Commentary Magazine


Realists to the Rescue?

“Reality therapy,” declared Time magazine’s Michael Duffy with satisfaction. “A chance to think anew,” added Newsweek’s Jon Meacham. These and similarly warm words of welcome from organs of respectable opinion greeted the December arrival of the long-awaited report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), with its 79 prescriptions for U.S. policy in the Middle East. The sense of relief was palpable. With neoconservatism supposedly repudiated by the “fiasco” of Iraq, the backing of a wise man’s council composed equally of Republicans and Democrats, and a friendly media breeze in its sails, the ISG report was heralded not just as a fresh perspective on Iraq but as offering, at last, a new and blessedly different type of foreign policy for a country tired both of foreign adventures and of the adventurist President conducting them.

But the ISG’s moment turned out to be exceedingly short-lived. A scant two months later, does anyone, from the Bush White House to the new Democratic Congress to the mainstream American media to the world at large, seriously pay it heed? The ISG recommended against committing more U.S. troops in Iraq; instead, the administration plans to deploy tens of thousands of fresh GI’s to secure Baghdad and its environs. The ISG counseled the administration to engage Syria and especially Iran in a “New Diplomatic Offensive”; British Prime Minister Tony Blair wasted no time observing that Iran is a “deeply extreme regime, and it is hostile to our interests.” The ISG suggested embedding American troops in Iraqi military units; Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, called the idea “dangerous” and the rest of the report “an insult to the people of Iraq.” The ISG urged yet another big push for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, including the establishment of a Palestinian government of national unity; the Palestinians may be too preoccupied with killing each other to play ball. And so on.

For some, of course, the failure of the ISG to exercise an immediate and meaningful influence on the Bush administration has served as yet another demonstration of the President’s stubbornness, the narrowness of his ideas, his unwillingness to listen to what he does not want to hear, and his inability to adjust to deteriorating circumstances; in short, of his incompetence. “Shouldn’t more Americans be disturbed at this unprecedented example of a White House that’s in—and you can only call it this—a bunker mentality?” asked Joe Scarborough, the political talk-show host and former Republican Congressman.

But more remarkable than the sight of former supporters turning on the administration’s Iraq policy was the decided ambivalence with which, for their part, some of Bush’s habitual critics received the ISG’s recommendations for a different approach. “At some point,” admonished George Packer in the New Yorker, “events will remind Americans that currently discredited concepts such as humanitarian intervention and nation-building”—concepts intimately associated with the Bush Doctrine—“have a lot to do with national security.” As for the foreign-policy record of the authors of the ISG report themselves—men like former Secretary of State James Baker and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—“these are the same men,” Packer reminded his readers, “who, fifteen years ago, abandoned Afghanistan to civil war and al Qaeda, allowed Saddam to massacre his own people, and concluded that genocide in the Balkans was none of America’s business.”

How did this happen? How could a panel of Beltway worthies with reputations for pragmatism and noses for politics come up with a report that was, in so many of its key respects, a non-starter?

One answer is that any consensus document, especially a bipartisan one, is bound to be handicapped by the compromises that made it possible. Yet unlike, say, the report of the 9/11 Commission, the ISG report did not simply reflect the lowest-common-denominator agreement of an otherwise sharply divided panel. On the contrary, it was a robust expression of the instincts, tendencies, and broadly held views of the better part of the American foreign-policy establishment, as embodied in the permanent bureaucracy of the State Department and the older guard at the Council on Foreign Relations. The failure of the ISG, therefore, may legitimately be seen as a negative comment on those views themselves, which may be roughly summed up as a latter-day incarnation of the school of foreign-policy thinking known as realism. Call it Realism Lite.

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In pondering the reasons behind this turn of events, we may begin by recalling what the old realism was all about. Though it was given a sophisticated theoretical gloss in the 1940’s and 50’s by the international-relations theorist Hans Morgenthau, the best practical description of American realism would be offered decades later by Henry Kissinger, who in his memoirs of the Nixon administration has written of the effort to craft a foreign policy that would “overcome the disastrous oscillations between overcommitment and isolation.” In this reading, the error to which American foreign policy is most frequently and dangerously prone is moralism, or, to put it another way, the belief that the United States is a cause rather than a country. Realism is meant as an antidote.

