Is Paul Wolfowitz for Real?
Four writers -- Stephen M. Walt, David J. Rothkopf, Daniel W. Drezner, and Steve Clemons -- weigh in on Paul Wolfowitz's critique of realism and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Just Because He Walks Like a Realist…
By Stephen M. Walt
It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism." On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War — the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq War." I’d try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him too, because that tragedy demonstrates the virtues of realism and the follies of Wolfowitz’s own worldview.
On the whole, Wolfowitz’s discussion of "realism" in the Sept./Oct. issue of FP is about as accurate as his 2002 estimates about the troop levels needed to occupy Iraq and the overall costs of the war. He implies that realists are uninterested in moral issues and claims "there is a serious debate" between realists and their critics regarding the peaceful promotion of political change. But this is a caricature of realist thinking and a nonexistent debate, and it is telling that he never offers any evidence to support his description. The only "realists" he bothers to mention are Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and he never quotes or cites other prominent realist scholars or policymakers. Having decided to expose realism’s alleged limitations, in short, apparently he couldn’t be bothered to do some research and read what they had to say.
What do realists believe? Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states compete for advantage and where security is sometimes precarious. So, realists emphasize that states should keep a keen eye on the balance of power, which makes them wary of squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America’s commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and force us to compromise freedoms at home.
Realism also emphasizes that other states will defend their interests vigorously, that successful diplomacy requires give-and-take, and that advancing U.S. interests sometimes requires us to do business with regimes whose values we find objectionable. In recent years, realists have also reminded their fellow citizens that nationalism is a powerful force and that most societies bristle, and ultimately rebel, when outsiders try to tell them how to run their own affairs. Realists also understand that no system of government is perfect, and that even well-intentioned democracies sometimes do foolish and cruel things. Most important of all, realists understand that military force is a blunt and costly instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to foresee, and that states should go to war only when vital interests are at stake.
Contrary to Wolfowitz’s claims, realists are not indifferent to moral concerns, including the virtues of democratic government and the value of basic human rights. There is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of these things in the abstract, and little or no disagreement about whether the United States should encourage such changes peacefully. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of core U.S. values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any. As the debate over the Iraq War revealed, the real issue is whether the United States and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point of a gun, or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.
Realists oppose such efforts for at least four reasons. First, promoting regime change via military force costs lots of lives, money and prestige. Wolfowitz’s war in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 4,300 Americans (plus more than 30,000 wounded), as well as at least 100,000-plus Iraqis (and maybe far more). It also cost the U.S. taxpayer over $1 trillion (and counting). It is frankly hard to see the moral virtue in that "achievement." The present Iraqi government may be an improvement on Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it is hardly a model of representative democracy, its long-term fate is uncertain, and the costs of imposing it have been enormous.
Second, realists are wary of idealistic wars of choice because they invariably force policymakers to engage in threat-inflation and deception in order to stampede the public into supporting actions that they would otherwise oppose. Wolfowitz was an able practitioner of this art while in office, but realists know that such behavior inevitably erodes the integrity of public institutions, the overall quality of governmental decision-making, and ultimately, public trust. When policymakers can only get things done by deceiving their fellow citizens, how can democratic institutions continue to function effectively?
Third, as Wolfowitz acknowledges, even the peaceful promotion of democracy sometimes confronts genuine tradeoffs. We might like to see a vibrant multi-party democracy in Egypt, China, or Saudi Arabia, for example, but pressing that objective too vigorously would threaten other legitimate foreign-policy objectives. In the competitive world of international politics, even a country as powerful as the United States often has to temper its idealistic impulses against important strategic interests.
A good case in point is Libya’s decision to abandon its WMD programs. Wolfowitz believes we succeeded with Libya because we didn’t "soft-pedal our differences" with Moammar El-Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime, but the real lesson of this case is directly at odds with the point he is trying to make. A key ingredient in Qaddafi’s decision to give up his WMD programs was the Bush administration’s assurances that he could remain in power and that the U.S. would not try to overthrow him, even though they were well aware that he runs a dictatorship and has no plans to change it. Neoconservatives like John Bolton opposed that compromise, but President Bush went ahead and did the deal. That was an act of realism, and I assume even Wolfowitz would agree that the world is better off as a result.
