Realism's Shining Morality

Realism's Shining Morality

Mini Teaser: Bush's first term saw real successes and serious failures.  To correct past miskakes, and avoid new ones, America's power must be wedded to leadership--and guided by a sense of the possible.

by Author(s): Robert F. EllsworthDimitri K. Simes

We are pleased that President George W. Bush achieved an impressive victory over Senator John Kerry--but we do not believe that the president received a clear mandate for conducting foreign policy. Indeed, it was unfortunate that there was no real foreign policy debate during the campaign--and this at a time when the United States must make fateful choices.

The president, understandably, was unwilling to acknowledge serious errors of judgment in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Yet Senator Kerry failed to offer a credible alternative. His attacks on administration policy, especially vis-à-vis Iraq, were more nitpicking than a serious evaluation of what went wrong and what lessons the United States should learn.

President Bush built a strong record on the defining issue of our time--fighting terrorism. He destroyed Al-Qaeda's base in Afghanistan, removing the Taliban from power. And regarding Iraq, there were only two feasible options. One was to offer Saddam a quid pro quo settlement--allowing him and his murderous regime to stay in power in return for verifiably giving up weapons of mass destruction and abandoning his regional pretensions. There was little constituency in the United States for such a course of action. The second was regime change. Senator Kerry himself had voted in 1998 for this option. The Clinton team (many of whom also served as advisors to the Kerry camp) opted for half-measures--conducting regular air strikes against Saddam, attempting (with declining success) to maintain strangulating sanctions, and plotting covert action. It was clear that these were not achieving their objective--while giving Saddam every incentive to strike back at the United States. So resolving the situation once and for all by ending the Saddam regime seemed to be a more prudent solution. One need not be a neoconservative to reach such a conclusion.

But how foreign policy is conducted also matters, and here it is vitally important that President Bush, in his second term, avoid wrong choices that may bring catastrophic consequences. The second Bush Administration will have to deal with two fundamental dilemmas: first, how to reconcile the war against terror with a commitment to make the world safe for democracy; and second, how to assure that unchallenged U.S. military supremacy is used to enhance America's ability to shape the world rather than provoke global opposition to the United States, making us more isolated and accordingly less secure. The neoconservative vision for conducting American foreign policy is fraught with risks. And continuing to follow the prescriptions of the neoconservative faction in the Republican party may damage President Bush's legacy, imperil the country's fiscal stability and complicate America's ability to exercise global leadership.

It has become an article of faith for the increasingly influential alliance of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives that the United States, as the world's democratic hegemonic power, is both entitled and even morally bound to use whatever tools are necessary to save the world from brutality and oppression and to promote democratization around the globe. Up to a point, the War on Terror and encouraging democracy worldwide are mutually reinforcing. President Bush is quite right that democracy, particularly if we are talking about democracy in a stable society coupled with a rule of law and with adequate protection of minority rights, is not only morally preferable to authoritarian rule, but also is the best prescription against the emergence of deeply alienated radical groups prone to terrorism. The "democracy project" also appeals to the highest aspirations of the American people. After all, the Cold War was never driven solely by the need to contain Soviet power, but by the moral conviction that defending freedom in the United States and in the world in general was something worth fighting and dying for--even, in the Berlin Crisis, risking nuclear war itself.

High-minded realists do not disagree with the self-appointed champions of global democracy (the neoconservatives and the liberal interventionists) that a strong preference for liberty and justice should be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. But they realize that there are tradeoffs between pushing for democracy and working with other sovereign states--some not always quite democratic--to combat global terror. Realists also, following the advice of General Charles Boyd, understand the need to "separate reality from image" and "to tell the truth, if only to ourselves"--not to play fast and loose with facts to create the appearance of acting morally. And they are aware that there are important differences in how the United States helps the world achieve freedom. Indeed, in his first press conference after his triumph at the polls, President Bush used three different terms in talking about America's global pro-democracy effort. He discussed the need "to encourage freedom and democracy", to "promote free societies", and to "spread freedom and democracy."

"Encouraging" democracy is not a controversial position. Nearly everyone in the world accepts that the sole superpower is entitled and indeed expected to be true to its core beliefs. "Promoting" democracy is vaguer and potentially more costly. Still, if the United States does so without resorting to military force and takes into account the circumstances and perspectives of other nations, then it is likely not to run into too much international opposition. "Spreading" democracy, however, particularly spreading it by force, coercion and violent regime change, is a different thing altogether. Those who suspect they may be on the receiving end of such treatment are unlikely to accept American moral superiority, are bound to feel threatened, and cannot reasonably be expected to cooperate with the United States on other important American priorities, including the War on Terror and nuclear proliferation.

Worse still, they may decide that acquiring nuclear weapons is the last--perhaps their only--option to deter an American attempt to overthrow their governments. This already appears to be the dynamic in the case of Iran and North Korea. Also, in dealing with the likes of Tehran and Pyongyang, there can be no certainty with whom they may share nuclear technology. Accordingly, there is a clear and present danger that pro-democracy zeal may enhance the greatest possible threat to U.S. security and the American way of life--the threat of nuclear terrorism.

