di G. Friedman, Stratfor.com
Iran says it has enriched uranium. Hosni Mubarak is claiming that Shia in Sunni states are traitors to their countries. The French are in political and economic gridlock. With all these urgent things going on, it seems to us that it is time to talk of something important, something that has driven and divided American politics for centuries and will continue to do so: the argument between those who have been called idealists and those who have been labeled realists in U.S. foreign policy.
When the United States was in its infancy, France experienced a revolution that was in many ways similar to the American Revolution. Some Americans wanted to support the French revolutionaries, arguing that the United States had to pursue its moral ideals and stand by its moral partner. Others pointed out that the American economy was heavily dependent on Britain, the major market for American goods. Moreover, the young country relied on its ability to send exports to Europe, and the waters were controlled by Britain. Whatever moral inclinations the Americans might have had toward France, prudence required that they not take on Britain. The idealists tried to frame their arguments strategically and the realists tried to create a moral cast for their argument, but the problem, in the end, was simple: America’s survival depended on not alienating a country that was everything the colonists had fought against.
This argument has constantly torn apart American thinking about foreign policy. Consider this example from the more recent past: In World War II, the United States was allied with the Soviet Union, which was ruled by a genocidal maniac, Josef Stalin. At the time that the United States allied with Stalin, Adolf Hitler was only beginning to climb into Stalin’s class of killer. There were those who argued that the alliance with Stalin was a betrayal of every principle Americans stood for. Others, like Franklin Roosevelt, recognized that unless the United States allied with Stalin, Hitler likely would win the war. Those who opposed an alliance with Stalin based on moral ideals certainly had an excellent point — but those who argued that, apart from an alliance with the devil, the Republic might not survive, also had an excellent point.
Consider a final example. In 1972, the United States appeared to be a declining power. It was losing the war in Vietnam, and its position globally appeared to be deteriorating. The Soviet Union had split from China years before, and their confrontation along their frontier had, on occasion, been bloody. War was possible. Richard Nixon created an entente with the Chinese that was designed to encircle the Soviet Union. In retrospect, the strategy worked. However, in establishing relations with Mao’s China, the United States once again aligned itself with a murderous regime. The alternative was an unstoppable Soviet regime.
In each of these cases, the United States confronted this dilemma. On one side was the argument that unless the United States stood for its moral ideals, it would survive but lose its soul. Siding with Britain, Stalin or Mao might have been prudent, but it was a shallow prudence that would eliminate the raison d’etre for the American regime. On the other side was the argument that there could be no moral regime unless there was a regime. The United States did not have the strength to resist, on its own, Britain, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Without such questionable allies, the moral project would be impossible because the United States either would not survive, or would survive as a spent force.
It is important to note that these arguments cut across political and even ideological grounds. In 1972, people on the left celebrated Nixon’s alliance with Mao, and it was the right wing that raised moral doubts. Of course, many on the right supported Nixon and some on the left, not taken by the romance of Maoism, were appalled at the alignment. Similarly, it was the left in World War II that wanted an alliance with the Soviets, and Winston Churchill — far from a leftist — stood with them. In other words, the debate has never been an ideologically coherent argument. It has been all over the place.
The current incarnation of this argument concerns the U.S.-jihadist war, and the ideological complexity shows itself quickly.
There are two flavors of idealists here. First, there are those who argue that in waging its war against the jihadists, the United States should never do anything that would violate basic principles of human rights — and that it should avoid alliances with states that are themselves oppressive. So, for example, some argue that working closely with Saudi Arabia, a kingdom they regard as antithetical to American moral standards, is unacceptable.
There are also those who argue that the primary reason for going to war in the Middle East is to create democracies there. There are two sorts of idealists here. There are the neoconservatives — some of whom sincerely believe the prodemocracy argument, and others who have adopted it as a justification for military campaigns they supported for other reasons. But alongside the neoconservatives, there are liberals who argue that the protection of "human rights" — often used interchangeably with "democracy" — should be the primary justification for any war. Recall liberal support for the Kosovo war as an example.
On the other side of the rhetorical divide are those who make two arguments. The first is that — as in the historical cases involving Britain, the Soviet Union and China — the practical reality is that the United States must always work with allies when fighting in the Eastern Hemisphere, and that those allies frequently will be morally repugnant to Americans. In other words, whatever you may think of the Saudis’ view of women, an alliance with Saudi Arabia has been indispensable for fighting the war against al Qaeda, regardless of whether the later Iraq campaign was justified. In other words, the argument for alliance in the past remains valid today.