Fourth, realists are skeptical about the ability of even well-intentioned outsiders to conduct large-scale social engineering in societies they don’t understand, because our track record here is abysmal. We intervened in Somalia in the early 1990s for essentially altruistic reasons, but our repeated intrusions have made the situation there steadily worse. And Somalia is hardly an exception: A recent Brookings study found that U.S. military intervention lowered the prospects for democracy by about 33 percent. (For other scholarly commentaries reaching similar conclusions, see here and here.) Realists understand what both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists tend to forget: Other societies are complicated systems and outside interference usually generates lots of unintended consequences. And because the places where we intervene tend to be troubled societies where the prospects for democracy are already low — think Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, or Afghanistan — the realists’ skepticism is, well … realistic.
The lesson is that we should usually allow foreign countries to proceed toward more tolerant forms of government at their own pace. And the more we proclaim the need to export our values elsewhere, the more likely we are to find ourselves meddling where we do not belong and doing more harm than good.
Finally, realists are wary of costly moral campaigns because they might eventually undermine America’s current position of primacy. If I were a Chinese leader, for example, I would be delighted by the policies that the United States has pursued in the Middle East and Central Asia in recent years. Since 2001, the United States has gotten itself bogged down in two losing wars, wars at least partly justified by a desire to "spread democracy." And while the United States has been distracted by these problems, China’s "peaceful rise" has continued and it has been quietly forging deeper ties in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and even Latin America.
Wolfowitz may be correct about one thing: Barack Obama is probably not a "realist." The president is essentially a pragmatist, and his foreign policy does not seem to flow from any particular ideological vision. But with the possible exception of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, his administration is chock full of traditional liberal internationalists, many of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003 and who still believe that it is America’s mission to go out and right wrongs wherever they may arise. That’s why we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan, why Hillary Clinton spent a couple of weeks telling Africans how to run their countries, and why the foreign-policy establishment continues to think we are making progress every time Washington has to assume responsibility for fixing some foreign problem.
Unfortunately, Obama inherited a terrible legacy from the Bush administration, due in good part to policies that Wolfowitz championed. Whatever his own inclinations may be, Obama will have to be ruthlessly realistic in order to deal with these difficult challenges. The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter if Obama is a "realist" or not. But the sooner he starts to act like one, the better off the United States will be.
A Neocon in Realist’s Clothing
By David J. Rothkopf
I think Paul Wolfowitz performs a useful service by thoughtfully and systematically examining the underlying flaws in the current conception of "realism" — the hype surrounding it and the "policies" associated with it. If only someone had more effectively done the same with neoconservatism — which, of course, was neither new nor, as it was practiced by the Bush administration, remotely conservative. (How could anything so politically and militarily risky, fiscally wasteful, and seemingly allergic to any principle, be called "conservative"?)
Reading Wolfowitz’s piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that "political science" may be the humdinger of all oxymorons … even if calling "realists" realists and "neoconservatives" neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their "lies, damned lies, and statistics" and clearly, political scientists have their "lies, damned lies, and labels."
It’s not just "neocons" and "realists" of course who are mislabeled or falsely advertising themselves. There is nothing "conservative" about the reckless fiscal policies of "conservative" champions like Reagan or Bush, nothing "progressive" about the New Deal nostalgia of many on the left, nothing "pro-life" about abortion opponents who also use a misreading of the Second Amendment to allow them stock up on assault weapons, nothing "liberal" about folks who think the answer to everything is greater government control of people’s lives. Say what you may about the underlying beliefs, the labels are meaningless.
That said, if we can stipulate the labels are primarily forms of branding and positioning that are as related to the underlying realities as Madison Avenue claims of the health-benefits of smoking in the middle of the last century, then we can move on to the more relevant policy questions raised by Wolfowitz. These turn not on whether "realists" are more realistic than other policymakers but rather on whether the "realism" peddled to the public actually holds water as an approach.
Here I think Wolfowitz is at his most compelling. He frames the issue — and some "realists" will no doubt dispute his approach but I think the issue he raises is worth discussing — by observing that: "In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be ‘to manage relations between states’ rather than ‘alter the nature of states.’" He then goes on to point out that if your goal is to advance the U.S. national interest and to "manage relations between states," then you really need to consider from time to time altering the nature of states. Hard to argue with that, in my book.
If the objective is to advance the national interest and influence states and our ability to do so is limited and different from circumstance to circumstance, shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so (assuming the use of the tool provides a net gain toward achieving our goals)? If so, influencing the nature of states or the internal workings of states is not off bounds for realism — it is the beginning of realism — it is the place where the effort to influence states begins.
