Realism vs. Reality

A response to John J. Mearsheimer. 

Editor’s Note: Please see “America Unhinged” by John J. Mearsheimer.

John Mearsheimer is not especially worried about terrorism. It is only “a minor threat”. The attacks of September 11th may have been spectacular, but “did not cripple the United States.” Besides, another attack of that magnitude is “highly unlikely”. Even “nuclear terrorism, in short, is not a serious threat.” Mearsheimer writes that “significant obstacles” face any organization seeking to procure fissile material and weaponize it. Finally, he does not even break a sweat when considering that an unstable nuclear regime may lose control of its arsenal. Yes, he admits, “Political turmoil in a nuclear-armed state could in theory allow terrorists to grab a loose nuclear weapon, but the United States already has detailed plans to deal with that highly unlikely contingency.” This blithe confidence in the marginal relevance of terrorism is essential to Mearsheimer’s main argument, that “what happens [in Egypt and Syria] is of little importance for American security”; furthermore, US exaggeration of these countries’ significance reflects a fearful American mindset that detects dire threats “in every nook and cranny of the globe.” Yet if one pulls on the loose threads in Mearsheimer’s stance on terrorism, the logic of his essay begins to unravel.

It is striking that Prof. Mearsheimer’s comfort with loose nukes rests on his faith in “detailed” US planning for intervention in failed or failing states, which he tends to dismiss as futile. Perhaps he imagines that securing such weapons will entail nothing more than a series of commando raids, like the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Yet what if a failed state, say Pakistan in 2020, has dozens or hundreds of nuclear caches to secure? The US mission may entail a sizable intervention, including a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, perhaps with a measure of the “social engineering” that Mearsheimer dreads. The value of being prepared for such a campaign is not something he can accept. Previously, he has described American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan not just as failures, but as “unwinnable.”[1] This absolutism may be rhetorical excess, but Mearsheimer has argued that favorable conditions for counterinsurgency are so rare that it is practically impossible for the benefits to outweigh the costs.[2]

Of course, US intervention in Syria – for now a dead letter – was unlikely to involve boots on the ground. Instead it could’ve followed the pattern of Kosovo and Libya, where US and allied air power provided a decisive advantage to indigenous rebel forces. In Syria, the US had the opportunity to remove a tyrant who was a critical asset for both Iran and Hezbollah. Yet Mearsheimer insists “If anything, intervention [in Syria or Egypt] is likely to make a bad situation worse.” He then cites “America’s dismal record in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.” Yet in Libya, we prevented a horrific massacre and ousted Muammar Qaddafi, while leaving behind an admittedly unstable situation. In Afghanistan, Mearsheimer actually called for an end to the US air war in mid-November 2001, arguing instead for a campaign of “bribery [and] covert action” making “the fullest use of Pakistani intelligence and influence.” Why? Because the Northern Alliance was unreliable, the Taliban elusive and Afghan nationalism would ensure an unwelcome reception in Kabul.[3] He was wrong on every point. Without reference to his earlier prediction, Mearsheimer later admitted, “Sometimes it is easy to eliminate hostile regimes, as the US did in Afghanistan.”[4] Of course, American blundering can make things worse. After four years of inattention, the Taliban re-emerged and became a serious menace. In Iraq, a lethal insurgency emerged within months of the US invasion. Only after four agonizing years did the Coalition employ an effective strategy against the insurgents backed by sufficient manpower. Within months, violence plummeted. Yet as late as 2011, Mearsheimer insisted, “the surge has not been a success,” because of ongoing political instability.[5] Ironically, the melting away of American gains in Iraq is attributable in no small part to a President who shared Prof. Mearsheimer’s revulsion at the war itself and refused to leave behind a stabilizing force to maintain leverage over the Maliki government.

To understand why Mearsheimer cannot countenance American “meddling” in other nations’ politics, it’s necessary to place “America Unhinged” within the context of Mearsheimer’s extensive theoretical writing. He identifies himself as a “structural” or “neo-” realist, meaning that he considers states to be the fundamental units in world politics and seeks explanations for their behavior based on their material power relative to other states. Hence, the ideas that guide a state’s leadership are effectively irrelevant, since the state’s interests are determined by the balance of power. Thus Mearsheimer can write with brio, “It does not matter much who is in charge in Cairo or Damascus.” To make such a position plausible, for Syria in particular, Mearsheimer must downplay the threat of terrorism, especially nuclear. Yet in 2006, he stated that nuclear terrorism “is clearly the greatest threat now facing the United States.”[6] Discomfited by the unpleasant facts of the Syrian civil war, Prof. Mearsheimer contradicts himself in order to save his theory and justify his politics.