Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

Gary Rosen and I agree that the United States should pursue its national interests [“Bush and the Realists,” September 2005]. We disagree on the best way to pursue these interests, however, and our differences nicely reflect the competing foreign-policy prescriptions of realism and neoconservatism. Let me comment briefly on why his views are mistaken.

First, Mr. Rosen dismisses my discussion of America’s declining international popularity by suggesting that “it is difficult to see why [public-opinion polls] would figure in the reckonings of a hard-edged realist.” It is not difficult at all: realists worry about public opposition because it makes it harder for foreign governments to back us. Mr. Rosen admits that “the support of other countries can help us to shape the international climate to our own goals.” Anti-Americanism encourages leaders who might otherwise support us to tread warily, and has led some—such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder—to oppose us openly. Rising anti-Americanism also increases the population of genuine extremists who use violent means (e.g., terrorism) against us. Realism says one should isolate one’s enemies while maximizing allied support, and a foreign policy that is doing the exact opposite is hardly in the U.S. national interest.

Second, Mr. Rosen believes I am too critical of U.S. support for Israel. In particular, he claims the two countries are united not by the efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) but by the “sense of shared trauma and threat” from the “vicious onslaught of Muslim ‘martyrs.’” Here Mr. Rosen has the causality backward. We do not support Israel because we face a common threat from terrorism; we have a terrorism problem today in good part because we have been backing and bankrolling Israeli expansionism for several decades. Furthermore, if our two countries are such natural allies, why do AIPAC and its allies work so hard to intimidate U.S. politicians and silence potential critics? Remember what former minority leader Rich-ard Gephardt (D-MO) told AIPAC’s annual meeting: “without your constant support . . . and all your fighting on a daily basis to strengthen [the U.S.-Israel] relationship, it would not be.”

Third, Mr. Rosen believes that my proposed strategy of “offshore balancing” would be a “strategy of retreat” whose cost to our credibility would be “incalculably high.” This accusation is an old scare tactic, but hardly a convincing one. Hardliners routinely warn that any adjustment in America’s global presence would have catastrophic effects on our credibility, but there is scant historical support for this claim. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not cause any important dominos to fall; instead, it allowed us to rebuild our conventional forces and tacitly ally with China against the Soviet Union. Today, of course, Vietnam is a friendly country that is embracing Western-style market reforms.

Mr. Rosen is clearly uncomfortable with realism as a guide to U.S. strategy, and he approvingly quotes President Bush’s rejection of realism in a 2002 speech at the Air Force Academy. But realism’s track record as a guide to foreign policy looks far better than Bush’s dismal achievements in this arena.

In the early cold war, realists like George Kennan helped invent the strategy of containment, while correctly warning against trying to control the developing world by force. In the 1960’s, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz—the two preeminent academic realists—were early opponents of the Vietnam war, on purely strategic grounds. In the 1980’s, Waltz and fellow realists John Mearsheimer and Barry Posen published careful analyses showing that the Soviet Union was not the military titan that right-wing ideologues depicted. As Waltz noted in 1979, the real question was whether the Soviet Union could keep up, and the Soviet Union’s rapid demise demonstrated that Waltz and other realists were correct. In the early 1990’s, Posen and Mearsheimer also recognized that Iraq was a third-rate power and were among the few analysts to forecast correctly the stunning U.S. victory in the 1990-91 Gulf war.

Finally, realists were in the vanguard of the opposition to war with Iraq in 2003. While publications like Commentary were beating the drum for war and assuring Americans that the occupation would be easy and cheap, realists like Mearsheimer and myself were warning that preventive war was unnecessary and the consequences would be dire. Today, with thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed and wounded, a price tag that will eventually exceed $1 trillion (!), and no end in sight, which group seems to have the clearest vision of our national interest? For all its limitations, realism remains a more valuable guide to U.S. foreign policy than the idealistic fantasies offered by its primary intellectual opponents.