But I would go further. I think this type of "realism" is founded on a false assumption and a fiction. The false assumption is that the central work involved in advancing the national interest involves relations between states. This ignores the fact that states are only one among the many types of actors in the world who can impact our national interests. The related fiction is that borders constitute a kind of sovereign bubble and that within that bubble there is a kind of magical unity. Or at least that within that bubble all disagreement is trumped by the sovereign power of the state. That is, of course, patent nonsense in a world in which non-state actors from giant corporations to terrorist groups act in their narrow self-interests and in ways that are often at odds with the policy of the states in which they are domiciled. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of states are now so weak that they are much less influential than say the world’s largest corporations on economic issues, the world’s largest NGOs on key humanitarian issues, or the world’s most notorious terror or criminal groups on security issues.
Based on this view, "managing relations between states" cannot be the only objective of foreign policy. (To have another view would be incredibly unrealistic.) Additionally, based on my view, taking advantage of the fact that states are collections of diverse actors teeming with opposing views and divergent interests offers the single best way of "managing relations between states."
Does this mean I am advocating invading everyone and trying to make them into mini-Americas? Of course not. It means that if, as everyone asserts, foreign policy is about advancing the national interest then realism dictates we use all legal means at our disposal to do so. This "realism" is founded on a Westphalian view of states as the smallest divisible units of legitimate global authority that is dangerously out of date. And when realism is based on an outdated fiction, that’s probably too weak a foundation even when big name academics are out shilling for the idea.
Further, of course, the notion that it’s uniquely "neocon" to promote democracy is just silly. Look no further than the recent elections in Afghanistan for an example of "realists" doing likewise … or to Iran or Honduras for examples of why the U.S. policy ought to be encouraging democracy by whatever legal means might work. The question genuine realists ask is: What’s going to work?
It’s also revealing that, although some realists promote the idea of a less meddlesome United States, when pushed they simply reveal that they mean we should only meddle where they think it is wise. (Pressure on Palestine bad, pressure on Israel good.) This gets to another problem I have with both "realism" and another product promoted heavily by that idea factory up there on the Charles: "smart power." They are so self-serving. If I am a realist, what does that make you? If I practice "smart" power, your alternative is necessarily dumb.
Henry Kissinger, father of modern American smart power, once said — on another subject — that academic infighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low. Here the name calling about the names they call themselves is so fierce because the differences are so minimal. Mainstream academic foreign-policy cliques in the United States essentially believe very similar things and thus are defined by their minimal differences, and ultimately by what they do in practice, which is often as not driven more by the arithmetic of momentary politics and possibilities than the calculus of policy. The best illustration is the difference between the Bush and Obama administrations. Many of the words are the same but how they interpret, prioritize, and act may be quite different based on a host of important factors that have precious little to do with defined schools of thought.
By Daniel W. Drezner
As I was reading Paul Wolfowitz’s essay on Obama and realism, I kept thinking, "there’s realism and then there’s Realism."
Small "r" realism consists of a recognition that there are some unpleasant truths in world politics that must be acknowledged if one is going to pursue a prudent foreign policy. If a government amasses significant capabilities or acts aggressively, it will tend to trigger balancing coalitions. International institutions are often feckless and hypocritical. Forcible regime change is really, really hard. Implacable hostility to powerful actors with different ideologies won’t work terribly well. Power is a relative measure and a resource that should be husbanded for important matters of state. You get the idea.
Big "R" Realism is a theoretical paradigm that makes certain assumptions about what drives powerful actors in world politics, and derives interesting predictions (and occasional prescriptions) from those assumptions. Many of these predictions match up with small "r" realism (balancing behavior, useless international institutions, etc.). Many go beyond them, however. According to Realism, regime type is unimportant in explaining world politics. The democratic peace is a mirage. Strong states are better at foreign policy. Not all Realists agree on everything, but they agree on some big and not obvious things, and they all seem to publish in International Security an awful lot (don’t aske me to parse out the difference between defensive realists, neoclassical realists, structural realists, and offensive realists; if you do, well, I’m going to have this kind of reaction).
The difference between the two "realisms" is one of purpose. Small "r" realism is a set of guidelines for real, live policymakers, and is intended to foster prudence. Big "R" Realism is intended to be more provocative to the point of caricature — i.e., to the point where Realists might have little difficulty incorporating zombies into their paradigm. It is certainly possible to be both. Behind closed doors, I have heard big "R" Realists proffer small "r" realist prescriptions that might contradict the academic paradigm. In public, it’s funny how Realists who believe that anarchy and the distribution of power are the only things that matter nevertheless rail against the pernicious influence of ethnic lobbies.
