TCS Daily


Realist or Idealist?

By Michael Brandon McClellan - September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

In the 2000 Presidential Election, George W. Bush campaigned as a strict foreign policy realist -- vowing to stand for America's "national interest" and positioning himself in contrast to the perceived excesses of Clintonian "nation-building". Bush's common-sense platform was received favorably by his party and by Americans in general. After all, American treasure and American blood should not be spent lightly. While the United States stands unparalleled as an hegemonic superpower, American resources are nevertheless limited and must be conserved to face real threats to national security. Few Americans believe in expending US soldiers for the sake of idealistic crusades or United Nations mandates. Realist thinkers understand that US military action must be moored to strategic necessity and governed by prudence, not sentiment.

With November's election rapidly approaching, a fundamental question must therefore be addressed -- has President Bush dramatically departed from his realist roots by embarking on two of the most ambitious nation-building projects in American history?

His critics would say so emphatically, and they are not without evidence. On its face, the rhetoric of Bush's recent convention speech harkened back to the democratic idealism of Woodrow Wilson. Bush spoke of this generation's "rendezvous with destiny" and of America's obligation to spread the light of freedom across the globe. He spoke of the great things being done for the liberated people of Afghanistan and for the newly-freed people of Iraq. He underscored America's enduring obligation to facilitate the triumph of liberty. Yet reality and rhetoric often depart, or if they do not depart, they at least fail to line up in perfect congruence.

The reality of Bush's presidency is that he is still a realist. He is a realist who understands the mandates of American realism. While America must indeed act dispassionately to maximize global stability and its national security, the governmental actors conducting that foreign policy must ultimately still answer to the American people. In the American democracy, the people are not satisfied with the sacrifice of US soldiers for the sake of "stability" or mere "security". Americans must believe that they are also in the right. This is their idealism. They do not believe in wide-eyed crusades, but they also do not believe in the cold realism of Edwardian Britain or Bismarckian Germany. Americans would never endorse the maxim that "America has neither friends nor enemies, merely interests." Americans believe that America has friends, and they believe that America has enemies. They demand that America's leaders hold the national interest first and foremost, but they also demand that the national interest be good.

Not surprisingly, the most successful US foreign policy endeavors have been accompanied by a high degree of public support, when Americans could view the conflict in terms of good and evil. Essential to American success in World Wars I and II was the degree of patriotic support aroused among the American people. Hatred of the Japanese and Germans fueled an essential strategic component of discerning between the goodness of "us" versus the badness of "them". This is starkly contrasted by the Vietnam era, in which American strategic interests were defeated by American ideological collapse. America insufficiently believed that it was right, and therefore put forth an insufficient fight. Vietnam was too morally gray, so America's ability to pursue its national interest suffered.

Americans believe that democracy is good, and they are not wrong for believing it. As the scholarship of men like Professors Rudy Rummel and John Norton Moore has shown, democracies governed by the rule of law achieve a myriad of human ends better than any other. Democracies are richer, freer, and more peaceful. Their people live longer and in better circumstances. We Americans can hang our preference for democracy on a veritable mountain of empirical support. It is thus the extension of democracy upon which President Bush chooses to focus his rhetoric, even as he pursues a realist foreign policy. Such disparity between rhetoric and deeds is not duplicitous; it is necessary and ingrained in the American system.

Ronald Reagan understood this aspect of foreign policy -- speaking idealist while acting realist -- better than any President in American history. Even if the Reagan model was intuitive rather than overt, he understood the competing demands of acting realistically and dispassionately abroad, while inspiring the optimism of the American people at home. Reagan rightly called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire", and highlighted the contrast between the light of the Free World with the darkness of the Iron Curtain. These were not the simplistic musings of an uneducated dolt, as his knowledge-laden but wisdom-lacking critics like to claim.

