The New Realism

Monday, January 30, 2006

According to opinion polls, most Americans are now critical of President Bush’s foreign policy. They are uncertain not merely over the daily fare of explosions in Iraq. Rather, the sus­tained public attack on American action abroad, emanating from both the Left and the hard Right, has led to bipartisan and broadly shared condem­nation. Even some who once were adherents of preemption have bailed out, claiming that although they supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, they are appalled by what followed. Or, translated, “In hindsight I remain in favor of my near-perfect military campaign, but not your messy reconstruction”—as if America’s past wars were not fraught with tragic lapses and muddled operations.

But for all the media hysteria and the indis­putable errors of implementation, the Bush Doc­trine is, in fact, moving ahead. Soon it will bear long-term advantages. Despite our inability to ar­ticulate fully the dangers and stakes of the war against radical Islam and our failure to muster the full mil­itary potential of the United States, and despite the fact that our own southern border remains vulner­able to terrorist infiltration, there has been enormous progress in the past four years.

We have removed both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have cost us more than 2,100 American combat deaths, a hard loss and to be mourned, but still about two-thirds of the number of American civilians killed on September 11, 2001, the first day of the war. Thanks to our forward pol­icy of hitting rogue regimes abroad and staying on to help in the reconstruction, coupled with increased vigilance at home, the United States has not been struck since then.

Inside Iraq there is a constitutional government grinding ahead, and now a history of successful elections, with promises of a constitutional and fully functioning parliament. Much is rightly made of Sunni intransigence, yet this minority population, with no oil and with a disreputable past of support for either Saddam or the Zarqawi ter­rorists or both, has been put in an untenable posi­tion. Its most radical clerics call for Iraqi Sunnis to vote no on the constitution as Sunni radicals such as Zarqawi threaten to kill any who would vote at all—even as most others resign themselves to a future of participation in the constitutional process.

There has also been a radical transformation in regional mentalities. The elections in Egypt, though boycotted and rigged, were an unprece­dented event, and the irregularities quickly ignited popular demonstrations. Events elsewhere are no less significant, as Libya and Pakistan have re­nounced their nuclear commerce, Syrians are out of Lebanon, and rudimentary parliaments are forming in the Gulf. Even on the Palestinian ques­tion, the death of Arafat, Israel’s building a pro­tective fence and withdrawing from Gaza, and the removal of Saddam have strengthened the hand of beleaguered reformers in the West Bank and be­yond. The onus for policing their miscreants is gradually shifting to the Palestinians themselves, which is where it belongs.

There are, of course, no Swiss cantons arising in the Middle East. Rather, we see the initial tremors of massive tectonic shifts, as the old plates of Is­lamic radicalism or secular autocracy give way to something new and more democratic. The United States is the primary catalyst of this dangerous but long-overdue upheaval. It has taken the risk almost alone; the ultimate reward will be a more stable world for all.

Much is made of global anti-Americanism and hatred of George W. Bush. But under closer exami­nation, the furor is mostly confined to Western Europe, the autocratic Middle East, and our own elites here at home. In Europe, our most vocal critics—Jacques Chirac in France and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany—have lost considerable domestic support and are under challenge by realists worried about their own unassimilated minorities and appreciative of American consis­tency in the war against radical Islam. In the meantime, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Aus­tralians, and Indians have never been closer to the United States. Russia and China have little beef with our war on terror, and themselves practice realist politics that few condone.

Here at home, the relative lack of bipartisan sup­port is due partly to the media culture of the Left, partly to the turmoil and resentment of an out-of-power Democratic Party, partly to uncertainty as to how it will all turn out. On the far Right, some see only too much money being spent, too much pro­liferation of government, and too much Israel in the background.

What lies ahead? We must continue to navigate the dangerous narrows between the two unaccept­able alternatives of secular dictatorship and rule by Islamic law, even as we prod recipients of U.S. aid or military support, such as Mubarak, Musharraf, and the Saudi royal family, to reform. At home, un­less we come up with a viable policy combining in­creased oil production, conservation, nuclear power, and alterna­tive fuels, our ability to protect ourselves from in­ternational blackmail will soon begin to erode. Most forbiddingly, nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or any other nondemocratic Middle Eastern country could destroy much if not all of what has been accomplished. What would have happened in the late 1930s had America found itself dependent on Romanian oil or German coal, or learned that Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco was close to obtaining atomic weapons?

I continue without reserve to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and our pressure for re­form in the Middle East at large. Not because the Bush Doctrine follows some predetermined neo­conservative agenda—I thought the January 28, 1998, letter by the Project for the New American Century, urging the removal of Saddam Hussein, was ill-conceived at the time—but rather because, in a post-9/11 age, muscular idealism is the new American realism, the one antidote to Islamic rad­icalism and its appendages of terror.

Rather than seeking empire or economic advan­tage, or being recklessly utopian, our present poli­cy promotes democracy abroad even as we down­size in Germany and South Korea and withdraw all our troops from Saudi Arabia. This is striking, and admirable. What are we to make of this tough new doctrine that is neither wide-eyed Wilsonian ideal­ism nor Cold War realpolitik? Call it something like enlightened Jacksonianism—a determination to undertake needed military action and to promote political reform consistent with our democratic val­ues when, and only when, a continuation of the sta­tus quo abroad threatens the security of the United States.