It is often said by realism’s critics that it is itself nothing more than the coldhearted calculation of raison d’état, minus the moral fine print. But that is not fair. “The choice,” wrote Morgenthau in 1951, “is not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of principles divorced from political reality and another set of principles derived from political reality.” This distinction, indeed, is what separates realism from a more liberal strain of American political thought that, while recognizing America’s global responsibilities in the world, would sooner abdicate them than tarnish the sense of its own virtue. When Democrats in Congress abandoned South Vietnam in 1975, they were keeping their hands clean and their consciences clear. That millions of Vietnamese succumbed to tyranny as a result was neither moral nor conducive to promoting the American national interest.

By the same token, however, realists generally cast a beady eye on another tendency of American foreign policy, the one now known as neoconservatism, particularly when it involves the use of force. The United States, said John Quincy Adams in 1821, in what could still serve as a realist credo, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Realists argue that as a matter of domestic inclination—and the experience of Vietnam and perhaps now Iraq buttresses their case—modern American democracy tends to show more enthusiasm than patience for efforts to depose tyrants, defend allies, build nations, and promote democracy, except where the costs are relatively low (as in Kosovo in the late-1990’s) or where America’s interests are visibly and urgently at stake (as in Europe and Asia in the aftermath of World War II).

Realists likewise regard themselves as great respecters of the role of culture, especially national and religious culture, in global affairs, and of the limits that culture often imposes on even the best-intentioned efforts by outsiders at social, economic, or political engineering. Here the bitter American experience with nation-building in Somalia in 1993 serves as a lesson, as does the attempt to “restore democracy” in Haiti the following year. And partly because of this appreciation of culture, realists also pride themselves on being acutely attuned to the demands of national self-respect—both the respect the United States owes itself as a great power (the phrase “peace with honor” meant enough to the Nixon administration to continue fighting the Vietnam war for four years) and the self-respect of others. America’s crusading instincts, they hold, can needlessly and provocatively arouse foreign sensitivities in ways contrary to basic American interests.

Thus, in the 1990’s, realists argued against NATO’s expansion to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and later the Baltic states on the grounds that it was likely to provoke Russia, which would look askance at the encroachments of even a former rival on what it saw (however deludedly) as its rightful sphere of influence. It could be argued, and realists do so argue, that this is just what has happened under the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

Finally, realists believe in the balance of power as an inescapable condition of international life. Whenever any one nation enjoys a massive preponderance of power, as the United States does today, other nations will seek—whether through outright resistance, tacit alliances, obstreperous diplomacy à la française, or other Lilliputian maneuvers—to tie Gulliver down. For the United States, the great diplomatic challenge thus becomes finding a way to dissolve the resistance it may otherwise expect by using its power sparingly, prudently, and, wherever possible, with broad international consent. As Kissinger has put it, “American power is a fact of life. But the art of diplomacy is to translate power into consensus.”

At his best, then, the intelligent realist believes that while power—and not international law or morality—remains the coin of the realm in international relations, one must entertain modest expectations for what power alone can achieve. There is much to be said for the goal of simple stability. And if accused of placing too high a premium on stability, or of being too accepting of the world as it is, the realist will reply that he neither worships stability for its own sake nor fails to see the evils around him. Rather, he has learned from Thomas Hobbes that stability is generally preferable to anarchy, and from Reinhold Niebuhr that “the pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.” What the realist seeks, rather, is to defend his position in the world and improve upon what is rightfully his own, while respecting the rights of others to do the same.

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Yet if all this sounds like a promising basis for a credible foreign policy, history has judged realism less kindly. It was from quintessentially realist considerations—avoiding war with the Soviet Union, currying favor with the nascent Non-Aligned Movement—that the Eisenhower administration chose in the 1956 Suez crisis to intercede on Egypt’s behalf against Great Britain, France, and Israel. The result, as Eisenhower himself later conceded, was to cast a pall on the Atlantic alliance while emboldening Gamal Abdel Nasser to future misadventures.

It was out of similar realist considerations that the Nixon administration fiercely opposed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (linking trade privileges of Communist countries with their emigration policies) on the view that it was a threat to détente. “If [the Kremlin] made the concession [on emigration],” noted Kissinger in 1982, “there was literally no telling what would happen to the Soviet Union.” He wrote truer than he knew. By facilitating the emigration of 1.5 million Soviet Jews and transforming human rights from a humanitarian to a strategic issue, Jackson-Vanik was the start of an approach that led to considerable internal pressure in the USSR and may well have hastened its collapse.

