STEPHEN WALT has converted me to realism. If U.S. containment policy—globe-girdling alliances, overseas bases galore, massive foreign aid, billions spent on ideological warfare—represents “realism”; and if Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist policies—the hot rhetoric, the Reagan Doctrine, the National Endowment for Democracy, the military and intelligence buildups, Star Wars—represent “realism,” sign me up.
I poke fun at Walt’s methodology: footnotes lend a patina of scholarliness to a coarse and dishonest argument. Thus, he quotes William Kristol’s embarrassing underestimations of the forces required in Iraq, but shamelessly fails to mention that Kristol soon volubly advocated sending more. He professes solicitude for Israel, although the anti-Israel diatribe that made him famous is celebrated among devotees of Israel’s destruction. (Recently a convicted Hamas militant from Chicago entered Walt’s work into his sentencing record to justify his acts.) Walt whines that neocons err unfailingly, realists are consistently prescient, yet the world embraces the former and ignores the latter. Can this be?
Walt flatters himself that realists uniquely see “the world as it really is.” But the real world is nuanced, often ambiguous. Walt’s world is stick figures, straw men, parodies, exaggerations. Is Maliki a “pro-Iranian leader”? Yes, but he is also pro-American and he is fighting the pro-Iranian, anti-American Sadrist militias. Is Ahmadinejad truly happy to have U.S. soldiers on his borders? Do neocons really call our enemies a “tightly unified monolith”? If so, why no quote?
Walt appropriates for “realism” any successful policy and attributes to neocons any unsuccessful one, twisting things to fit. He paints containment as a “realist” policy based on George Kennan’s foundational role. The strategy that Walt says “won the cold war” lasted over forty years, and most of that time Kennan lamented what he had wrought, precisely because he was a realist. Moreover, Kennan’s version of containment was not Walt’s. Here’s Kennan: “The adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Here’s Walt: “Preventing Moscow from seizing the key centers of industrial power that lay near its borders.” Walt boasts that realists opposed the Vietnam War, which followed from containment. You can’t have it both ways: claiming credit for containment and for opposition to Vietnam.
Were Reagan’s policies “closer to the realist ideal”? In Walt’s caricature Reagan’s main action toward the USSR was selling grain. Then why did TASS, for example, call Reagan a “bellicose lunatic anti-Communis[t]”?
Walt says Qaddafi relinquished his nuclear project due to American renunciation of regime change. I suppose he didn’t notice the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s neocon hard-line, says Walt, caused Pyongyang to renounce the NPT, but it had been violating the NPT for fifteen years and had produced a bomb, per U.S. intelligence, before Bush took office. Walt quotes Edward Luttwak to imply that neocons, unlike realists, opposed the first (good) Gulf War. But what makes Luttwak—whose mantra is that economics trumps politics—a neocon? Actually, neocons supported that war unanimously while realists were divided.
Walt declares the (neocon-inspired) surge a failure and the (realism-inspired) negotiations with Pyongyang a success. But how can he know their outcomes? Because he portrays realists as prescient. The purpose of his footnotes is to bolster that claim although most are vague, sourcing no specific quote.
Walt begins by citing Walt, so I looked it up.
In 1987 he wrote:
The current balance of world power . . . is likely to remain extremely stable.
In a 1990 post-cold-war edition, Walt hedged his forecasts but here are some.
Perceptions of U.S.-Japanese rivalry are growing, now that the Soviet threat no longer provides a powerful motive for cooperation.
The Eastern European states may lean toward the West should Soviet intentions appear more threatening, or tilt back toward Moscow if a reunified Germany poses the greater danger.
As for NATO itself, the optimistic rhetoric about maintaining the “Atlantic Community” should be viewed with some skepticism.
Realists, says Walt, know that “all great powers tend to think that spreading their own values will be good for others.” Aside from being erroneous (Hitler thought no such thing), this finally brings us to genuine realism. Is there no difference between spreading Communism and spreading democracy, say, between West Germany and East Germany? Walt caveats that realists are “neither moral relativists nor disinterested in values,” but he neither explains nor supports this claim. Two paragraphs later he notes with satisfaction that America’s withdrawal from Vietnam eventuated in “free markets and normalized relations with Washington,” shedding no tear for the autogenocide of Cambodia and the Vietnamese boat people.
Discounting the dishonest polemics, Walt’s case boils down to the undeniable failures of neocon-supported policy in Iraq. Merely to oppose the war, however, is not enough. America must find a response to the challenge that became vivid on 9/11. To date, realists have offered none.