Realism in the Middle East

by Henry Farrell on August 19, 2006

Flynt Leverett has an “article”: in _The American Prospect_ this month arguing that Democrats should embrace Kissinger-style realism if they want to redirect US foreign policy.

bq. Henry Kissinger established a paradigm for U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East. In this paradigm, American policy should seek always to empower moderates and marginalize radicals. The best way to do this was through careful management of the region’s balance of power, primarily through diplomatic means. The essence of such diplomacy is “carrots-and-sticks” engagement — credibly threatening negative consequences for regional actors who work against U.S. goals, but also promising strategically significant benefits in exchange for cooperation. … Regarding democratization, the administration’s three examples of U.S.-engineered democratic empowerment in the region — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon — are all basket cases. …There is no evidence that democracy reduces the incidence of terrorism, and ample evidence from places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that holding more open elections in most Arab societies would produce governments that are more anti-American and less reformist than incumbent “authoritarians.” … Democrats have fallen into a “soft neconservatism” that has dulled the party’s voice on foreign policy. Henry Kissinger once observed that the United States is the only country in which the term “realist” is used as a pejorative. The more progressive elements of the Democratic coalition have been especially strident in voicing their antipathy to Kissingerian realism. … It is time for Democrats to understand that, when it comes to curbing the threats posed by problematic states like Iran, encouraging reform in strategically important states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or ensuring Israel’s long-term future, realism has become the truly progressive position on foreign policy.

While I agree with some of Leverett’s specific recommendations about engagement with Iran etc, his underlying argument is profoundly misguided. Kissinger-style realism was and is a long term disaster – a willingness (sometimes, as with Kissinger himself, a quite grotesque eagerness), to kow-tow to brutal dictatorships when it was perceived as being in America’s short term interests. Leverett claims that realism “ laid the foundations for eventual peaceful victory in the Cold War.” This is a highly dubious claim – if, for example, Kissinger had gotten his way in sidelining the human rights part of the Helsinki process (see further John Maresca’s _To Helsinki_ on this), things would have gone very differently (and in all probability, much worse) in Central and Eastern Europe when Soviet hegemony began to crumble.

The one thing that the neo-cons were right about was that America’s foreign policy in the Middle East (seeking to shore up crumbling and corrupt autocracies) was unsustainable in the long term. Their proposed solution to this problem – the imposition of democracy through force – has turned out, predictably, to be a complete disaster. But Leverett’s preferred alternative of maintaining the status quo would have only been very slightly better; a slow motion train wreck rather than a quick one.



otto 08.19.06 at 12:02 pm

The one thing that the neo-cons were right about was that America’s foreign policy in the Middle East (seeking to shore up crumbling and corrupt autocracies) was unsustainable in the long term.

Can you please say more about what exactly is unsustainable about this and why?


abb1 08.19.06 at 12:37 pm

Yeah, that’s right. Take Egypt for example. According by Wiki: President Mubarak has been re-elected by majority votes in referenda for successive terms on four occasions: in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. So, in the US you get to choose between two nearly identical Mubaraks every 4 years and suddenly it becomes a beacon of democracy rather than a corrupt autocracy.


abb1 08.19.06 at 12:38 pm

According to Wiki, that is.


albert 08.19.06 at 12:41 pm

Can you please say more about what exactly is unsustainable about this and why?

Perhaps the simplest reason is that political opposition is relegated to the mosques, which possess a degree of social autonomy from the state. It radicalizes political opposition leading to a showdown between the authoritarian/military state, and radical Islamists.


Jim Harrison 08.19.06 at 4:27 pm

The one thing that almost everybody seems to agree upon is that democracy must be avoided in the Middle East because genuinely popular governments would be hostile to the United States and Israel. Since the policies based on this premise haven’t worked out so well, maybe it’s time we took a chance and allowed people to control their own destinies for a change even if it means that we don’t get our way in every respect.


Adam Kotsko 08.19.06 at 8:05 pm

Shorter Leverett: To succeed, Democrats should emulate an amoral war criminal.


