Get Real

The New York Times Op/Ed

SEVEN months into George W. Bush’s second term, it is clear that whatever his expansive second Inaugural Address may have promised, American foreign policy has taken a decidedly pragmatic turn. In practice, the Bush administration has recently begun to pursue interests rather than ideals and conciliation rather than confrontation.

First-term foreign policy hardliners like John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith have moved to jobs outside of Washington or left the administration entirely. The State Department has regained the ear of the White House and won support for repairing relations with Europe and negotiating with Iran and North Korea. And the Pentagon, overextended and trapped in a grueling counterinsurgency, has taken to rehashing Kerry campaign rhetoric about the limited utility of military force, lowered its expectations in Iraq and sent up trial balloons about withdrawal. The only people not to have gotten the memorandum, it seems, are the president and vice president, who feebly insist that the “war on terror” remains a useful concept and that everything in Iraq is going just fine.

What explains the shift? Administration supporters either deny it has occurred or argue that it constitutes only a slight change in tactics, appropriate to a world already improved by the administration’s earlier pugnacity. Journalists and administration critics, meanwhile, generally attribute it to haphazard changes in politics or personnel, such as declining poll numbers or the brilliant performance of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State.

The real story is simpler: the Bush doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism, American foreign policy’s perennial hangover cure.

For more than half a century, overenthusiastic idealists of one variety or another have gotten themselves and the country into trouble abroad and had to be bailed out by prudent successors brought in to clean up the mess. When the crisis passes, however, the realists’ message about the need to act carefully in a fallen world ends up clashing with Americans’ loftier impulses. The result is a tedious cycle that plays itself out again and again.

By 1952, the Truman administration had gotten the nation trapped in a seemingly endless conflict in a strange place halfway around the globe. Dwight Eisenhower, who rode to the White House on a platform of cutting the country’s losses, worked to balance budgets, end the Korean War and keep out of further military trouble. His realism worked as policy, but it did not offer the rhetorical and ideological red meat the American public craves. That left Vice President Richard Nixon open to his opponent’s charges, in the 1960 election, that the administration had displayed cramped vision and a lack of vigor.

The victorious John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson set about paying any price and bearing any burden for their ideals. Eight years later, confronted with another endless war, Americans decided it was time for some old-fashioned realism again.

As president, Nixon inherited not only the mess in Vietnam but also hostile relationships with two major nuclear-armed powers. Trying to bring American resources and commitments into balance with each other and with the global realities of power, he and Henry Kissinger, his consigliere, extricated the United States from Vietnam, forged a new relationship with the Soviet Union and started a rapprochement with China.

For this among other things, they were vilified as cold-blooded amoral schemers out of touch with American principles and values, and were promptly succeeded by a left-wing idealist (Jimmy Carter) and then a right-wing one (Ronald Reagan). Both regimes denounced Nixon and Kissinger’s realism, dedicated themselves to moralism in foreign policy and had more than their share of foreign policy failures. (Reagan got lucky in the end, but was able to capitalize on the luck only by embracing Mikhail Gorbachev against the advice of his own more ideological aides.)

George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft then offered an updated and nonpathological version of the Nixon-Kissinger approach and presided over the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reversal of the occupation of Kuwait. Their reward? To be hounded from office after one term and derided as cold-blooded amoralists. They, too, were succeeded by a left-wing idealist (Bill Clinton) and then a right-wing one (George W. Bush), who once again loudly dedicated themselves to moralism in foreign policy and had more than their share of failures.

Mr. Clinton came to office decrying his predecessor’s callous aloofness from Balkan conflicts and his coddling of “the butchers of Beijing.” He was quickly forced to change his tune and spent much of his two terms marking time while dithering over just how American power could and should be used abroad.

The younger Mr. Bush talked a realist game on the campaign trail but morphed into the grandest of all visionaries after the attacks of Sept. 11. Following a quick success in Afghanistan, however, over the next few years all three pillars of the supposedly revolutionary Bush doctrine – pre-emption, regime change, and a clear division between those “with us” and “against us”- came crashing down.

What the administration meant by pre-emption was really preventive war, a concept whose poor reputation has been reinforced by the failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq together with the costly and bungled occupation. Regime change was based on the idea that problems abroad stem from the nature of certain foreign governments and can be fully solved only by replacing them with better ones. Today, as during the Cold War, it remains a worthwhile goal unmatched by a practical strategy for achieving it. And as for dividing the world between friends and foes, the Bush team-like all its predecessors-has found itself stuck dealing primarily with inconvenient cases in the middle, from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to China and France.

Seen in proper perspective, in other words, the Bush administration’s signature efforts represent not some durable, world-historical shift in America’s approach to foreign policy but merely one more failed idealistic attempt to escape the difficult trade-offs and unpleasant compromises that international politics inevitably demand – even from the strongest power since Rome. Just as they have so many times before, the realists have come in after an election to offer some adult supervision and tidy up the joint. This time it’s simply happened under the nose of a victorious incumbent rather than his opponent (which may account for the failure to change the rhetoric along with the policy).

BEING fully American rather than devotees of classic European realpolitik, the realists-today represented most prominently by Ms. Rice and her team at the State Department-offer not different goals but a calmer and more measured path toward the same ones. They still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism. But they seek legitimate authority rather than mere material dominance, favor cost-benefit analyses rather than ideological litmus tests, and prize good results over good intentions.

So what can we expect next? A spell of calm without dramatic visionary campaigns or new wars, along with an effort to gradually wind down the current conflict while leaving Iraq reasonably stable but hardly a liberal democracy. This is likely to play well – until domestic carping over the realists’ supposedly limited vision starts the wheel of American foreign policy turning once again.

Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

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