Stephen Walt

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts


To the Editor:

Gary Rosen states that foreign-policy realists, once a dominant ideological faction in both major parties, now have no home in either. He welcomes this, and delights in the fact that George W. Bush has ignored the realists while fulfilling the long-nurtured neoconservative dream of invading Iraq. He further avers that realists now have as “natural allies” the “nativist minions of Patrick J. Buchanan and the libertarian ideologues of the Cato Institute.”

As one of the founders of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and co-founder and editor of a magazine that does indeed publish realists and libertarians along with Buchanan (and, to cap it off, as one who believes that America would benefit from a lower rate of immigration), I suppose I qualify as one of those “nativist minions” who has helped bring this alliance into being.

Who could have foreseen this odd coalition? During the 1980’s, when I wrote for Commentary and considered myself a neoconservative, such a possibility was too remote to imagine. But it was not easy to predict what neoconservative intellectuals would do in the wake of a miraculously peaceful victory over Communism. Though prudently hawkish during the cold war, they began hatching schemes for American global domination (see the 1992 strategy memorandum written by Paul Wolfowitz while serving Dick Cheney at the Pentagon) and in the wake of 9/11 pushed for an invasion of a thuggish secular regime that had absolutely nothing to do with the terror attack. It was as if in response to Pearl Harbor a powerful faction had pushed for the American military to “liberate” Stalin’s Russia—and worse, had persuaded the President to follow such daft advice.

The disastrous results flowing from President Bush’s adoption of neoconservative prescriptions has greatly expanded the number of those who once felt close to the neoconservatives and have since come to believe the group woefully misguided. Realists are first among these, and have shifted ground the most. (Libertarians and Old Right types were always skeptical.) But the plain fact is that neoconservatism as an intellectual force is no longer respected by smart people outside the camp. Its propaganda resources are still feared—neoconservatives can apparently still raise enough money to publish their magazines and newspapers and to employ a small army of Washington agitators—but the group is now increasingly seen as bearing much responsibility for a dark and perhaps tragic turn in American history.

It will take time for these intellectual shifts to have any impact on American political realities, and there is no guarantee that they will. But as someone who did learn during his neoconservative days that percolations among intellectuals can have momentous long-term consequences, I pray that these new conversations and coalitions that have grown up in reaction to neoconservatism will come to something. For if the neoconservatives are as dominant in coming administrations as they have been in this one, America’s future will be war-torn and bleak.

Scott McConnell

The American Conservative

Arlington, Virginia


To the Editor:

Considering the catalog of gallingly naive prognostications made by neoconservatives about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it is remarkable that anyone from that camp would go on the offensive against foreign-policy realists, whose predictions have been much closer to the mark. Nonetheless, we are pleased that Gary Rosen has decided to confront our ideas.

It has become a cliché to refer to the Manichaean nature of neoconservatism, but it features so prominently in Mr. Rosen’s analysis that it bears highlighting. He explains that Islamic terrorism, whether in “Sharm al-Sheikh, Baghdad, Jakarta, Istanbul, [or] elsewhere,” amounts simply to a “nihilistic threat to any kind of civilized order.” For Mr. Rosen, such attacks are “far from being a ‘strategy’ for reversing hated policies.” Unfortunately, he presents no evidence to support this claim, clinging to the conventional wisdom that the terrorists hate us because of our freedom, and defying the wealth of evidence to the contrary compiled by scholars like the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape.

Denying that politics lies at the heart of most terrorism precludes the possibility of victory against those who use it. As the author Robert Wright has pointed out, the conception of evil shared by President Bush and Mr. Rosen is dangerous: “Evil in the Manichaean sense isn’t just absolute badness. It’s a grand unified explanation of such badness, the linkage of diverse badness to a single source.” When one accepts this reductionist explanation, shades of gray disappear. One must confront this badness with unswerving determination, at any and all costs, because the alternative is the total collapse of Good in the face of Evil.