T. Scrivener 08.19.06 at 8:35 pm

“In this PARADIGM, American policy should seek always to EMPOWER moderates and MARGINALIZE radicals.” ( capital’s added by me)

Why does he feel compelled to use these three words in the one sentence? It seems to me policy wonks in paticular need to read “Death Sentence”.


derrida derider 08.19.06 at 9:00 pm

Its obvious that any popular governemnt in the ME must be virulently anti-US and anti-Israel. That’s what 50 years of imperialist policy created.

A clever realism would have backed Ba’athists, socialist or not, as a determinedly secular popular movement that countered Islamism. But that would have meant giving up dreams of control of cheap oil.


Tom T. 08.19.06 at 10:33 pm

That’s what 50 years of imperialist policy created.

Oh, longer than that. The US was knocking around against the Barbary states in 1801.

A clever realism would have backed Ba’athists.

Weren’t we backing Ba’athists in Iraq all through the 1980s?


Jim Harrison 08.19.06 at 11:07 pm

Islamic radicalism is a mighty useful phenomenon for both liberal and conservative American imperialists, which is perhaps why our foreign policy seems so determined to promote it. Meanwhile, everybody apparently assumes that Arabs automatically froth at the mouth unless they are kept on a short leash. Seems to me that this sort of racism is worse than an instance of political incorrectness. It’s an error. Muslim fundamentalism was reaching the limits of its appeal back in the early 90s. The evidence I’ve seen from that period–most of it in Marty’s Fundamentalism Project–suggests that moderates were begining to prevail because most Muslims unsurprisingly prefer peace and prosperity to slogans and death.


mpowell 08.20.06 at 3:37 am

There seems to be a disconnect between what some liberals are describing as Kissinger style realism and the kind of policy that Kissinger would actually recommend. While I agree w/ a lot of what Leverett is saying, can we please stop calling this Kissinger style realism? Its realism, but it recognizes longer term concerns than Kissinger showed the tendency to.


abb1 08.20.06 at 4:19 am

Why is it a given that everything has to be either maintained or reformed; what happened to the good old “live and let live”, “mind your own business” and “keep your freakin fingers out of the freakin cage”?

And for those circumstances in the Middle East that do indeed need to be maintained or reformed, how is it a matter for the Democrats and Republicans of the US of A to take care and not for supranational organizations like the Arab League, United Nations or whatever?


Daragh McDowell 08.20.06 at 4:30 am

I can’t believe anyone actually takes Kissinger seriously anymore. This is the man who baldly states in ‘Diplomacy’ that the Reagan administration did more to defend democracy than any other administration in US History. Hello? Have we all forgotten the Kirkpatrick Doctrine? The man is a hypocrite and a liar, as well as a fool.


abb1 08.20.06 at 6:07 am

Come to think of it, it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation: unlimited support for Israeli wingnuts creates tremendous anti-US backlash in the Middle East (and, to a degree, everywhere), that’s obvious. To contain the enraged populations, the US has to institute and promote various degrees of oppression (neocons’ talk about democracy is, of course, pure bullshit, no one takes it seriously). The US-promoted oppression breeds more resentment that requires more oppression and so on.

Obviously, then, there’s only one rational way to break the vicious circle; the only way out is to dump Israel.


Monte Davis 08.20.06 at 9:41 am

It’s time again (hell, it’s always time) to remember Wright Mills’ characterization of crackpot realism:

a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps —which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war — and in great, round, hortatory principles.


Henry 08.20.06 at 10:22 am

otto – what albert said – plus also the more general demographic problems of millions of frustrated young people, stagnant economies etc etc.


Adam Kotsko 08.20.06 at 10:27 am

But if we don’t protect Israel, then there’s a chance that they’ll be conquered and then that sets back the apocalypse — potentially for centuries.


fred lapides 08.20.06 at 10:43 am

The fundies in the region want Islamic rule; the moderates, fascistic rule…democracy seems hardly an option. The Arab world without Israel there would be as chaotic as it now is and perhaps even more so since Israel at least presents the unifying voice of All the Troubles Besetting Arab Nations.


Steve LaBonne 08.20.06 at 10:52 am

Why is it a given that everything has to be either maintained or reformed; what happened to the good old “live and let live”, “mind your own business” and “keep your freakin fingers out of the freakin cage”?

