Giving ‘Realism’ a Bad Name

Friday, June 19, 2009
James Ceaser

Democrats are clinging stubbornly to their new religion of “realism” and “pragmatism” in foreign affairs even when prudence dictates otherwise. Surely that was the case in responding to the fraudulent Iranian election and its aftermath, when President Barack Obama was tepid at best in condemning the conduct of the mullocracy. So as reformers in Tehran were being hosed down and rounded up, our “realists” stood mute, fearful that any critical comment might upset the one the president dignifies as the “Supreme Leader” or interfere with our policy of “engaging” adversaries. The administration will not even await the outcome of events before signaling its eagerness to deal with the current government. Realists will pay any price and bear any burden to avoid anything that resembles the democracy agenda of former president George W. Bush.

Democrats were not always so tough-minded. For decades, they supported the causes of democracy and humanitarianism, regularly excoriating Republican presidents for coddling antidemocratic leaders.

President Ronald Reagan was taken to task for his cozy relations with dictators such as Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos (whom he eventually succeeded in moving aside); the first President Bush was accused of fighting the first gulf war at the bidding of the Saudi king. Even George W. Bush, when it was politically convenient, was whipped with the lash of the Democrats’ idealism. Almost all the Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination in 2008 criticized his close relationship with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, with considerations of realism providing him no relief. Barack Obama was no exception:

I said very early on, when emergency rule was initiated by Musharraf, that we should suspend military aid  until democracy was fully restored, including releasing political prisoners, and ensuring freedom of expression and freedom of the press during the election period.

But the Iraq war—and partisan politics—gradually changed the Democrats’ calculations. As conditions deteriorated in Iraq, and as many finally accepted that President Bush was in earnest in his commitment to the spread of democracy, liberals flipped. They abandoned their previous commitment to principle, condemned Bush for idealism and ideological blindness, and embraced with fervor the position they labeled realism. Realism, if the word is taken at face value, seems to mean nothing more—or less—than seeing the world as it is, without blinders or excessive hopes or fears. But in the context of the debate in recent years, it came to refer to something much more specific: a cessation of all principled talk about democracy and universal rights, including their philosophical foundations, and a willingness to engage with any and all forces that could claim to have created order. Democracy, realists say, is for the long run; in the short run our job is to deal with the forces of order.

Under the sway of this view, liberals were suddenly falling all over themselves to prove their manliness by dismissing Bush’s naïveté. Among commentators and intellectuals, the passionate embrace of realism went further still. The real realists—no touch of sentiment or nostalgia here—took to ridiculing democracy itself. Hadn’t democracy been promoted, to no good effect, in Palestine and Lebanon? (In the latter case, President Obama seemed to change his tune.) A Harvard professor even wondered aloud to me how much democracy was worth, even in principle, if it had elected George W. Bush. This was the cup of academic wisdom from which many of our politicians began to drink.

Realism as practiced has become an inflexible response to an imaginary idealism.

In fact, the Bush policy was never quite as given to idealism as was commonly depicted. In many of the places where that administration pursued democracy, the nondemocratic forces were not our allies and offered little prospect of establishing viable order. The options for establishing stable regimes in our world today are few, and often the hoped-for strongmen are not that strong. There was never, for example, an available despot on hand in Iraq who could have miraculously picked up the pieces and restored order. None of this, however, prevented realists from condemning the troop surge in 2007 and proposing the mirage of partitioning Iraq among three nondemocratic states.

Yet granting the Bush critics part of their point, it can be admitted that pursuing democracy became too inflexible a doctrine. Foreign policy is a practical realm in which the primary aim is to promote the nation’s security and interests. There is no room for an ethics of intention, only for an ethics of results or responsibility. No nation should follow a formula for its own sake. But this obvious counsel of prudence leaves open the question of what it is that promotes our security and interests. The masters of so-called realism have all too often missed opportunities for fundamental change. Their “tough” acceptance of order turns into a worship of order, and they discount the prospects of change even before they have the chance to test their strength. Just where, one wonders, would the current realists have stood at the time of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine? The question answers itself. They would surely not have been “meddling” in the Syrian or Russian zone of influence but checking with Hafez Assad and bowing to Vladimir Putin.

Does anyone believe that democrats in Tehran, Havana, or Caracas are celebrating today the triumph of the cool realists in Washington?

One thing is certain. President Obama has taken not only his administration but his entire party a long way down the road to this new posture of celebrating order. The current silence of Democrats on the Hill, once passionate defenders of democracy, speaks volumes. Meanwhile, the president has not only cultivated the art of publicly apologizing before the world for George W. Bush’s sins but is preemptively removing America from taking any strong public stands out of fear that they will backfire in the current environment. Only, it seems, when the world realizes that this is Obama’s America, and not the America of the past, can our moral authority carry any weight. Evidently, we have not yet reached that point.

Realism as practiced has become an inflexible response to an imaginary idealism. Its costs will soon become obvious, if they are not already. Those include not just an inability to fashion a moral or principled domestic consensus for foreign policy but also harm to reformist forces around the world that are struggling to establish constitutional governments in the face of authoritarian rulers. It may be quaint in our pragmatic age to speak of the intrinsic value of honor, but honor does have practical benefits. It instills the confidence in others that, to the measure of your ability, you will have their back. Does anyone believe that democrats in Tehran, Havana, or Caracas are celebrating today the triumph of the cool realists in Washington?

Foreign policy is a practical realm in which the primary aim is to promote the nation’s security and interest.

It is a dictum of our new foreign policy that “moral hubris” is out and “humility” is in. This is fine as long as humility does not turn into its own form of hubris, giving the green light everywhere to the forces of oppression. Democrats now run the risk of turning their vaunted new doctrine of realism into a rigid ideology. It would be much better to follow the sober advice of that unerring scholar of international relations, Polonius: neither an idealist nor a realist be.