TCS Daily

A Realist No Longer

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - October 31, 2005 12:00 AM

The punditry world is abuzz with talk of a recent New Yorker article (no link available) by writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor for the Ford Administration and the Administration of George H.W. Bush. In a number of passages in the piece, Scowcroft takes on the current Bush Administration over the issue of Iraq, something for which he has earned applause from many Democrats and other Bush critics.

But when one reads the entire New Yorker piece, one finds that Scowcroft's critique is directed at foreign policy idealism in general. And it's a critique that should make Democrats jubilant over his attacks on the Bush Administration's foreign policy more nervous than they appear to be right now. Scowcroft's brand of foreign policy realism is shot through with contradictions and weak attempts at self-justification that should cause many realists to take issue with his arguments.

Consider that if Democrats capture the White House in 2008, they will look largely to foreign policy veterans of the Clinton Administration for guidance in constructing a new foreign policy strategy to replace that of the current Bush Administration. If so, then much of a new Democratic foreign policy will be based on idealist intentions and ambitions. Such idealism drove the intervention of the Clinton Administration into the crisis concerning the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the political crisis in Haiti and the Clinton Administration's decision to take the first Bush Administration's relief operation in Somalia and turn it into a larger nation-building plan.

Brent Scowcroft thinks as little of this Clintonian idealism as he does of the Bush Administration's "neocon" foreign policy ambitions. In the article, Scowcroft backs the first Bush Administration's decision not to get involved in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia by saying that "there was only so much that the United States could do" about the breakup and the ensuing bloodshed. This puts Scowcroft in direct opposition to the Clinton Administration's foreign policy regarding the former Yugoslavia, as pointed out by Goldberg:

Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Bosnian peace accords on behalf of President Clinton, saw the [first Bush] Administration's reluctance to take effective action in Yugoslavia as a failure of realism. "When the Cold War ended, the Bush people concluded that our strategic interests were not involved," Holbrooke said. And they turned their back on Yugoslavia just as it fell to its death. They said they determined that it had no strategic value, but, as it turns out, the Balkans still had strategic value and an overpowering humanitarian case as well." A good foreign policy, Holbrooke believes, ought to "marry idealism and realism, effective American leadership and, if necessary, the use of force."

Scowcroft's brand of foreign policy cannot be reconciled with the brand practiced by the Clinton Administration. As mentioned in the Goldberg article, Scowcroft simply "would have proposed that we go to the Yugoslavs and say 'It makes no sense for you to break up. Economically, you're small as it is, but, if you're going to break up, here are the rules. Here are the rules, and we're going to insist on those rules.'" As Goldberg writes, the first Bush Administration was going to rely on hope that Yugoslavia would stay together, much as it urged former Soviet republics to avoid the dangers of "suicidal nationalism" in an August 1991 speech by President Bush that was dubbed the "Chicken Kiev" speech.

It's clear that Scowcroft's statements in the New Yorker article are not simply attacks against the current Bush Administration. Rather, they are a shot across the bow against the likely foreign policy ambitions of any future Democratic Administration that would emulate the Clinton Administration's foreign policy. So while Democrats may be pleased to see Scowcroft -- the former national security advisor for Bush the Father -- taking the rhetorical lumber to Bush the Son, they will have to contend with his critiques the next time they are given the chance to occupy the White House.

Scowcroft's brand of realism is open to criticism from other realists. Indeed, several arguments he advances are intellectually suspect.

Consider, for example, the following passage about a heated argument between Scowcroft and his one-time protégé, former national security advisor and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

[Scowcroft and Rice] also argued about Iraq. "She says we're going to democratize Iraq, and I said 'Condi, you're not going to democratize Iraq,' and she said 'You know, you're just stuck in the old days,' and she comes back to this thing that we've tolerated an autocratic Middle East for fifty years and so on and so forth," he said. Then a barely perceptible note of satisfaction entered his voice, and he said, "But we've had fifty years of peace."