This is absurd. Islamic terrorism, threatening as it is, does not ascend to such towering heights that it can precipitate a total war with America. It has neither the mass appeal, nor the institutional cohesion, to overturn the Western liberal order. The greatest threat posed by Islamic terrorism—undeterrable non-state actors with a nuclear weapon—will not be eliminated by invading armies, civil policing, or even democracy.

It is also worth pointing out that the leaders of Israel, who have been more educated and brutalized by fanatical terrorism than their counterparts in the United States, do not share President Bush’s (and Mr. Rosen’s) utopian view of what can be wrought in the Middle East. In fact, they consider it so much bunkum. Ariel Sharon has told Natan Sharansky that his theories about democracy as a solution to terrorism “have no place in the Middle East.” The fact that the security situation in Iraq has worsened since the January elections illustrates this point all too clearly.

Mr. Rosen protests that a refusal to continue to occupy territory in the Middle East amounts to a “strategy of retreat.” He worries that a posture of “offshore balancing” (in Stephen Walt’s phrase) would deliver an unacceptable blow to American credibility. But a tactical retreat is better than “staying the course” all the way to strategic disaster.

Ronald Reagan had the presence of mind to marginalize his neoconservative advisers at just the right moment, facilitating the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Unfortunately, President Bush has taken a bit longer. Unless neoconservatism is once again relegated to the fringe of American politics, the sapping of American strength and the exposure of American weaknesses will continue unabated.

Christopher Preble

Justin Logan

Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

Gary Rosen mentions the strenuous objection of my co-author Dimitri Simes and myself to the Bush administration’s aggressive promotion of democracy. There is much to be said for democracy, of course, but two cautionary notes apply to trying to implant it in today’s Middle East.

First, democracy alone will not convert the current crop of extremist jihadis to peaceful change. Indeed, too rapid a democratic transition may destabilize governments and enhance the extremists’ opportunities to wreak havoc.

Second, it is the continued active presence of American and allied military forces in Iraq, more than our rhetoric about democracy, that has inspired reform in the region and exerted a beneficial influence on the behavior of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. Our democratic rhetoric is widely understood as a kind of post-hoc rationale for invading now that the justifications based on weapons of mass destruction and the alleged link between Saddam and al Qaeda have been so thoroughly discredited.

Robert F. Ellsworth

Del Mar, California


To the Editor:

Gary Rosen caps his insightful analysis of the reductive thinking of today’s “neorealists” by concluding that “we will never discover the right combination of ‘carrots and sticks’ for the job [of advancing freedom in the Middle East] if, for fear of offending our friends, we resign ourselves to a status quo that nurtures our enemies.” This fitting admonition becomes even more urgent given the imperialist objectives of the Islamist foe.

Indeed, it was the great realist thinker Hans J. Morgenthau himself who described the disaster that could befall peace-loving nations that mistook the aggression of an “imperialist” nation—one intent on fundamentally changing the balance of power—for the reasonable demands of a nation seeking only minor adjustments to the status quo. Morgenthau illustrated the problem by pointing to Hitler’s successful deceptions and the self-deceptions of his targets.

Realist policies designed to maintain the status quo worked well enough against a rational (if paranoid) Soviet Union whose ideological fires had banked and whose territorial ambitions could be contained. But the present danger is substantially different. We face an implacable Islamist foe who seeks nuclear weapons in the name of imperial ambitions from the 14th century.

President Bush and his realist-bred Secretary of State recognize this recrudescent Islamist imperialism for what it is and have fashioned a counterstrategy to defeat it in its own backyard. This is a tribute to Morgenthau’s tutoring, not a repudiation of it. He understood the galvanizing power of ideology for ill and good, and its role in defending the national interest.