Shame on you, that sounds like the dreaded Isolationism, and every right-thinking Murrican knows that’s a Very Bad Thing. Besides, all real Murricans drive giant SUVs, and to ask them to give that up because we can no longer commandeer a steady flow of Middle East oil would be totally Un-Murrican. You goddam socialist Eurabians should mind your own business, it’s our job to meddle in your business not the other way around.


engels 08.20.06 at 11:20 am

‘[S]eek always to empower moderates and marginalize radicals … “carrots-and-sticks” engagement’ sounds like an interesting foreign policy for eg. Britain to try with the US, as opposed to the present one of influencing Bush by doing whatever he says.

Having said that, imposing democracy by force in 2000 would probably have been the best solution.


Stuart 08.20.06 at 12:41 pm

Henry, I was waiting for the part of your post that starts with “Therefore, what needs to be done is……”

Without that, your post is just carping from the sidelines. Finding fault is always easy. It’s much more difficult to offer constructive alternatives.

Abb1, you seem to like the idea genocide against Jews, which is what will happen if Israel is thrown overboard – as surely as night follows day. Under which moral scheme do you justify this? Or do you just not care?


Jim Harrison 08.20.06 at 1:44 pm

As near as I can tell, there is zero chance that engels and others are interested in “imposing democracy” on anybody. After all, what we are trying to impose in Iraq is at best a friendly oligarchy that can be counted on to further American interests while selling off Iraq national assets on the cheap.

Like “deconstruction,” the word “democracy” has ceased to mean anthing determinate. At the very least, we should stop using it to refer to a system of government dedicated to preventing the consent of the governed.


Walt 08.20.06 at 1:48 pm

I don’t understand the “you’re not being constructive” argument. If you can establish that something is a bad idea, then that clears the ground for someone to have a good idea.


abb1 08.20.06 at 1:50 pm



roger 08.20.06 at 2:12 pm

“The one thing that the neo-cons were right about was that America’s foreign policy in the Middle East (seeking to shore up crumbling and corrupt autocracies) was unsustainable in the long term.”

Henry, I think shore up, here, understates American policy in the Middle East. It is like saying that the Soviet Union shored up the Polish communist party. Instead, I think the intent of American policy between 1945 and the fall of the Soviets was clearly to implant either nationalist autocracies of the Shah type, or to promote Islamicist based governments of the Saudi type. The goal was to stop secular socialism as well as Soviet communism. Hence, the Yemen civil war and Afghanistan, the two template conflicts for the creation of the Islamicist ideology, and the American interventions in them – the first, by encouraging the Saudis to confront Nasser, the second, by forging a three way coalition between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and independent militias. To encourage and sustain those militias, the U.S. welcomed the ideological support that came from the spread of a particular kind of Islamicist doctrine – say, in mosques in Europe, amply benefiting from Saudi charity. This succeeded so well that the militias learned that they could overthrow a superpower and, with relatively little money, maintain a dispersed network of fighters over a large area.

This isn’t unknown history in the Middle East, or even among Western policy makers — but its effects on the perception of the West in the Middle East have been astonishingly ignored. One of the most puzzling things about the democratic interventionists is their odd idea that the rest of the world is composed of populations that don’t remember what was done to them or didn’t perceive it in the first place. The American phrase, today is the first day of the rest of your life, with its blithe shuffling off of the past, shouldnt be the basis of American foreign policy. The idea that you can make history by ignoring those trajectories that have brought you to the present state of affairs would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Realism should certainly mean, among other things, realism about how a nation is perceived by other nations. The American failure to find that even remotely interesting continually leads to foreign policy disasters.


Stuart 08.20.06 at 3:25 pm

abb1, if you have paid any attention to history whatsoever, you know what has happened to Jews when Arab armies (or mobs) get hold of them. I see absolutely no reason to believe that the US abandoning Israel will result in the Arabs suddnely developing tender feelings for their Jewish neighbors.