It was also out of a sense of realism that the first Bush administration sought in the late 1980’s and early 90’s to prevent the dissolution along national or ethnic lines of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. “Americans,” George H.W. Bush warned Ukrainians in August 1991, “will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” The speech was broadly interpreted as an effort to throw a lifeline to Mikhail Gorbachev in the final months of his government—a bad bet, as it turned out. Even less comprehensible, in light of the thrust of Bush’s 1991 speech, was why his administration’s policy in the Balkans initially tilted toward Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, himself the very model of suicidal nationalism.

By contrast, what is widely regarded as Bush senior’s finest hour—his decision to confront and overturn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—was animated by considerations that at least in part could better be described as neoconservative than realist. “How many lives might have been saved,” Bush père wrote to his children (including the current President) on the eve of the first Gulf war, “if appeasement had given way to force earlier in the late 30’s or earliest 40’s? How many Jews might have been spared the gas chambers, or how many Polish patriots might be alive today? I look at today’s crisis as ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’—yes, it is that clear.”

Or perhaps not. The President, who at first blush had not been inclined to evict Saddam from Kuwait by force, and then resorted to force that in the event was hugely successful, finally allowed the conflict of “good vs. evil” to end with evil still in business—thus setting in train the events leading to the invasion of Iraq by his son twelve years later.

Today, the decision to permit Saddam to remain in power is in fact hailed among realists as a great piece of farsightedness. In their judgment, had the first Bush administration driven straight to Baghdad, the U.S. would have exceeded its legal authority, lost the support of its coalition partners, squandered the luster of its quick victory, and found itself stuck in a confusing and hostile land with no clear idea of how to get out. Indeed, the belief that Bush senior was right to act as he did, along with the notion that, in subsequent years, “containment” was working just fine with Saddam, underpins much of the realist critique of the current war in Iraq. By the eve of the second Gulf war, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Saddam “wasn’t really a threat. His army was weak, and the country hadn’t recovered from sanctions.”

But even though Saddam turned out not to have weapons of mass destruction—a development that took Scowcroft as well as everybody else by surprise—the historical record does not justify such sangfroid. Old-school realists may not be excessively troubled by Saddam’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds who rose up against him in the immediate wake of the first Gulf war. But it was Bush senior himself who had encouraged the abortive rebellion, famously calling on Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands” before abandoning them to their fates. Such betrayals have consequences. Among them is the deep ambivalence that Shiites feel today toward their American liberators, their suspicion that America might betray them again, and consequently their resort to militias like the brutish Badr brigades and Mahdi army that are now the source of so much sectarian violence.

Nor was Saddam being effectively contained. Enforcement of the “no-fly zones” cost the U.S. more than a billion dollars a year. American forces were also deployed at great cost in Saudi Arabia, where their presence further stoked Osama bin Laden’s jihadist ire. Iraq by the late 90’s was a perpetual international crisis, forcing the United States to resort to air strikes on at least four occasions. The sanctions imposed not just a human price on Iraqis—the UN estimated that 4,000 infants were dying prematurely every month on account of them—but also a growing diplomatic price on the U.S. for seeking to maintain them. “Sanctions are crumbling among U.S. allies, who have begun challenging them with dozens of unauthorized flights into [Iraq]” noted a December 2000 story in the Los Angeles Times.

And then there was the vast corruption of the Oil-for-Food program, through which Saddam was able to extract $1.8 billion in illegal surcharges, kickbacks, and bribes from over 2,000 companies; bribe everyone from a former French minister of the interior to a British member of parliament to the office of the Russian president to the UN bureaucrat in charge of the program itself; and manipulate $100 billion in cash flow for his own political purposes. If this was “containment,” it was containment in a punctured jar.

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Has realism not had its successes, then? It has. Among them are the Nixon administration’s 1971 opening to China, its decision to re-supply Israel militarily at the height of the Yom Kippur war, and its diplomacy following that war, which brought Egypt into America’s orbit and paved the way for its 1978 peace settlement with Israel. Similarly, the first Bush administration proved wise, in hindsight, to have maintained an open channel with Beijing after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, however it may be faulted for not vigorously denouncing the atrocity. The current administration is equally right to cement an alliance with India, despite the fact that the nuclear deal struck by the two sides effectively undercuts the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that the administration is trying to enforce against Iran.

