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What’s “Realism” Then?

Bret Stephens suggests that those dreaded neoconservatives are the real “realists”:

That’s why neocons have no faith in any deals or “grand bargains” the U.S. might sign with North Korea or Iran over their nuclear programs: Cheating is in the DNA of both regimes, and the record is there to prove it. Nor do neocons put much stock in the notion that there’s a “reset” button with the Kremlin. Russia is the quintessential spoiler state, seeking its advantage in America’s troubles at home and abroad. Ditto for Syria, which has perfected the art of taking credit for solving problems of its own creation.

Where neocons do put their faith is in American power, not just military or economic power but also as an instrument of moral and political suasion. Disarmament? The last dictator to relinquish his nuclear program voluntarily was Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who did so immediately following Saddam Hussein’s capture. Democratization? Contrary to current conventional wisdom, democracy is often imposed, or at least facilitated, by U.S. pressure—in the Philippines, in the Balkans and, yes, in Iraq. Human rights? Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered Malaysian opposition leader, told me last week that “the only country that can stand up” to abusive regimes is the United States. “If they know the administration is taking a soft stance [on human rights], they will go on a rampage.”

Neoconservatives generally take the view that the internal character of a regime usually predicts the nature of its foreign policy. Governments that are answerable to their own people and accountable to a rule of law tend to respect the rights of their neighbors, honor their treaty commitments, and abide by the international rules of the road. By contrast, regimes that prey on their own citizens are likely to prey on their neighbors as well. Their word is the opposite of their bond.

The question remains then what the “realists” believe. The crowd that was to put ideology off to the side has again and again substituted wishful thinking for clear-eyed analysis. We’d force a peace deal by insisting Israel do what Israel could never agree to do (enforce an absolute freeze on settlements) in the hopes the Palestinians would finally agree to do what they’ve never done (halt terrorism and recognize a Jewish state) in circumstances that suggest both parties are incapable of doing anything differently. This is “realism”?

In Honduras, the Obama team ignored the essential facts precipitating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya (the text of the Honduran constitution), the Honduran political scene (the military, middle class, Catholic Church, legislature, and Supreme Court all oppose Zelaya’s return), and the regional and international implications (boosting Hugo Chavez, who is fast becoming Ahmadinejad’s best pal). The Obama realists put their stock in a delusional follower of Chavez. Not much “realism” there either.

The list goes on. On Afghanistan the president is searching in vain for a mythical alternative to the counterinsurgency recommendation of his own general. The light-footprint model has proved unworkable, but experience does not matter much these days. Meanwhile, we yank the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense because we know Iran isn’t working on long-range missiles and because the Russians will have to cooperate with us now. The Russians didn’t actually promise anything, but realists these days operate on warm fuzzy feelings and intuition about our adversaries.

There is not a single meaningful foreign policy decision—aside from the continuation of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy—that bears any trace of realism, if we understand realism to mean a foreign policy grounded in the world as it is, not as ideologues wish it to be. Past experience, current geopolitical realities, historical precedent, and common sense are nowhere in evidence. Instead we get gauzy rhetoric and undiluted faith in talking to those who plainly don’t want to talk to us (or who would be happy to talk while doing precisely what they want to anyway). And there’s plenty of stalling. So it seems that “realism” boils down to wishful thinking and a heavy dose of procrastination.


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