Staying the Course: Realism and the Bush Administration

Beyond securing national interests, idealistic crusades beckon; the temptation to use American power to reshape the world is quite potent.

In the National Interest describes itself as America's only realist weekly (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal that a British foreign policy website disputes our realist credentials, because of our willingness to entertain alternative points of view).

A colleague of mine, however, raised an interesting question. Why is a foreign affairs weekly edited "from a realist perspective" needed? After all, who wants to read editorials couched in pragmatic rationalism when emotional idealism makes for better copy?

There is a grain of truth in his assertion. After all, it is much sexier to couch military action against Saddam Hussein as a noble undertaking to spread democracy than as a pedestrian exercise to disarm Iraq, to remove its weapons-of-mass-destruction capability and maintain U.S. political standing and power in the Middle East. Lofty aims--however unrealistic--rather than practical objectives are what stir the blood of the citizenry, right?

It is to combat this kind of indulgence that In the National Interest exists. As realists, we believe policy should be evaluated by its likely results, not by the motives or intentions of its framers. Realists are prepared to take calculated risks to achieve their ends, but shy away from gambling outright with a nation's blood or treasure.

For the past year, the soul of the Bush Administration has wavered between realism and various forms of idealism. Beyond securing national interests, idealistic crusades beckon; the temptation to use American power to reshape the world is quite potent.

One pernicious form of idealistic moralizing that has crept back into the discourse is a form of American exceptionalism that says that when terrorists strike other nations, they must have justified reasons for doing so, but that attacks on Americans are in a separate class altogether. It is a departure from the stark realism embraced by the Bush Administration immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In their aftermath, the administration endorsed the formula proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, that there were no "good" terrorists. No matter how oppressed a particular ethnic or religious minority, no matter how noble the cause, targeting civilians or the civilian infrastructure of society could not be tolerated. It appeared that the Bush Administration was prepared to recognize that any successful war on terrorism meant combating political chaos in favor of strengthening legitimate states. Tamils, Albanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Palestinians, Basques--all might have legitimate grievances, but no cause could justify that tactics that had, in the end, turned the World Trade Center into a funeral pyre for 3,000 souls.

Other major powers--notably Russia and India--took Washington's rhetoric of a broad, sustained campaign against "all forms" of international terrorism at face value. So did terrorists--and their sponsors. It was no coincidence that within three weeks of the attacks (on September 28) Chechen separatists announced their willingness to open talks with Russia--without preconditions. On October 23, the Irish Republican Army took the first steps toward disarmament. Less than a week later, the Basque ETA proclaimed it would lay down its weapons if Spain would consent to a referendum on independence. Meanwhile, the government of Bosnia--after tolerating the presence of Islamist radicals on its soil for years--moved to arrest and deport a number of individuals tied to terrorist activities in the Middle East and Europe.

Then the sympathy loophole re-opened. There was a marked reluctance to grant a blank check to states like Russia, China or India in coping with regional insurgencies in Chechnya, Xinjiang or Kashmir. Perhaps "individuals" affiliated with guerrilla movements in these countries engaged in terrorist "tactics", some argued in Washington, but disarming these groups, by force if necessary, was not the answer. Many Europeans applied a similar logic to the Middle East, characterizing Palestinian suicide bombings as legitimate (even if regrettable) resistance to occupation rather than as terrorism directed against civilians.

As a result, the anti-terrorist coalition began to fray. This, in turn, emboldened groups in Latin America, Eurasia and the Middle East to conclude that the old refrain, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", would allow them to cloak their violent activities behind latent sympathy for their causes.

An editorial in the December 2-9, 2000 issue of The New Republic epitomizes this regrettable shift. Entitled "A Separate War", it argues that "the United States must distinguish Russia's actions in Chechnya from U.S. efforts against global Islamic terrorism." The issue at hand, they maintain, is separatism ("self-determination"), not terrorism.

This, of course, is a distinction readily embraced by the defenders of Yasir Arafat as well. In many ways, Aslan Maskhadov is the Arafat of the Caucasus. Maskhadov denounces terrorist acts but his administration has proven unable or unwilling to prevent others acting in the name of the Chechen national movement from planning and carrying out operations like the seizure of the Moscow theater (a target whose military significance still eludes me).

There is much to be critical of in the Russian record on Chechnya. A heavy-handed military campaign that brutalizes the civilian populace is counterproductive. In the spirit of partnership, the United States should be prepared to offer constructive advice (and back it up with concrete assistance when necessary and appropriate).