For while Reagan lambasted America's chief adversary with rhetorical simplicity, he did not shy from associating with unsavory strategic partners in order to contain, manage, and ultimately defeat the communist threat. It was Reagan that armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, among whom was a young wealthy Saudi named Osama Bin Laden. During the Reagan years, America supported Baathist Iraq in its war against a mutual enemy, Ayatollah Khomenei's Iran. America supplied and equipped anti-communist fighters and strongmen throughout the Third World -- many of whom were a far cry from exemplars of democratic virtues.

While the merits of each of these "lesser of two evils" decisions can be debated, the ultimate outcome of the Soviet implosion is unassailable. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were a triumph of liberty and a triumph of humanity. Millions were freed with the collapse of the communist tyrannies, and millions recognized the moral clarity of Ronald Reagan as instrumental in this outcome.

As Ronald Reagan's example may have already hinted, Bush is not a Wilsonian, but a foreign policy leader in the mold of Reagan. Bush understands the imperative necessity of inspiring the American people by highlighting the differences between America and her adversaries. He simultaneously grasps the strategic mandates of combating Islamic terrorism on a global scale.

When Bush espouses the virtues of deposing a vile despot like Saddam Hussein or the despicable Taliban, he is not in error. These regimes were indeed evil, and America has given the Iraqi and Afghan people hope for liberty. Emphasizing the spread of democracy is imperative -- for it inspires the American people to believe in the goodness of the War on Terror, and of American foreign policy in general.

However, nor is Bush in error for treating Middle Eastern despots differently. Criticizing the decision to depose Hussein on the grounds that "there are many other bad people in the Middle East" misses the point entirely. Bush recognizes the current strategic importance of friendly relations with oil-laden Saudi Arabia and of nuclearly-armed Pakistan, while at the same time recognizing the dangers previously posed by Hussein's hostile Iraq and Mullah Omar's terrorist-harboring Afghanistan. While President Bush may hope that one day the House of Saud and Pervez Musharref will yield to the democratic seeds being sown in Iraq and Afghanistan, he also realizes that great power foreign policy is about choosing prudently between the lesser of two evils.

While America is the world's most powerful nation, it is not and never has been all-powerful. America, like any other historical great or hegemonic power, must make difficult decisions between evils and greater evils. In the Second World War, America recognized that Stalin, although likely a murderer of more than twenty million people, was a necessary ally against the Nazi and Japanese threats. This necessity of temporarily allying with an evil or dangerous regime to defeat another, more dangerous regime persisted throughout the Cold War, and will continue to be a necessary element of the War on Terror.

However, the need to inspire the American people to believe in the goodness of their cause has been of equal historical necessity. It is in this capacity that President Bush's nation building must be assessed. Once America deposed of its strategic threats in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was obligated to help the liberated people build new, viable, and free nation states. America must fulfill this obligation for two reasons: First, a power vacuum would result in a strategic failure, in which the new de-stabilized state could become as dangerous as its predecessor. Second, the American people must be shown in unambiguous terms the triumph of good over evil. While it is arguable that the imposition of a friendly dictator could possibly accomplish the first aim, a friendly dictatorial regime cannot satisfy the second. A Pinochet-style strongman could provide necessary security during an interim period, as Afghanistan and Iraq transition to capitalism and the rule of law, but it is doubtful that the American people would accept the American imposition of one dictator instead of another. For this reason democracy must be built -- for democracy is good, and if continued patriotism is to be expected from the American people, they must see goodness arising from America's strategic actions

Contrary to the myriad accusations leveled by Bush's critics, his foreign policy is not the result of an uninformed or over-ambitious radical idealism. Rather, President Bush is guided by prudent realism. Bush's management of the Jihadist threat has reflected a long standing tradition in American foreign policy, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. He has taken decisive military action against threats he perceived to be immediate, while dispassionately allying with non-democratic regimes that serve the national interest. Yet, Bush has paired such realist actions with unambiguous rhetoric regarding the justice of the American cause, and the depravity of America's adversaries. In sum, Bush acts as he must, but also speaks as he must. If history is to be a guide, much good may come of it. If the post-Republican Convention polls are to be a guide, it appears that the American people agree.

The author is a TCS contributor.

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