In response to the comment about the democratization of Iraq and to another comment in which Scowcroft says "some people don't really want to be free," it is worth pointing out again that the Iraqi people keep disappointing Scowcroft's cynicism.

And as for the comment about "fifty years of peace" in the Middle East, who does Scowcroft think he is kidding? Ever since the founding of Israel, there have been four separate full scale military conflicts between Israel and Arabs, not to mention the 1970 War of Attrition, the 1982 war in Lebanon (which included American military intervention) and two separate intifada conflicts. The 1973 Yom Kippur War caused the United States and the Soviet Union to intervene and threatened to further globalize the conflict. The United States made the decision to go to DefCon 3 (DefCon 1 would signal nuclear war) after the Soviets threatened to intervene on Egypt's side during the Yom Kippur War -- meaning that both sides escalated the conflict to the point where for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear conflict had become a real and terrifying possibility. Add to this sorry and bloody history the eight year Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and Scowcroft's boast about "fifty years of peace" is revealed to be empty and devoid of any serious understanding about the recent history of the Middle East.

What the "fifty years of peace" remark and its accompanying wistfulness really reveal is that Scowcroft is not, at heart, a realist. Rather, he is a status quo-ist, a sphere-of-influence-ist. Just as Scowcroft has in the past made a fetish of the virtue of multilateralism, he makes in the New Yorker article a fetish of preserving the status quo and foreign policy spheres of influence.

For example, Scowcroft mentions that while he "was not fond of the Soviet Union," he didn't think that the Reagan Administration's decision "calling the Soviet Union the 'evil empire' got anybody anywhere." Really? Reagan understood that attacking the legitimacy of the decrepit and brutal Soviet totalitarian system was precisely the right approach for anyone interested in undermining the USSR. He knew that the Soviets -- like all authoritarians and totalitarians -- were deeply sensitive to allegations questioning their legitimacy and by attacking the Soviets as "evil," Reagan was affirmatively undercutting Soviet power and influence abroad even as he engendered dissent within the Soviet Union and throughout the former Warsaw Pact. The fall of communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the liberation of the captive Warsaw Pact nations and the collapse of the Berlin Wall would tend to put the lie to Scowcroft's statement that denouncing the Soviet Union's brutality didn't "get anybody anywhere."

And there is one particular instance in the New Yorker article where Scowcroft twists himself and his arguments into a complete pretzel. Consider:

The first Bush Administration did engage in one act of humanitarian interventionism, in Somalia, when it sent American troops to help feed starving civilians in Mogadishu. When I [here, Jeffrey Goldberg references himself] mentioned Somalia to Scowcroft as an example of idealism over national self-interest, he demurred, as if it were an accusation: a true realist does not employ the military for selfless humanitarian operations. The action in Somalia, Scowcroft said -- at least in his view -- was in America's self-interest. "About four months before we went in, the President and I had a meeting with the U.N. Secretary-General, and he was saying that most of the world believes that the U.N. has become the instrument of Western powers. Here's a chance to set that record straight. Here's an underdeveloped state, a Muslim state, a black state, and here's a chance to show the world that we are not acting in our self-interest."

Notice the contradiction? Goldberg does, stating that "In other words, the United States acted selflessly out of self-interest." It's a fair summation of Scowcroft's comments concerning Somalia. Raise your hands if you actually believe that summation -- and Scowcroft's argument -- have any merit or intellectual rigor about them.

Scowcroft has a blind adherence to the status quo that overrides any realist impulses he might have and that causes him to ignore both realist philosophy and history itself. As one who is always glad to see a vigorous foreign policy debate being conducted in America, I welcome Scowcroft's tough words as the catalyst for what hopefully will be an enlightening debate. But his position is full of holes and inconsistencies, and those holes and inconsistencies should not be ignored merely because one is popularly seen as speaking truth to power.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributing writer. Find more of his writing here.


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