The Return of Realism

The mess in Iraq has some at the White House reconsidering a realist Middle East policy.


In his book State of Denial, investigative journalist Bob Woodward describes a scene that says a lot about American ineptitude in Iraq, but also illustrates the struggle over a foreign policy rationale that is especially meaningful today in the aftermath of Republican losses in last week's midterm congressional elections.

It is April 2003 and Baghdad has fallen a few days earlier. We're at the White House and the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is offering advice to President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about how to deal with the Iraqis:

"Look, their intel[ligence] service was the most efficient. Take off the top echelon and keep the second line and let them find those bad guys, because those bad guys will know how to find bad guys." They could find Saddam.

"That's too Machiavellian," someone said. The Saudi notes of the meeting indicate it was either Bush or Rice.

"Let bad people find bad people, and then after that you get rid of them," Bandar said. "What's the big deal? Double-cross them. I mean, for God's sake, who said that we owe them anything?"

No one responded.

Though Bandar's proposal was cynical, it made far more sense than rebuilding the Iraqi intelligence service from scratch, which created a dangerous vacuum for the Americans. And though Bush or Rice (and you have to doubt that Rice would be the one so sensitive) may have been morally justified in highlighting the cynicism of the recommendation, somehow that diffidence didn't seem appropriate with over 100,000 American soldiers in Iraq, the result of one of the more hard-nosed efforts by any administration to carry the U.S. into war. But Bandar was being a "realist," using interests to define political behavior; the uneasy riposte was moral, almost naively so, from someone who saw it as improper that the U.S. should save Iraqis and screw them at the same time.

The ambiguities of the exchange are particularly relevant today, with Bush on the defensive in Iraq and his democratization project for the Middle East on life support. Foreign policy realists are making a comeback, their latest champion Robert Gates, who will likely be confirmed as defense secretary. Never far away is James Baker, a former secretary of state and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, whose much-awaited report recommending a new strategy in Iraq should come out within the next month. Already, Baker has bared his realist fangs by suggesting the U.S. deal with Iran and Syria on Iraq. "I don't think you restrict your conversations to your friends," he said last month in an ABC interview. And to prove it, Baker met in September with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.

The struggle over a dominant foreign policy approach has divided Washington in the years since 9/11. A simplistic view is that the main protagonists were idealistic neoconservative ideologues on the one side and crocodile-skinned, amoral realists on the other. Like all generalizations, there was some truth in that, but there has always been in the U.S.–and the Bush years are no different–a tense interplay between higher values and lower interests. It just so happened that Bush, because he framed his views of international affairs in moral absolutes, because he was persuaded that 9/11 resulted from an absence of open societies in the Middle East, forced the realists in his midst–Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, even former Secretary of State Colin Powell–to go along with him (for calculating reasons of their own) in transforming values into the primary force behind U.S. behavior.

The debacle in Iraq, but also the Republicans' debacle in Congress last week, has done away with Bush's scheme of advancing a values-heavy foreign policy in the Middle East. Democracy has been all but forgotten in Iraq as the U.S. looks for a way to cope with the growing chaos there. In its dealings with other Arab countries the administration has put its liberalizing ambitions on hold, as it tries to mobilize its regional allies against Iran, but also because it fears that if it pushes pro-American Arab despots too hard, this might embolden their Islamist foes. However, for all of Bush's willingness to be pragmatic, he should consider two problems that a return to realist dogmas in the Arab world might bring.

First, realists have never liked linking Arab despotism to terrorism. After 9/11, Bush adopted the sensible view (albeit one inconsistently applied) that dictatorships in Arab countries had helped spawn a violent form of militant Islam that could target the U.S.  Why? Because religion was the only sphere that would challenge state power and that rulers could not readily suffocate. Realists, by encouraging administrations to shut their eyes to domestic abuse by American allies in the region, by making a fetish of sovereignty, only ensured that Arabs would consider America complicit in their repression. That's why not a few Arabs interpreted the 9/11 attacks as fitting retribution for American evils in the Middle East, whether due to U.S. support for Israel or for Arab autocrats.

A second problem with the realist approach is that America's most influential Arab allies, those still a cornerstone of realist policy, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are turning into second-rate powers compared to peripheral states such as Iran, Turkey and Israel. Saudi Arabia may still control vital oil flows and Egypt may still have a large population and army, but both are increasingly marginal in setting the Middle East's agenda. Their main problem is an absence of democracy. Mostly illegitimate leaders preside over socially and politically stagnant societies. Much the same can be said of Jordan, another U.S. ally.

If the U.S. is going to reinvent itself in the Middle East, it will have to blend Bush's democratic goals with the realists' pursuit of interests, but in such a way that democracy and liberty are consistently made a priority. Only that precedence can revive American allies and make the region less welcoming to Islamic extremism. What Bush instinctively grasped, and that realists still don't, is that the Arab world is not just about power, it's also–and mainly–about ideas. Ideas, if appallingly destructive ones, carried the 9/11 hijackers into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Ideas made hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrate peacefully against Syrian hegemony in 2005. And ideas are what allowed many Iraqis to turn the American presence in their country into mainly an instrument for Shiite or Kurdish self-affirmation.

Bandar was right to warn the Americans that winning in Iraq meant sometimes playing dirty. Bush or Rice was right to maintain a sense of decency. But on that day, Bandar was shrewder. U.S. foreign policy has always tried to find the right balance between satisfying heart and mind. But if Bush has taken a beating for his reading of the Middle East, it would be wrong to assume the realists have all the answers. After all, it was the stalemate they wrought that made the president opt for a paradigm so radically different.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.