsible for is worse that a terrible situation that I have nothing to do with, as the former relects upon me whereas the later doesn’t.”

I think you’ve captured something of the spirit of the times there, its “me”-centredness, in that this brand of extreme egoism had broad appeal, uniting the “realists” of the left and right, as well as large swathes of public opinion in Europe and America, as noted in Brendan’s post above. Isolationist and inward-looking policies flow quite naturally from it.

I don’t think the same can be said for the Trotskyists—or the youthful ones at least, who I think share more with the Islamists in terms of social psychology: the desire, in a bewildering and fast-changing world, to dissolve themselves in an absolute ideal.

Plus: the Kronstadt sailors were fighting for soviet democracy, and against Bolshevik tyranny. They weren’t shying away from confronting a dictatorship, lest they be morally contaminated.

15

Uncle Kvetch 08.19.05 at 8:17 am

In a guest post at Body & Soul, Donald Johnson does a very compelling job (IMHO) of shredding the whole “realist-idealist” binary in foreign policy. I always felt those labels obscured more than they illuminated, but DJ connects the dots better than I could hope to do.

16

Grand Moff Texan 08.19.05 at 9:03 am

Seeing as how the right has abandoned conservatism, I don’t see why we can’t make common cause on certain issues, especially one as important as this, and where ability and results are so clearly lacking from the administration.

This isn’t left -vs- right. It’s simply the realists and pragmatists on each supposed “side” stating the obvious.

I know I don’t agree with Pat Buchanan on most things, but we can both “tell shit from shinola,” to resurrect an ancient phrase.
.

17

BigMacAttack 08.19.05 at 10:19 am

Nik,

A somewhat plausible argument. And the only one so far.

Every movement will have it’s share of nice and not nice people. What is the litmus test? 50.0001% nice? 99.9999% nice? 2/3s nice? What about the Kurds? Etc. We end up with isolationism as the principle.

I think the key is a wide spread commitment to some core set of human rights and respect for a constitutional democracy as an institution shown by Sistani.

True he would create a society and a set of laws that we would find highly disagreeable but the respect for core human rights and democratic rule of law is what is critical? Not only are these things extremely valuable on their own, they will allow for a broad based furtherance of other progressive values.

Without some progressive principle the field has been conceded to the realists. That’s it the parameters of the debate have been set. In the future any appeals to inviolate(or naything approaching inviolate) progressive principles will ring hollow.

18

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.19.05 at 10:42 am

“I think a bad situation that I am partly responsible for is worse that a terrible situation that I have nothing to do with, as the former relects upon me whereas the later doesn’t.”

Right, better one million thrown into the desert in the Sudan where it can’t remotely be blamed on the US than than ten thousand killed by anti-US insurgents where it can.

19

Doctor Slack 08.19.05 at 11:20 am

David: No, it shouldn’t.

Ummm, okay. Care to elaborate?

BigMac: When a democratically elected government asks for assistance against a group of thugs looking to impose a tyranny upon their fellow citizens via armed conflict, how do you say no my progressive foreign policy principles prevent me from helping you?

When various groups of thugs look to use your “assistance” as a means of carving out fiefdoms under the cover of “democratic elections” held in a warzone with mostly anonymous candidates, how do you say yes my progressive foreign policies require me to help you? Or, for that matter, yes my “realist” foreign policy principles dictate that helping you is in my interest?

True he would create a society and a set of laws that we would find highly disagreeable but the respect for core human rights and democratic rule of law is what is critical?

And you are confident Sistani represents this… why exactly? And suppose the Sunnis and the Kurds reject living under the society and set of laws that he represents – how do you say no my progressive foreign policy principles require you to accede to this without taking up arms?

Sounds like a Catch-22 situation, right? That’s because it is. This is why a cross-spectrum antiwar movement came to exist in the first place.

Sebastian: Right, better one million thrown into the desert in the Sudan where it can’t remotely be blamed on the US than than ten thousand killed by anti-US insurgents where it can.

Hmmm, can you think of any reason there weren’t any US troops available to show leadership in a genuinely humanitarian cause in Sudan, forcing a resort to poorly-equipped African troops instead? It seems to me there were a bunch of them tied down in a self-made quagmire somewhere nearby…

20

Rodger 08.19.05 at 11:38 am

My thinking on this question is perhaps overly influenced by Walter Russell Mead’s work right now, but I see this as a truly unique political moment. The Bush administration has fashioned an unholy alliance between Wilsonian moral crusaders and Jacksonian populist hawks.

That creates a unique opposition among the ranks of Jeffersonian libertarians and Hamiltonian realists. Oh, and also some residual “continental realists” who Mead dismisses as Europeans.