Michael Balch

Iowa City, Iowa


Gary Rosen writes:

Stephen Walt is right to be concerned about how the rest of the world views the United States. The good will of other nations makes it easier for us to pursue our goals, just as their hostility makes it more difficult. But it is impossible to assign the proper weight to such factors without first determining what U.S. interests are at stake in the matters that most agitate international public opinion. I should not have to tell a card-carrying realist that there are questions more fundamental to American security and well-being than how a given policy plays in Brussels or Riyadh.

My deeper point was one that I also assumed to be axiomatic for foreign-policy realists: that we should gauge the disposition of other states not by the rhetoric of their leaders or the polling of their publics but by their actual behavior. The fact is that, despite unhappiness with our policies in Iraq, the U.S. continues to enjoy substantial international cooperation on a range of issues, from containing the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea to stabilizing Afghanistan to isolating the Syrian regime. In the fight against jihadist terror, mutual assistance in intelligence and law enforcement has grown and intensified. All of this is happening because even our most disaffected allies and sometime friends understand that we share not just common enemies but a host of important interests—again, the sort of point one might expect a realist to make.

But Mr. Walt’s realism is pulled this way and that by the hobbyhorses he rides. He is determined to cast the Bush administration as a rogue aggressor and international pariah, a threat to peace likely to generate a counterbalancing alliance. And because he is incapable of finding any mundane explanation for America’s close ties with Israel—he might start with the survey research, which shows consistent, overwhelming popular sympathy for the Jewish state over its Arab foes—he joins the crackpot fringe in pointing an accusing finger at the “Israel lobby.” His smoking gun? A quote from former Congressman Gephardt flattering the aspirations of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For more such supposedly damning evidence, I would direct Mr. Walt to AIPAC’s website, which abounds with similar testimonials.

Mr. Walt suggests that “offshore balancing,” his own alternative to our current strategy, would amout to a mere “adjustment” in America’s global position. But he fails to do justice to the extremism of his proposal. He wants the U.S. to withdraw from the central theaters of our struggle against Islamic militancy and Arab backwardness—from Iraq certainly and, I assume, from Afghanistan and other outposts where our presence (like the Israeli presence in the West Bank, if not in the Middle East) is now, in his view, the prime cause of violence, radicalism, and instability. Even at the level of public diplomacy, he would like the U.S. to stop hectoring the region’s various autocrats about (as he puts it in his book) “what to do and how to live.” Though I risk being accused of another “scare tactic,” I somehow doubt the U.S. would be made safer by rethinking its long-overdue commitment to liberalization in the Middle East. Still less do I understand how Mr. Walt could derive any comfort from the prospect of watching the nascent democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan disappear under a tide of civil war and jihadism.

Mr. Walt is proud of realism’s track record, but its legacy in the Middle East is not a happy one. The last half-century in the region may have looked from a certain perspective like “50 years of peace,” as the realist eminence Brent Scowcroft audaciously suggested in a recent New Yorker interview, but it has left behind the world’s most illiberal regimes, replete with mass graves, secret police, and profound deficits in human development (exhaustively catalogued in recent UN reports). Worse, this “peace” has incubated and allowed to spread a virus-like politico-religious ideology that now threatens to wreak havoc on our own way of life. An argument can be made that during the long years of the cold war the U.S. had little choice but to reach an accommodation with the sheikhs and strongmen of the Middle East. Today, prudence and self-interest, to say nothing of moral considerations, point us in a very different direction.

Mr. Walt’s letter is seconded, as if on cue, by the allies he has found in his campaign to tame America’s dangerous global ambitions. Scott McConnell of the American Conservative wonders how the once “prudently hawkish” neoconservatives could have strayed so far. But he forgets the hysterical accusations that flew against neoconservatives during the cold war—and that he and his magazine now eagerly repeat. For today’s Old Right, as for yesterday’s New Left, neoconservatives are propagandists for American empire, drunk with military power and visions of domination and driven by forces invisible to the naive political observer. It is in the pages of the American Conservative that one reads about the “brownshirting” of the conservative movement and, in an article by Mr. McConnell himself, about a “mood” on the pro-war Right that is “at least latently fascist.”