Stephen Walt is a Realist with a capital "R", so I expect him to provide a vigorous response to Wolfowitz. I found the latter’s essay to be occasionally insightful, occasionally hostage to the exact same paradigmatic blinders of Realism, and occasionally blurry about the distinction between realism and Realism.
Wolfowitz tries to get at this distinction in these paragraphs:
Of course foreign policy should be grounded in reality. Americans agree that foreign-policy goals should be achievable — that the United States should match its ends with its means. What sensible person could argue with that? That is simply pragmatism. But "realism" as a doctrine (I’ll spare you the quote marks henceforth) goes much further: In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be "to manage relations between states" rather than "alter the nature of states."
…. let’s stipulate that the issue here is not whether to use military force to promote changes in the nature of states; it’s about whether — and how — to promote such changes peacefully. On that issue there is a genuine debate between realists and their critics. And a desire for pragmatism should not be confused with a specific foreign-policy doctrine that minimizes the importance of change within states.
On these points, Wolfowitz is mostly right and very wrong on one important issue. He’s right to say that Obama might be a realist (pragmatist) but he’s not a Realist. I also think he’s right to say that regime type matters.
So he’s right, but he’s also banal in his rightness. No president will ever be a Realist. Few foreign policy leaders are so wedded to a theoretical doctrine that they don’t think regime type matters at all. Henry Kissinger might have been a Realist in the academy, but in power he was a realist. Wolfowitz takes great pains to point out that George H.W. Bush didn’t always act like a Realist — but it’s also true that George W. Bush stopped acting like a Neoconservative around 2004.
Presidents are politicians, and they’ll discard ideas that don’t work. And no promulgator of ideas in international relations should be brassy enough to think that their doctrine is always right.
What’s missing from Wolfowitz’s essay is any genuine assessment of the costs and benefits of the different policies available to the United States when dealing with, say, the likes of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or North Korea. Wolfowitz seems to think that more aggressive steps should be taken to foment internal regime change in these countries. In doing so, he cleverly contrasts it with the counterfactual of "doing nothing." But, as previously noted, the Obama administration has been ratcheting up containment policies against adversaries like Iran and North Korea. There’s a lot of virtue in using containment to deal with these regimes — and in the case of Pyongyang, the policy might be bearing fruit. The word "containment" never appears in Wolfowitz’s essay, however. This suggests a kind of all-or-nothing logic to Wolfowitz’s thinking that might explain certain policy blunders committed in the past decade.
One final note of warning. Wolfowitz’s essay posits a debate between Realism and Neoconservatism as the faultline in U.S. foreign policy. While I’m certainly aware of this split, it’s not the only one, or even the most important one, in the foreign-policy community. As much as Realists and Neocons enjoy sniping at each other now, this elides periods during which they were on the same side in the policy world. It also elides current issues on which they still agree: not relying on international institutions, confronting China, etc. Liberal institutionalism is hardly flaw-free — but it is an equally viable perspective that needs to be considered when debating the future of American foreign policy.
Failing to Note the Difference When the U.S. Power Tank Is Full or Near Empty
By Steve Clemons
Paul Wolfowitz’s provocative critique of foreign policy realism has several key flaws. Most importantly, he sets up an artificial and contrived version of realist thought and fails to engage the problem of positive and negative variations in America’s stock of power.
In his essay, Wolfowitz acknowledges the classic distinctions between realism and neoconservatism — that realism prescribes dealing with states as they are in an anarchic international system while neoconservatives and their left-leaning, fellow-traveling liberal interventionists want to change the internal character of states as a primary goal of American national security policy.
Given President Obama’s shift in a semi-realist direction at the beginning of this term, FP asked Wolfowitz to respond to the assertion that "we are all realists now." Appropriately, the architect of George W. Bush’s Iraq War responds "No." Of course, we aren’t — but we are not all values militants either.
Wolfowitz makes a case against a gold standard version of .999 "pure realism" that simply doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except perhaps in University of Chicago lectures inspired by Hans Morgenthau and carried on by disciple John Mearsheimer and his followers. Wolfowitz sets up his debate with academic realists — not policy realists who have significantly evolved in practice and perspective since the days of Kissingerian-style realism.
Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski — both identified as realists in the Wolfowitz critique — differ on many micro-policy issues, as Wolfowitz points out. In fact, Wolfowitz acknowledges that he supported Scowcroft’s position on the Gulf War and Brzezinski’s view that NATO should be expanded. He facetiously asks if that makes him a realist or renders them ideologues.
Scowcroft and Brzezinski — as they noted in their recent joint book America and the World: Conversations on the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy, a set of edited discussions with David Ignatius — are not in complete sync when it comes to certain national security priorities and do not frame challenges identically. And they are not the kind of realists to whom Wolfowitz seeks to compare himself. Both former national security advisors are "hybrid realists" who believe that American power is constrained today and diminishing in part because of a set of very misinformed, strategic mistakes made by the George W. Bush administration, mistakes that compounded the failure of Bush’s father and Bill Clinton to reorganize the terms and realities of America’s global social contract after the fall of the Soviet Union.
By the end of his essay, Wolfowitz identifies himself as a hybrid realist as well — choosing the term "democratic realist." I’d call Scowcroft and Brzezinski adherents of newly emerging hybrid schools of "ethical realism" and/or "progressive realism" in which they worry first about the overall ability of America to achieve its global objectives vis-à-vis other states, but with a sensitivity to and concern for both the internal realities of other countries and the increasingly disconcerting transnational challenges that are facing the international system as a whole.
In other words, these hybrid realists of the Scowcroft/Brzezinski sort do believe in states as the primary actors of the international system, but they see tremendous value in institutions like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, in negotiating international deals on many issues, including arms, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Brent Scowcroft even sits on the board of one of Al Gore’s major climate-action groups. These hybrid realists are sensitive to the role that global public opinion — inside countries — about the United States and its policies plays internationally. These are not characteristics of the type of classic realists that Paul Wolfowitz contrasts himself with in his essay.
Progressive realism attempts to maintain a logic of costs and benefits of American action in the international system. As Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon frequently pointed out in their written treatments of U.S. foreign policy, the traditions of both pragmatic, interest-driven realism and idealism are deeply embedded in the core structures of the country.
To some degree, the Nixon era was a highpoint for foreign-policy realism, with strong echoes during the George H. W. Bush administration, while values militancy and democratic idealism swelled during the Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush terms. But even under these ideal-driven presidents, a commitment to reorder the internal guts of other countries coexisted and wrestled with a constant counterargument of realist scenarios and arguments.
Ronald Reagan was a values crusader against global Soviet interests in his first term and then pivoted towards a realist-informed engagement with Gorbachev in his second. George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion had many contrived rationales far beyond those offered in the Wolfowitz essay but nonetheless was part of a values crusade in the region that differed greatly in character and objective from any other contemporary American military effort since Vietnam. But whereas Reagan was able to turn his rhetorical messianism into engagement with the Soviets, George W. Bush turned his military provocation into swagger and conceit during his first term — failing to use the edge he had built to forge a new relationship with Iran which, intimidated by the quick military U.S. success in Iraq, had privately reached out to the Bush White House. Bush’s realist shift came during his second term, frustrating his hawkish, torture-endorsing, Dark Side-hugging vice president, but too late to reverse any of the key disasters hatched during the first term.
The "hybrid realism" to which most policy practitioners subscribe entails using American power in ways that increase and enhance America’s power position. It means shaping the international order in ways conducive to American interests but also promulgating American values, civil institutions, and our democratic example in ways that don’t undermine core interests or American power.
Paul Wolfowitz punts on the Iraq War — not wanting to debate it in this essay. But by dropping the subject, he misses a fundamental reality for any presidency — the power a president inherits when he or she gets the keys to the White House is not the same from president to president.
Barack Obama, in his early foreign-policy moves, has found his "inner Nixon" and made a number of key realist-like gestures not because Nixonianism was lurking just under the skin of his campaign for the White House all along — but because he had to. John McCain also would have been compelled to find his "inner Nixon" and to push back the Max Boots and William Kristols and John Boltons who want to hatch yet more wars amid those now underway. McCain also would have found his way to a hybrid realism not unlike what we are seeing Obama deploy — because America is so substantially constrained today and doubted by much of the world as a superpower in decline that has not exhibited of late an ability to achieve the objectives it sets out for itself.
The Iraq war punctured the mystique of America’s superpower status and exposed military limits, followed later by economic limits that have undermined the confidence of key allies in American power and dependability. These weaknesses have also animated the pretensions of foes, problem states, and transnationally organized enemies.
