Realists, Schmealists

How a Middle East success reveals the value of muddling through in foreign


On Tuesday, Detlev Mehlis, who heads the United Nations team investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, began traveling to Syria to interview present and former intelligence agents, as well as other Syrian officials. When Mehlis submits his final report in October, it will almost certainly contain bad news for Syrian President Bashar Assad. But that the UN's investigation has gotten this far at all reveals something about the haphazard nature of American foreign policy.

Syrian citizens are already alarmed about Mehlis' potential findings. They know the nature of their system is such that a major political killing could only have been ordered at the very top, leading to potentially stunning scenarios: that very senior Syrian officials, perhaps even Assad himself, may be implicated in Hariri's murder; that Assad may not be fingered directly, but will see the main supporters of his power accused; that all this may lead to the creation of an international tribunal, or a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal, to try the suspects. And, most importantly, that it may mean curtains for the Assad regime altogether.

In the U.S., whatever happens will be judged in the context of the Bush administration's predilection for evicting Middle Eastern despots. Assad, like Saddam Hussein, is someone Washington wants to be rid of. While American officials have stuck to the mantra that what they really seek is a change in Syrian behavior—in Iraq, Lebanon, on the Palestinian-Israeli front, even inside Syria—the reality is that the conditions they've imposed are so onerous, their acceptance so sure to discredit and destabilize Assad's rule, that the administration is effectively engaging in regime change that dares not speak its name.

However, this time, compared to Iraq, things are different. If the United States succeeds in ousting Assad (and even if it does not), it has adopted a strategy that is almost the exact opposite of the Iraqi one. In working through the United Nations Security Council (which in September 2004 adopted Resolution 1559 demanding a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon), in coordinating closely with France and other allies, in avoiding the use of force and even UN sanctions, in feeding off mass democratic protests in Lebanon after Hariri's killing, and in backing a UN investigation into the assassination that might lead to the creation of some sort of international court—in doing all those things, the Bush administration has not only navigated well within the norms set by hardcore multilateralists and international law, it has participated in an almost ideal model of how the UN can alter state behavior without violence.

Still, ideal models usually have hitches. The administration's approach to Lebanon and Syria would almost certainly have failed had it been applied to Saddam. Without the U.S. military in Iraq, Syrian behavior would have been very different. Assad would not have made the mistakes he did, but also the Lebanese, rendered cynical by decades of general indifference to Syrian rule over their country, would not have believed in the likelihood of change when they took to the streets. Iraq, for all its problems, sparked a regional mood change, and the Lebanese fed off that.

But the U.S. in Iraq behaved so differently than in Lebanon that the fierce pie-throwing among realists, neoconservatives, left liberals, and libertarians turns out to be hollow theater: When it comes to the nitty-gritty of affairs, an administration, particularly one under duress, will pick up whatever political opening is readily available to advance an aim and run with it—dogma be damned.

The key difference is between broad goals and actual implementation. The mess in Iraq was one reason why the U.S. moved more cautiously in Lebanon; two others were that the administration was following the French lead there, not the contrary, and that Syria was vulnerable in ways Iraq was not. If there is a perennial fault in understanding what motivates the U.S., or anybody else, it is assuming the absoluteness of foreign policy doctrine and ignoring how reality muddles doctrine.

In an August New York Times op-ed, for example, Foreign Affairs managing editor Gideon Rose gloated that "the Bush doctrine has collapsed, so the administration has embraced realism, American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure." He defined realism as the pursuit of "interests rather than ideals and conciliation rather than confrontation." Yet Rose downplayed how past administrations, including those cited as realist paragons, almost invariably blended realism and idealism, conciliation and confrontation.

Much the same excess can be heard on the other side of the aisle, with left liberals in particular certain that the Bush administration is all about browbeating and scorn for alliances, particularly in the Middle East, even as many of them have ignored the administration's multilateral impulses in Lebanon and Syria.

The Bush doctrine hasn't collapsed in favor of realism, as Rose believes, nor has the administration embraced realism or consensual internationalism, as the aficionados of both those approaches would like. Instead, in a world where policy doctrine runs into unpredictable obstacles; where administrations, because they just can't find the cash, sometimes must impose change "on the cheap"; where foreign policy miscalculations or poor execution are more the norm than the exception—in such a world, dogmatism is not only a bad idea, it's nonsensical.

If Bashar Assad is forced out of office or decisively weakened thanks to the UN and Detlev Mehlis, American officials will congratulate themselves. The more honest ones will admit that their efforts merely fulfilled what was possible. To insist on absolutes and condemn administrations for failing to live up to them is to insist that politicians fulfill what is not possible.