This is extended to the argument that the United States should have as its goal the creation of democracy in the Middle East. The counterargument goes like this: Democracy in the Middle East may be, in some moral sense, a good idea, but American power — though enormous — is not infinite. The jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere have not been crushed, and the United States needs regional allies. The Americans, the logic goes, cannot simultaneously seek alliance and try to overthrow regimes.
The idealist argument — that a country that pursues only its physical and economic security will lose its moral foundation — is not a frivolous argument. At a certain point, the pursuit of security requires the pursuit of power, and the pursuit of power is corrupting. At the same time, pursuing justice without a sufficiently large sword will get you whipped. And staying out of the fight does not mean that the fight won’t come to you. The American moral project can be lost in two ways: through opportunistic corruption or through annihilation.
Politicians do not have the luxury of contemplating the paradox of being. They must make decisions, and inaction is very much a decision. George Washington decided that safety trumped political principle and broadly steered clear of the French revolutionary regime. Franklin Roosevelt saw the path to preserving democracy through alliance with Stalin. Nixon swallowed political principle by flying to Beijing. In retrospect, it is very difficult to see how any of them could have chosen differently. A doctrine emerges in looking at these three examples: the pursuit of political principles is possible only when one is willing to look at the long term; the near term requires ruthless and unsentimental compromise.
Had the idealist demand that the United States never work with oppressive nations been honored, Hitler well might have won World War II. The pursuit of democracy that forces the United States beyond its military and political resources ultimately will weaken democracy. Moral demands that are not rooted in political and military reality achieve the opposite of the desired end. But the realist position also has its weakness. Sometimes being ruthless becomes an end in itself. Sometimes the defense of the national interest becomes a justification for defending one’s own interest.
These are not simple matters but, as noted, politicians do not have time to contemplate them for very long. Their natural inclination is to act, and the action they gravitate toward is the pursuit of power. It is interesting to note that the president most often associated with the pursuit of human rights, Abraham Lincoln, was — in the course of its pursuit — a ruthless violator of those rights. No one violated constitutional protections more systematically than Lincoln, and no one was more dedicated to those protections. The paradox, however, is simply solved: The path from Point A to Point B is almost never a straight line. Anyone who heads in a straight line will fail. This is a lesson that is equally applicable to the neoconservatives and Amnesty International.
This discussion becomes important now because the United States is pirouetting between factions in the Islamic world. The United States won World War II by pragmatically taking advantage of the totalitarian states and allying with Stalin. The United States won the Cold War by taking advantage of a split between Communist states and allying with China. And viewed from a high level, the United States is in the process of trying to win the jihadist war by taking advantage of the split between Sunnis and Shia and allying with Iran.
There are excellent moral arguments in favor of fighting a war to bring democracy to Iraq. There are excellent moral arguments for never having gotten involved in Iraq in the first place. There are excellent moral arguments for not having gotten into Desert Storm — against having based troops in Saudi Arabia and getting al Qaeda furious at the United States in the first place. From all directions, the world is filled with outstanding moral arguments, and they have their place.
But first there is the reality that exists now. The United States has too many enemies and too few forces through which to impose its will. As in World War II and the Cold War, splitting the enemy is a practical imperative that precedes all moral imperatives. In this case, that means playing off the various factions within the Muslim world and making the best deal possible with one power or another. In any deal, the United States will wind up allied with someone that the Americans disapprove of, much as their future ally will disapprove of them.
The United States may well wind up making a deal with Iran over Iraq. Alternatively, a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia might give Washington the opportunity to negotiate with the Baathist guerrillas in the Sunni Triangle. Whichever path is followed, it will be condemned by both left and right for dozens of excellent moral reasons.
Bush has been pursuing the path of pragmatism, however clumsily or adroitly, for months now. He will make a deal with someone because going it alone is not an option. The current situation in Iraq cannot be sustained, and all presidents ultimately respond to reality. Bush might have to eat some words about democracy and the United States’ commitment thereto, but if Roosevelt could speak of the Four Freedoms while working with Josef Stalin, all things are possible.