Thus, George W. Bush’s "stock of power" was far greater at the beginning of his presidency than was Barack Obama’s.
To not recognize that the Iraq war — no matter how legitimate and necessary Wolfowitz feels that war was — deflated American power is a significant gap in his analysis. Had the Iraq invasion not occurred, had the Bush team dealt a crushing blow to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and come home, the world and America would be in a different place. In those circumstances if Barack Obama were still residing today in the White House, he might be less interested in the combined work and writing of Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Richard Nixon. He might have been the type of values crusader that George Bush got to be — at least for a short while.
Wolfowitz carefully avoids any mention of the words "regime change," but he fails to note that many of his close intellectual and political allies are obsessed with regime change against some of the more problematic nations in the world today. They use "democracy promotion" interchangeably with "regime change" — whereas Wolfowitz more cautiously calls not for revolutions but incremental evolutions. I’m in agreement with Wolfowitz that incremental change that is encouraged is far better than political change driven by force. Wolfowitz supports the human rights work of the State Department and endorses the use of the presidential bully pulpit to express support for those working and fighting for democracy in nations run by authoritarians and despots. I think most hybrid realists also understand the importance of the global human rights agenda — but believe that agenda must be comingled and copresent with the other facets of the respective relationship.
One of the issues I wish Wolfowitz had raised but regrettably neglected is the importance of America demonstrating by example the kind of democracy we hope others aspire to. His American Enterprise Institute colleague and former vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, applauds CIA officers who choked prisoners, faked executions before detainees, and threatened to kill children as strategies of coercion. We saw the reactions to 9/11 and the buildup to the Iraq war lead to a national-security pathology in the United States in which core democratic values were undermined. We held not just prisoners in Guantanamo but thousands of others in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other facilities in a manner completely at odds with our beliefs about universal human rights. We tortured — and our government spied on a massive scale on American citizens.
This kind of example is something that authoritarian governments salivate at — and true democrats abroad revile.
When all opposition is suppressed, the forces of change go underground and that is where radicalism thrives. Jailing a democratic reformer like Ayman Noor in Egypt is not a way to fight extremism.
He is absolutely right — but this same maxim holds for America’s hand in perpetuating other grievances and also checking the forces of reform — particularly in the Israel/Palestine conflict, which Wolfowitz acknowledges may actually be the greatest driver of anti-Americanism today in the Middle East.
Wolfowitz sounds as if he might be ready to find some common ground with the community of hybrid realists that, like him, want to see the world move toward a community of nations that act responsibly on the international stage and that move toward political templates that allow the growth of healthy civil institutions and promote self-determination and even democracy abroad. His statement about Israel and its messy, unresolved state of affairs with the Arab world is not consistent with the Bill Kristol-led neoconservative position — and this is heartening.
But for Wolfowitz’s new school of "democratic realism" to attract followers, he should come to terms with and understand the perspectives of the real realists in Washington policy circles today that differ significantly from the textbook classic realists he used as a foil. There will be differences still between these clusters of varying realist hybrids — but Wolfowitz needs to understand that the fundamental critique that folks like me make about the values militants and idealists is that they fail to think about the consequences of actions in sustaining national power.
Many foreign-policy idealists are driven by emotion and sentiment first — and rationality and calculated priority-setting last.
And in my view, while I know that Wolfowitz is one of the few in the George W. Bush administration that did have a coherent, internally logical strategy that he felt would work in knocking out Saddam Hussein, his colleagues allowed raw emotion, reaction, and swagger to cloud their judgments in a matter of war and peace. Wolfowitz himself miscalculated about the aftermath of the war and the occupation — and set into motion a set of events that haven’t strengthened America’s hand but rather awakened and animated Iran’s pretensions as a great regional power, sparking paranoia and concern among Sunni Arab states and Israel — at a point when U.S. power is, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, in question.
Wolfowitz’s essay is sensibly drafted and intelligent. There is significant insight in the piece — but not enough introspection. Wolfowitz’s brand of foreign policy may work better in certain times — at times of a state’s overwhelming hegemonic dominance in world affairs — but may be quite inappropriate and ineffective when that same state’s power has sagged and is limping, needing reinvention and clear accomplishment.
Today is the time of realists of a variety of sorts — mostly because of the realities that Wolfowitz and his Bush administration colleagues unleashed in the world.