But it is important to consider the factors that explain realism’s successes, so as to distinguish them from realism’s failures. Not the least of the Eisenhower administration’s blunders in the Suez crisis was its misjudgment of Nasser and his intentions. The administration, in fact, was ideologically sympathetic to the cause of Arab nationalism, pushing Britain to withdraw its remaining forces from Egypt, pressing Israel (then within its old borders) to cede territory in exchange for an imaginary peace settlement, and ultimately rescuing Nasser from what would otherwise have been a decisive military defeat. But as Michael Oren writes in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, his new history of American policy in the Middle East, “rather than express gratitude to the nation that had saved him, Nasser denounced the United States as the new imperialist power in the Middle East. . . . Within a year of the Suez crisis, Nasserist agitation was undermining pro-Western governments throughout the area.”

By contrast, the success of the Nixon administration’s approach to Egypt rested on a sound assessment of its new leader. Anwar Sadat had consolidated power by purging pro-Soviet officers from his military, and then by expelling the Soviet advisers themselves. During the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he did not object to the American airlift to Israel or use it demagogically later as an alibi to excuse his ultimate defeat in the war. “Sadat knew that we were working to thwart his military designs,” Kissinger would recall, but he

was tired of spilling blood for futile causes. He was willing to forgo posturing for attainable progress. Unlike Nasser, he saw no future in being the leader of radical Arabs who confused rhetoric with achievement.

Put simply, Nixon’s realism succeeded where Eisenhower’s failed because Nixon took into account the character of the Egyptian leader, rather than just his national interests as America perceived them.

Nixon’s realism was equally vindicated in its approach to Israel. His decision to re-supply its army in 1973 was made in the face of intense opposition from within his own administration and from most of America’s NATO allies, and at the risk of an OPEC oil embargo that indeed followed. But here the important factor was credibility. What kind of ally is the United States? How good are its guarantees? What is the risk/reward ratio in siding with it? In the Suez crisis, Eisenhower felt he could strong-arm Britain and France without consequence because he believed they had nowhere else to go. But France signed the 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, and later withdrew from NATO’s command structure, in no small part because it had lost confidence in America’s reliability as an ally. By coming to Israel’s aid in 1973, Nixon sent a different message: America’s allies could count on its support in moments of crisis and peril—a message that meant as much to a Sadat edging closer to the United States as it did to Golda Meir.

Credibility is largely a function of predictability; of delivering on promises and carrying through on threats. But it also depends on maintaining a margin of unpredictability, at least where enemies or adversaries are concerned, and realism can become its own worst rhetoric when it spells out too precisely the limits of American commitment. It was because Saddam had been told by American ambassador April Glaspie in 1990 that “we have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait,” that he decided it was safe to invade that country. Similarly, it was because then-Secretary of State James Baker reportedly said, of the conflict in the Balkans, “we have no dog in this fight,” that Milosevic could feel confident he would face no more fearsome adversary in his quest for a greater Serbia than a few UN peacekeepers. Again, Nixon furnishes the instructive counterexample: preserving the peace of the world, he famously quipped, depended on the Soviets thinking he was a little bit crazy.

Finally, realists have performed best when they have resisted the lure of their doctrine’s ingrained passivity, verging on defeatism. Because realism stresses the limits of American power, the risks of overreach, and the inescapability of unintended consequences, it tends to look askance at any large ambitions in foreign policy. “I think we’d go to war over Saudi Arabia, but I doubt we’d go to war over Kuwait,” was reportedly the initial reaction of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Scowcroft himself would recall that “there was an air of resignation about the invasion,” though to his credit he insisted that the invasion “was an intolerable threat to the interests of the U.S.” and that, if it failed to respond decisively, America would forfeit the opportunities presented to it by the implosion of the Soviet Union. Perception matters in the conduct of foreign affairs, as does prestige; to be perceived as indecisive or feckless or timid is, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “provocative.”

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Such, then, are some of the teachings, the record, and the lessons of realism in American foreign policy, all of which remain relevant today. But five relatively new factors have intruded in global affairs that challenge realism’s most basic premises.

The first is the accelerated pace of democratization. In a new book entitled Ethical Realism, Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, two severe critics of the Bush administration, rail against what they call its “democratist idealism,” an idealism that moves headlong down the democracy track while steadfastly ignoring “the social, economic, and cultural changes necessary to underpin democracy.” This, of course, echoes the old realist preoccupation with the obduracy of culture in the face of threatened change. Yet, in the past 30 years, the pace of democratization around the world has been hugely speeded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, inexpensive mass-communications technologies, economic interdependence, and rising standards of living.