Mr. McConnell’s newfound pessimism about America’s role in the world springs, I would suggest, from distinct sources on the paleoconservative Right. There is a natural affinity between nativism at home and defeatism (or worse) abroad. After all, who are we—mongrelized and cosmopolitan as we have become—to serve as any sort of model for the rest of the world? What good can come of trying to promote overseas the very sort of liberalization that, in the paleocon scheme of things, has corrupted our own once proudly Anglo-Saxon polity?

Where such thoughts lurk, anti-Semitism is seldom far behind, and there is no avoiding its presence in the long record of Mr. McConnell’s boss, Patrick J. Buchanan. The irony cannot be lost on Mr. McConnell that the leader of his own movement, which claims to resist an incipient American fascism, is himself guilty of indulging in the most au courant of anti-Semitic tropes. As Buchanan, writing in the American Conservative, so neatly encapsulated his view: “Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam? Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.” Was Mr. McConnell proud to publish this obvious play on the Nazi slogan, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer”?

Bringing up the rear we find the libertarians, represented here by the letter of Justin Logan and Christopher Preble. (Mr. Preble is the director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, which houses the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.) I have never been called a Manichaean before, but if it means wishing to combat those who behead captives, blow up schoolchildren, and reject every sort of modern liberty, I proudly wear the label. I never said that the jihadists had no politics. They do: they wish to reestablish a medieval caliphate. Accomplishing this, however, would require a good deal more than reversing a few of America’s “hated policies.” I suspect that bin Laden and Zarqawi would not be satisfied if we simply ceded Iraq to their tender mercies.

Messrs. Logan and Preble parrot a few of the more credible assertions made by critics of the war in Iraq, but they should not pretend to come to these matters with an open mind. The Cato Institute is dogmatically laissez-faire in foreign policy just as it is on every other policy question. Fearful of statism at home, libertarians have reflexively resisted virtually every assertion of American power and influence since the cold war: no to the National Endowment for Democracy, no to NATO expansion, no to the first Persian Gulf war, no to engagement in the Middle East, no to American intervention in Haiti and the Balkans.

The frame of mind behind this agenda was summarized almost a decade ago by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at Cato and now a charter member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy:


For nearly five decades, the United States has acted more like an empire than a republic, creating an international network of client states, establishing hundreds of military installations around the world, at times conscripting young men to staff those advanced outposts and fight in distant wars, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the military. Indeed, [this] globalist foreign policy [has] badly distorted the domestic political system, encouraging the growth of a large, expensive, repressive, and often uncontrolled state.

Despite the upheavals and changed circumstances in America’s international situation in recent years, this continues to be Cato’s basic outlook. It leaves little guesswork in predicting the foreign-policy views of the institute’s staffers, which is why, in my article, I called them ideologues.

I agree with Robert F. Ellsworth that we cannot think of our aims in the Middle East simply in terms of democratization, not least because Islamists are often the ones most capable of exploiting an immediate turn to elections. I prefer to think of our agenda as one of liberalization, entailing progress not just on the electoral front but also in establishing civil society and a full range of modern rights. Our military presence has certainly encouraged this trend, as Mr. Ellsworth suggests, but more fundamental, I would argue, has been the example shown to the region by our halting but very real achievements in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where would Hans Morgenthau, the founder of modern foreign-policy realism, come down in today’s debate? Michael Balch feels sure that Morgenthau would recognize the threat posed by the aggressive ideology of the Islamists. I have my doubts. Like his intellectual heirs, Morgenthau had trouble taking seriously anything but states as actors in international relations. I suspect he would have regarded the jihadists as at most a serious nuisance, and would have opposed any effort to use American power to change the political and cultural dynamic of the Middle East. I trust, though, that he would have avoided the more reckless rhetoric of those who now claim to speak in his name.

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