We have already seen how overzealousness in the cause of democracy (along with a corresponding underestimation of the costs and dangers) has led to a dangerous overstretch in Iraq. As Shlomo Avineri, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has observed, what is currently going on in Iraq is not "the war the U.S.-led coalition had in mind when the decision was taken to topple Saddam Hussein." The United States could have rid Iraq of Saddam and his most notorious associates without turning the whole country upside down. America could have made it clear from the start that Washington had no ambitions in Iraq beyond removing the threat from Saddam's regime and co-opted the United Nations and the Arab League to create a provisional post-Saddam government. It would have been possible to communicate to less-discredited members of the old regime--first and foremost the military command--that in return for coming clean on Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, cooperating with coalition forces, introducing the rule of law and accepting a broad-based transitional government that would incorporate Iraqi exiles (and here one could have envisaged Prime Minister Iwad Allawi playing a key role), they could retain some degree of influence in the new Iraq. Additionally, Iraq's neighbors, none of them friends of Saddam, could have been assured that they had nothing to worry from the American military presence on their borders, as long as they did not attempt to obstruct a U.S. occupation which their benign attitude could help to make shorter.

Instead, we opted to dismantle the Ba'ath party government altogether without having anything with which to replace it, dissolved the Iraqi army and proudly pronounced that the liberation of Iraq was just a beginning of a grand democratic transformation of the Greater Middle East. It required an inordinate degree of naivety and, frankly, ignorance about the real conditions in Iraq and in the Middle East in general to believe that this overly ambitious scheme could work--especially when pursued without any visible effort to promote the Arab-Israeli settlement and from the position of being the sole sponsor of the Sharon government. An effort to reshape the Middle East according to American specifications was bound to face opposition on the ground in Iraq, from Iraq's neighbors such as Iran and Syria, and to say the least, dampen enthusiasm for helping the United States in Iraq even on the part of the most friendly Arab regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all of which had cause for concern that they could become targets of the American master plan for restructuring the region.

America has had to pay for these errors with blood, treasure, diminished international prestige and a weakened ability to focus adequately on and get much needed international cooperation on other urgent priorities, such as the emerging nuclear capabilities of North Korea and now of Iran. Reactions from other major powers strongly suggest that the Iraqi experience, for example, has made it considerably harder for the United States to get European, Russian and Chinese cooperation on tough measures against Iran. (In the case of Moscow and Beijing, the experience with the 1999 U.S.-led attack on Yugoslavia was also a factor.) There is a reluctance to pass UN Security Council resolutions that would include a threat of force--a threat that would be quite useful in pressuring the Iranian government, but which many nations, including some of America's long-standing partners, are afraid would be used by the United States to justify unilateral military action.

Neoconservatives both in and outside the administration argue that all that is needed to make American foreign policy more effective is to change the tone of American statements and to engage in better public relations. This is fantasy. What is required is not just a change in salesmanship, but rather how U.S. policy is conducted.

Nothing short of a midcourse adjustment can allow America to reassert true world leadership--enjoying the concrete support of other major powers, not (with the notable exception of Great Britain) token contributions made by insufficient "coalitions of the willing."

We suggest an adjustment, rather than a wholescale course correction. In its first term, the Bush Administration showed it was capable of pursuing a realist foreign policy grounded in vital interests. After an initially rough start with China and Russia, the Bush team came to accept the importance of building partnerships with these major powers.

And after the tragedies of 9/11, President Bush was absolutely right in his call for a relentless and ruthless pursuit of terrorists wherever they may be, and, unlike many neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, he rejected double standards in dealing with the terrorist threat. He did not reclassify certain terrorists as "freedom fighters", even in the face of sometimes considerable pressure from special interests. Thus, he refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for his tough (even if not always effective) measures against terrorists acting in the name of the Chechen cause. President Bush has made it clear that groups that perpetrate horrific violence specifically directed against civilian targets are terrorists. No matter how noble the cause they espouse, and even if there are legitimate grievances at play, sympathy must never become a means to aid and abet terrorism.

After an initial bout of euphoria following the fall of Baghdad, the Bush Administration has come to realize that, as a practical matter, with the United States being preoccupied with Iraq, it is unlikely that force should be used to remove other repressive regimes as long as they do not threaten the United States. And in Iraq itself, once National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice became responsible for guiding that country's political reconstruction, the focus changed from starry-eyed democratic experimentation to establishing stability and ensuring a quick transfer of authority to the new Iraqi government. This is a policy not only less threatening to Iraq's neighbors, but also one which has a better chance of success among Iraqis who are tired of disorder.

Of course, in the post-September 11 world, the leading superpower has no choice but to remain assertive, and that includes rare instances when America has to act unilaterally and to use military force pre-emptively. The question is, under which circumstances and in the name of what? No responsible American president, as Senator Kerry acknowledged during the campaign, can surrender the right to do whatever is required to defend American security, even when the UN, NATO and other international bodies refuse to give consent. Realistically, other nations would not expect that much from us--even those who cherish their ability to use international law as a straightjacket on U.S. freedom of action.