Mead documents how these various factions have formed and broken coalitions in the past. Thus, don’t be surprised if Bush can’t hold either the Wilsonians or the Jacksonians. Ordinarily, you lose the Jacksonians if the mission looks too much like charity work, or if elites don’t approve enough fighting power to satiate the “win at all costs” crowd. Likewise, Bush could lose the Wilsonians if the multilateralists prevail within that school.

Of course, the opposition will eventually divide as well because the Jeffersonians are used to aligning with the Wilsonians and fundamentally distrust the elitist Hamiltonians.

The current marriages of convenience will not last, so there’s not much to worry about within the left (which was similarly divided over Kosovo — peacenik Jeffersonians versus Wilsonian humanitarians).

21

BigMacAttack 08.19.05 at 11:53 am

Doctor Slack,

That is one way around the dilemma. Heck the Chomskyites like to call the US a putative democracy. And it quite clearly works as a solution for a number of folks.

But I don’t think that would work for Henry and a number of other people. Probably not for a majority on the left. Pretending that every third world ally of the US is by definition non-Democratic is probably an unconvincing way out of the dilemma.

And claiming Iraq is not a democracy is going to start sounding as hollow as claims that the US was intent on stealing Iraq’s oil.

So for the majority the problem will remain.

Sebastian,

Doctor Slack beat me to it. That was naive.

22

Doctor Slack 08.19.05 at 12:22 pm

Pretending that every third world ally of the US is by definition non-Democratic is probably an unconvincing way out of the dilemma.

I don’t see why we have to “pretend every third world ally of the US” is either democratic or non. It does, however, help not to kid ourselves about how “allies” propped up solely by external force of arms are perceived, and why, and the degree to which it’s possible to legitimate such “allies” through elections. Yes, yes, yes, Iraq Is Not Vietnam, but the questions related to it once again have a way of bringing that bad old war to mind…

And claiming Iraq is not a democracy is going to start sounding as hollow as claims that the US was intent on stealing Iraq’s oil.

I think your characterization of both terms in this argument is backwards.

23

abb1 08.19.05 at 12:31 pm

If claiming that Sistani’s Iraq is not a democracy sounds hollow, then why not claim that Saddam’s Iraq was a democracy? They did have elections, you know.

And if the word ‘democracy’ means whatever you want it to mean, then, obviously, you live not in a ‘putative democracy’ but rather in some Orwell’s Oceania.

24

MQ 08.19.05 at 5:19 pm

Kissinger was NOT a realist.

The most important thing to do in foreign policy right now is challenge policies that call for us to engage in unilateral U.S. military action all over the world. That’s for good realist and moral reasons both. It’s fine if that prevents e.g. a Bosnian war along with an Iraq war, in the long run the consequences of a new American reluctance to engage in military adventuring will be good for both America and the world. So this liberal is very happy indeed to make common cause with foreign policy realists.

25

soru 08.19.05 at 6:10 pm

It’s fine if that prevents e.g. a Bosnian war

Is your definition of ‘prevent’ ‘avoid involvement in?’

I’d be interested in the definition of ‘moral’ you are using too, if you can explain it.

soru

26

abb1 08.20.05 at 3:42 am

I agree with Mq.

Is your definition of ‘prevent’ ‘avoid involvement in?’

Yes, to avoid military involvement. There are other forms of involvement, other than killing people. Even if you have the best intentions (which is never the case), vigilanteism is illegal, immoral and on the great scale of things counter-productive.

27

Seth Edenbaum 08.20.05 at 6:02 pm

It’s depressing isn’t it?
Henry, you’ve sent me to my archives. I did a search and found this:
September 19 2002.

28

MQ 08.20.05 at 6:35 pm

Moral = consequentialist thinking, on net and overall the world would be better off if the U.S. was less militarist and less unilateral. This is regardless of our good intentions and regardless of the occasional intervention that works out.

prevent = By the Bosnian war I was referring to the U.S. bombing of Serbia over Kosovo, not the Serbian invasion of Bosnia earlier.

I think there could be a place for humanitarian intervention, but one would have to build multilateral institutions or beef up the U.N. to handle it, in the hands of an individual nation it just becomes an excuse for a different sort of agenda.

There’s always a place for genuine self defense as well, but there’s no evidence that multlateral institutions are going to prevent us from doing that. E.g. we easily and quickly got approval for the Afghanistan war.

29

soru 08.22.05 at 11:05 am

prevent = By the Bosnian war I was referring to the U.S. bombing of Serbia over Kosovo, not the Serbian invasion of Bosnia earlier.

Well, the two wars provide a nice test of your theory, as in one there was direct US military involvement, and in the other, the kind of diplomatic, economic and political pressure you presumably would prefer.

Do you think your theory passes that test?

soru

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