These have not eliminated the barriers to democratization, but they have greatly lowered them. It took Japan 100 years to transform itself from a feudal society into a functional democracy. South Korea made the same trip in about 35 years, and Mexico did it in twelve. The more the practice of democracy has spread, the easier it has become for non-democratic societies to acquire it.

The second factor is the reach and impact of the news media. In the early 1990’s, Baker may have been right to say that, from the standpoint of vital national interests, the United States had “no dog” at stake in the struggle over the Balkans. But this position was hard to explain to Americans watching broadcasts of Serbian artillery shells raining down on Bosnian Sarajevo, and wondering why their government—with air forces in Italy and the Adriatic capable of stopping the shelling in a matter of days—was standing idly by instead of doing something. Moralism, it turns out, is not so easy to banish from foreign policy, especially in an era when the face of humanitarian disasters is constantly made vivid to the public.

The third factor is the intersection—one might say the blending—of humanitarian and strategic challenges. When the first President Bush landed soldiers in Somalia in 1992, the purpose was exclusively humanitarian in nature. The Clinton administration, which inherited the mission, made a brief stab at “nation-building” there—again with mainly humanitarian considerations in mind—but quickly withdrew its troops after the price in American lives became too great. For Osama bin Laden, that withdrawal was yet another demonstration of American weakness, weakness he would seek to probe and exploit with terrorist attacks up to and including those of September 11. As for Somalia itself, it was given over to anarchy, which then gave way to a Taliban-style, terrorist-linked government. Ethiopia’s removal of that government this past December marks a significant rollback, and a victory in the war on terror.

The fourth factor has to do with the nature of post-9/11 terrorism. Pre-9/11, terrorism did not much trouble the realist world view, which characteristically treated it as a local phenomenon—a tactical rather than a strategic threat, remediable by a combination of police action and political negotiation. But that picture was plainly inadequate to explain al Qaeda: organizationally networked, geographically diffuse, unappeasable, undeterrable, nihilistic, apocalyptic, and, among a frighteningly broad spectrum of Muslim opinion, popular. When the denizens of the proverbial Arab street actually took to the streets on September 11 to cheer the mass murder they had just witnessed on their television screens, or when Arab intellectuals took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to excuse, in one way or another, what happened on that day, they laid bare the fact that in the Muslim world the West did indeed confront a culture—a culture of terrorism—drawing on sources not just religious but political and ideological, not just state-sponsored but populist, not just extremist but mainstream, and not just focused on local grievances but global in its ambitions and with its murderous sights fixed especially on us.

Fifth and finally is the increasingly asymmetrical nature of global conflicts—an asymmetry that includes, but goes well beyond, the tactical asymmetries inherent in using conventional arms and methods to fight unconventional opponents like terrorists or states espousing millenarian doctrines. Consider the challenge of Iran. Realists assume that all states—be they Iran, the U.S., or Belgium—seek first of all to protect their national interests, meaning that despite their many differences they are in basic respects mirror images of each other. Thus, realists tend to see Tehran’s desire to acquire a nuclear weapon as fundamentally no different from, say, Israel’s: that is, a logical attempt to preserve its position in a hostile neighborhood. But what if Iran’s intentions, unlike Israel’s, are not simply defensive? What if the Iranian leadership genuinely believes that the loss of millions of its own citizens in a counterattack would be a price worth paying for the incineration of Tel Aviv? Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, today considered something of a moderate as compared with the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, raised precisely these questions in December 2001 and concluded that “it is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”

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The upshot is that the United States faces a set of urgent challenges—and, to be sure, potentially fruitful opportunities—which realism never fully anticipated and to which realists have yet to adapt. This is not to say that they cannot adapt; there are realist precepts of conduct, some of them already incorporated in the Bush Doctrine and others easily married to it, which could serve the United States well. These, however, were all but ignored by the Iraq Study Group.

The ISG was conceived as an effort to provide a “second opinion” on the course of the war in Iraq. The two chairmen of the group—Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana—chose their own slate of panelists. Other than perhaps Baker himself, not one of them had any significant background in the Middle East, and only five of the ten had any real background in foreign policy. They spent a total of four days in Iraq, all of it in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. They were advised by a team of experts, handpicked by Baker and selected, as Michael Rubin observed in the Weekly Standard, “less for expertise than for their hostility to President Bush’s war on terrorism and emphasis on democracy.”