As far as pre-emption is concerned, there is a growing consensus in the world that traditional notions of deterrence, appropriate against nation-states (which were in control of their territory and were vulnerable to massive retaliation in response to irresponsible behavior), simply cannot work in the age of sub-national terrorist coalitions and with the apocalyptic consequences of weapons of mass destruction increasingly available to non-state actors. The issue is not with pre-emption itself, but rather with the notion, now widespread in the world, that the United States may use pre-emption arbitrarily--not against genuine enemies threatening America, but against those whom the American political consensus at the moment decides to label as brutal and undemocratic. With their historic reluctance to have authority without the consent of the governed, Americans should be the first to understand why the rest of the world would not be prepared to surrender such overwhelming power to any one nation. After all, there is no such thing as a benign tyranny. The ability of one power to act freely without constraints, short of those it is willing to impose upon itself, would look like a tyranny even to those countries that, as a result of their democratic credentials, have little reason to fear American punishment themselves.

The president of the United States proudly proclaims that he is a man of faith, and so were the American Founding Fathers. However, the genius of the American experiment was based on the fact that great ideals were combined with an equally great pragmatism and that strong belief in one's cause was also measured by a decent respect for the passions of others. That is what makes the neoconservative creed such a departure from the American political tradition. President Bush will enhance his legacy and do a lot of good for U.S. foreign policy effectiveness if he makes high-minded realism his foreign policy motto. Such high-minded realism should be based on five important principles.

First, the War on Terror should be made the true organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. That does not mean neglecting other important preferences such as U.S. economic interests, environmental issues and human rights. But none of them should be pursued at the expense of the struggle against terror. After all, success or failure in the War on Terror could very well determine the fate of America.

Second, the Bush Administration should work hard in its second term to re-establish American leadership. This is not about allowing anyone else to checkmate the exercise of U.S. power. Rather, it requires a serious evaluation of tradeoffs between compromises in the name of greater international support and the freedom of action associated with acting alone when no multilateral solution is available. For example, in the instances of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, it is wise for America to work hard to move other relevant nations as close as possible to the U.S. position--as imperfect as such consensus may be--rather than to adopt a threatening pose in splendid isolation. In that context it should be made clear that pre-emption is a last resort, applicable only when there is credible evidence of a real threat to vital U.S. interests.

Third, as a pre-eminent military power, whose capabilities no one disputes, we should follow the guidance of President Theodore Roosevelt to speak softly while carrying a big stick. America should not be timid in protecting and promoting its interests, but a modicum of humility when talking about our exceptional goodness would help others reconcile themselves to American preponderance and make it easier for them to accommodate our preferences. That is something that does not come naturally to neoconservative polemicists who seem to derive satisfaction from loudly beating their drums--but it would again be in the best American tradition and most likely to produce results.

Fourth, we should abandon the demonstrably false pretense that all nations and cultures share essentially the same values. Every country, every region, every civilization has its own cycle, circumstances and path of development. We have disagreements over values and policies even with our democratic European allies and with Canada and Mexico just across the border--so we should not expect that the peoples of the Middle East would share our attitudes. One key passion in the Middle East is the rights of the Palestinians. This passion may seem exaggerated to us and manipulated by undemocratic Arab leaders. But the fact remains that it is strongly felt among the Muslim elites and masses alike. If we want our good intentions to be trusted in the Islamic world, and if we want to be able to encourage moderation and positive attitudes towards Western civilization among Muslims, a sympathetic attention to the Palestinian problem, obviously without abandoning the security of Israel, is a must. Yasir Arafat's departure may provide an important opening in that regard.

Finally, our focus on democracy should not be presented to others as an imperial command. Over the centuries we have been advised by leaders from John Adams to George Kennan to Ronald Reagan to be unto the world as a shining city on a hill, appealing to the better instincts of mankind--not to become a military empire demanding subservience. We certainly would not object to other countries emulating us, but it is more important that we have shared interests and work to address and promote them.

For President Bush to use his second term to enhance his legacy and to build--as he clearly wants--a lasting Republican majority, the United States needs to pursue a foreign policy based on thoughtful evaluation, dealing with the world as it is, rather than embracing polemical clichés passed off as ideas. And such a policy needs as its moral lodestone the traditional American value of prudence, not a neo-Trotskyite belief in a permanent revolution (even if it is a democratic rather than proletarian one). The neoconservative insistence that the United States can be made safe only by making other nations accept American values is a recipe for provoking a clash of civilizations rather than a way to enhance and promote America's global leadership.

In 1999, then-candidate Bush said, "Let us have an American foreign policy that reflects American character. The modesty of true strength, the humility of real greatness." September 11 has made this realistic and honorable approach even more essential for U.S. international conduct.

Essay Types: The Realist