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anciano 08.20.06 at 5:08 pm

Current US foreign policy and, specifically Middle Eastern policy, is insane. We create more enemies every week and we’re not even smart about how to most effectively use force. Democrats don’t have to march in lockstep about a magic simple answer to the Middle East or any other problem. There is no simple answer, but the realization that it’s easy to make things worse by acting like a bull in a china shop would be a first step. Democrats need a more appealing policy than Republicans against whom they run. There are four very serious big problems: The Middle Eastern war & Jihadism, which is clearly on the rise, our crazy deficit spending coupled to the Pentagon’s plans to spend trillions on fancy and irrelevant military hardware in the near future, global climate change, and our stupid petroleum dependence. No one Congressperson can do much about them, but unless a Republican says that she will vote against Bush, Frist and Hastert, insane US policies will continue, and our problems will increase.
I personally think that we should pull out of Iraq in 3 months, taking all of those who want to come with us. However, I can respect a Democrat who says, there are too many unknowns, I can’t vote for short-term withdrawal, but I will try to end US financing of Israeli pre-emptive wars. (That doesn’t mean financing Hezbollah). This would rule out supporting Hillary- pathological liar- Clinton and most current members of Congress who voted to give Bush permission to attack Iraq. I could support someone who said, “I’m sorry, I made a big mistake”.


Uncle Kvetch 08.20.06 at 6:01 pm

Far from being “crap”, the policy of the Bush administration on Iraq seems to me to be devilishly clever and very realistically motivated.

Yes indeedy. Thanks for pointing to a story that no one seems to want to talk about.


Henry 08.20.06 at 6:46 pm

bob b – I don’t want you commenting on my posts – you’ve been eager in the past to drag discussion down with ludicrous conspiracy theories. Any comments you make on my posts will be deleted as soon as I see them.


Henry 08.20.06 at 6:51 pm

I have also deleted a couple of inflammatory comments by abb1


abb1 08.20.06 at 7:08 pm

Why is equating advocacy for ending support for Israel with advocacy for genocide is not inflammatory, but responding to this accusation and asking for clarification is inflammatory? Where’s the logic?


Danny Yee 08.20.06 at 7:21 pm

I remain unconvinced that Israel is the source of all the United States’ problems in the Middle East. It’s not as if the US has a wonderful track record in Central and South America, for example.


Henry 08.20.06 at 7:25 pm

abb1 – when you start claiming that the IDF kills Arabs indiscriminately, but suggest that there’s no evidence of any Arab military force killing Jews, you’re being inflammatory. This is your last warning. Any more of this guff and you’re permanently barred from commenting on my threads. The offensive part of Stuart’s comment has been disemvowelled; however Stuart doesn’t have the track record on this blog that you have (if he starts developing it, believe me that he is for the high jump too).


albert 08.20.06 at 7:28 pm

I agree with abb1 here.

Stuart makes a huge leap and smears abb1 as being hunky-dorey with genocide.

Dump Israel full stop isn’t going to happen, and there are various levels of “dump.” How about “dump” Netanyahu and everything to his right? How about recognizing a real Palestinian state (not this bs incrementalism of current US policy)?

The stupidity of this whole debate is that the US is always going to do what it thinks is in its interests. The difference here is Arab/Muslim anger hits a lot closer to home that does Chilean, or any other example country. Democracy-promotion hasn’t changed American foreign policy being solely for US interests, it’s just the new rhetorical cover for Bush’s realism. US foreign policy seems permanently marked a short-term focus that ignores the long term implications.


albert 08.20.06 at 7:30 pm

Clarification: I agree that stuart deserved censure too, not that the IDF intentionally targets Arabs. I don’t know enough about that to say.


otto 08.20.06 at 9:24 pm


I know that it’s difficult to know where to draw the line and that it’s your decision entirely, but if you are at all open to being a little less quick on closing down both ABB1 and his (her? its?) interlocutors for anything less than direct insults of each other, I hope to encourage you in that direction…

I’d also like to encourage you to produce that European Superstate review, but that may be an even less popular suggestion.


engels 08.20.06 at 9:34 pm

Jim – I was joking, and I was talking about the US.