Such being the “wise men,” their report offered few surprises. Its virtues can be briefly listed. By describing the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating,” the ISG may have played a part in helping the administration to acknowledge publicly what it had avoided acknowledging heretofore, and then to replace the key military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq who had presided over the deterioration. It also provided an imprimatur, subscribed to by the Democrats as well as by the Republicans among its members, against any immediate or precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces. And it put paid to the idea, dear to critics on both the Left and the Right, that everyone’s interests would be better served by carving up Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite states—a move, the report warned, that could “result in mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions.” As a supposedly “artificial” country, to use the dismissive term of those advocating its dismemberment, Iraq turns out to be not such a bad idea after all.

But what is mainly striking about the ISG report is the extent to which its allegedly realist prescriptions are, instead, products of fantasy. The report insists that the key to resolving Iraq’s internal problems is “national reconciliation,” which in their view can be achieved only through a political agreement among the various Iraqi factions. But any serious realist would surely realize that a workable political agreement cannot be the cause of better conditions in Iraq but rather their consequence: the better the conditions, the likelier it becomes that a lasting agreement can be reached. Today, Iraq risks a full-scale civil war not because the past three years have lacked for sincere and strenuous efforts at national reconciliation, but because Shiites have concluded they cannot rely on the U.S. or the Iraqi government for security and must take their safety into their own hands. What is needed, then, is to give Shiites the confidence they need to govern responsibly and fairly.

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That, however, is not the ISG’s way. It operates on the premise that friends are expendable while enemies are precious—another Eisenhower echo. The Iraqi government—fractured and inexperienced, subjected to an unprecedented campaign of assassination and terror, dependent for its survival on the American presence—should, in the view of the ISG, be routinely and publicly held to account for meeting various pre-set political, economic, and military targets. Failing that, the United States should begin to withdraw support. At the same time, however, in a prescription tailor-made to undo the previous one, the United States must “make active efforts to engage all parties in Iraq” (emphasis added), with the sole exception of al Qaeda. Among those parties: the Muslim Scholars Association, a front group for the insurgency, as well as Moqtada al-Sadr’s notorious Mahdi army.

The report also assumes that, because the long-term stability of Iraq would seem to be in the interests of its neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, bribing and cajoling these two nations will result in their abandoning their present fixed policy of destabilizing Iraq in favor of the more enlightened one urged by the ISG. But as Eisenhower discovered with Nasser, not every leader seeks merely to secure his national interests as Americans perceive them to be. Some see their national interests differently; some are after bigger game. For Syria, the bigger game is de-facto control of Lebanon. For Iran, it is de-facto control of Iraq, and beyond. Both countries want to see the United States bloodied in Iraq and evicted for good from the Middle East, just as it was from Southeast Asia in 1975.

At least as bad as all this is the report’s gingerly and at times beseeching attitude toward those same two countries, especially when combined with its bizarre insistence that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is the necessary prelude to peace in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. How serious can the ISG be in asking “Syria’s full cooperation with all investigations into political assassinations in Lebanon,” when it knows perfectly well that Syria itself is behind those assassinations? In what ways does it propose to enforce a “verifiable cessation of Syrian aid to Hizballah,” when Syria has been flouting that UN demand for six months? How exactly should the United States make a renewed commitment to Arab-Israeli peace when the Palestinian government is controlled by Hamas, which categorically rejects both peace and Israel? This is not realism but fecklessness, and it reminds one forcefully of why President Bush was right after 9/11 to turn away from the longstanding prescriptions of the foreign-policy establishment for treating the symptoms of a disease that would burst upon us in all its virulence on that September morning.

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The early realists understood that any theory by that name had at least to try to be rooted in the world as it was, in the perceptible evidence of things, and in a reasonable estimate of options within the bounds of circumstance. That was never going to be wholly achievable in practice, but it had much to recommend it as a disposition and an approach. At its best, it was a call to common sense; where it erred (and as we have seen it erred badly), it usually did so on the side of excessive prudence—not, in itself, a bad thing. By contrast, today’s realists begin from theory and proceed to wishes: the wish that war against Islamist terror can be waged at the same relatively leisurely pace as the cold war, and perhaps need not be waged at all; the wish that one can negotiate in good faith and clear conscience with Iran and Syria; the wish that all will be resolved with the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict; the wish that one can curry favor with terrorists, and win them to our side, if only one offers the right mix of incentives; the wish that we can hold our allies’ feet to the fire, and not lose them.

This may be what passes for the new realism today. Whether anyone truly considers it a realistic basis for policy is another question. If the fate of the ISG report is any indication, this is a question that has already been answered in the negative—and for that, at least, one can be grateful.

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