Staying the Course: Realism and the Bush Administration

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).

Most Russians support autonomy for Chechnya. (The 1994 agreement between the Federation and Tatarstan provides an excellent model.) The main issue, especially for Chechnya's immediate neighbors in the Russian Federation--including the other Muslim republics of the North Caucasus--is whether an autonomous government in Grozny is prepared to crack down on Islamic militants and organized crime. So far, the Chechen administrations of Dudayev and Maskhadov are zero for two--but that is a separate issue.

Unfortunately, the editors at The New Republic have not examined closely enough Chechnya's record during its two de facto periods of independence (1991-1994 and 1996-1999), which belies many of the claims that they make. The reality is that international terrorist movements have hijacked and infiltrated separatist movements all over the world to further their own objectives. The neat distinction they seek to draw, between "terrorism" and "separatism", is often blurred in the real world. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (respectively the director and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the second Clinton Administration) observed that such clear lines often do not exist. In their recent book, The Age of Sacred Terror, the fact that "donations for the mujahidin in Chechnya were also funding the terrorists in Afghanistan did not register" among many of those engaged in counter-terrorism efforts, especially in the Middle East; people persisted in trying to create separate categories for what constituted "terrorism" and what constituted "separatism." Certainly, encouraging Chechen or Kashmir moderates to effectively distance themselves from radical forces and helping to facilitate negotiations is a worthwhile cause--but as ongoing difficulties with the Palestinians demonstrates, it is far easier said than done. Therefore, as long as separatists in Chechnya or Kashmir accept aid and assistance from international terrorist movements, then Russia's or India's fight is indeed also our own.

If the Bush Administration must avoid the temptation to draw distinctions between "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" out of any sense of misguided sympathy. Not only will the war on terrorism be imperiled, but the chance to actually settle some of the world's festering conflicts may be dashed. It is noteworthy that in the Philippines, for example, the Abu Sayyaf organization--tied to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network--has been trying to disrupt the efforts of the central government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front--an insurgency comprised of southern Filipino Muslims--to reach a peaceful settlement and begin the socioeconomic reconstruction of the region. On the other hand, the ongoing peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) demonstrates that defining clear standards of what constitutes terrorism--and holding groups accountable--works. Fearful of losing support by being branded as a terrorist organization, the LTTE entered into a cease-fire with the Sri Lankan government on February 23, 2002; the most recent high-level contact (between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham in Oslo on November 24, 2002) was sufficiently productive that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister felt confident that the two sides could "take this process to a point from which there can be no return."

Fortunately, the Bush Administration appears to be returning to the right path. Earlier this fall, after a delay, the State Department designated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) a terrorist organization. Although the Uighur cause enjoys a good deal of sympathy in Washington, and even if China remains a repressive society, the definitive recognition that it is unacceptable for any group to target and attack civilians--even if in the name of a persecuted minority--has helped to restore credibility to the war on terrorism.

Realistic appraisal of common threats, not idealistic appeals to values, produces practical cooperation between states. After a summer of "exporting democracy" and "regime change" rhetoric, the administration got UN Security Council Resolution 1441 passed unanimously by focusing on the threats Saddam's defiance of international institutions and irresponsible pursuit of weapons of mass destruction pose to all the major powers, not just the United States. One can only hope that the administration will not stray from the realist path in dealing with international terrorism and other threats to global security.