Henry 08.20.06 at 10:12 pm

albert, otto, I’ll grant that abb1 had some real provocation. If he’d responded in like manner to Stuart, I’d have given them both the same treatment. But his argument went in my eyes a considerable escalation, and not the kind of comment that I’m prepared to tolerate on my posts. To be quite clear, I don’t believe that abb1 is an anti-Semite. I do believe that he argues against Israel in a sloppy, hyperbolic and sometimes quite nasty way that tends to lead to a rapid degeneration in the relevant comments threads. Chris’s post of a little while back marked a new regime around here – we’re going to be a lot less tolerant of comments that cross our lines than in the past. This isn’t meant to block or stop serious, passionately argued debate – but it is intended to forestall the troll v. troll dynamic that had started to characterize comment threads on contentious issues (or, as was increasingly the case, comment threads where contentious issues could be dragged in willy-nilly).

otto – I actually hope to have that post up in the next week or so (hope these aren’t famous last words). The short version in the meantime is that I think it’s a serious and interesting book that raises good questions, but that I disagree with in lots of ways.


james 08.20.06 at 11:01 pm

There is no indication that the Arab Street will get along with the US if the country decides to leave Israel on its own. At some point it still comes down to the fact that US citizens are largly non-Muslim and that currently the existance of the US stands in the way of a Greater Caliphate.


Jim Harrison 08.21.06 at 12:22 am

Religions have no bones. Since they are all essentialy fictive, they aren’t constrained by any reality. Islam can become anything at all, just as Christianity has turned into every kind of institution imaginable. There is a notion of the Greater Caliphate in the history of the Muslims, but whether it ever amounts to anything alarming will depend upon what happens now, and not on some eternal essence of the faith. The vast majority of believing Muslims are no more (or less) alarming than a bunch of Methodists because sociologically speaking, they are a bunch of Methodists. Which is not to say you can’t enrage Methodists if you try hard enough.

I guess there are a lot of racial mystics floating around these days, including Harvard full professors who apparently take Oswald Spengler seriously and live in fear Fu Manchu. The ethnic stereotyping is absurd.


abb1 08.21.06 at 2:30 am

Sorry about being excessively polemical and sarcastic.


Bob B 08.21.06 at 3:13 am

Uncle Kvetch – Thanks for your encouraging comment at #28 but it seems that we are unable to carry on the discussion here.

Another case of pre-emption, sad to say, and despite the First Amendment.

Perhaps you could suggest an alternative venue where open debate of public issues documented in mainstream media reports (such as MSNBC and Fox News) is tolerated?


Roy Belmont 08.21.06 at 8:08 am

“…a quite grotesque eagerness…”
Well, yes.
There seem to be two environments for this discussion. One moral, the other material.
Each places the other in a marginal, if not trivial, context.
Any p.o.v. that seriously considers Kissinger’s worldview as an optional framework is materialist, not moral.
Kissinger subsumed morality, grotesquely, in service to the pragmatic. This is the diametric opposite of heroism – the sacrifice of material gain for moral accomplishment.
Democracy hangs out in the middle there, purporting to be a moral solution to governance, but used now as little more than a gloss for materialist ends – viz. Mexico ahora.
Depicting Israel as anything but central to what happens next in the Middle East is disengenuous.
The argument is a moral one – the specter of genocide – not materialist, that insists on unconditional support of Israeli military action. But it’s used to justify increasingly obvious immorality. That’s Kissinger’s mumbo-jumbo – immoral acts in service of material ends that are the ultimate morality. It’s a kind of materialist ethical system that has self-interest for its valence.
As Harrison notes, religions have no bones. Neither does the wind.


Henry 08.21.06 at 9:39 am

abb1 – apology accepted.


albert 08.21.06 at 11:53 am

re #39

No serious commenter on the middle east thinks Israel is the only thorn in US-Islamic country relations. Nor would anyone who knows the last 250 years of mideast history think that the US standing in the way of a new caliphate is a reasonable explanation either.

There is no indication that the American Street will get along with the Islamic world if the Islamic world decides to leave Israel alone. At some point it still comes down to the fact that citizens of middle eastern countries are largly non-Christian and that currently the existance of the Islamic world stands in the way of a pax americana.

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