Friday, August 28, 2009

Wolfowitz: Obama's no realist

Noted neocon Paul Wolfowitz, who has been taking to the editorial pages lately trying to convince people to have a heart, writes an interesting Foreign Policy piece on whether Obama's a realist and whether he should be. (Wolfy's answers: maybe, and not really.)

Just wanted to make a few comments on some of Wolfowitz's claims.

In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be "to manage relations between states" rather than "alter the nature of states."

Precisely. Wolfowitz thinks this is a problem only because he overestimates the ability of the United States to force other countries to be more like we want them to be, but as we've learned in Iraq, overreach always leads to a nationalistic backlash. Realists deemphasize change within states because they know it's very, very hard to achieve. There's a lot more to democracy promotion, particularly the subtle support for institutions in, say, Georgia after the collapse of the USSR, than conquest and bellicosity.

Wolfowitz goes on to claim that the Iraq War was not about imposing democracy but that some government had to be installed afterwards and a democratic one was the best idea, which is a little tough to swallow given how prominently democracy promotion was paraded as a justification for the invasion, particularly after no WMD were found. Given Iraq's ethnosectarian divisions, it's not at all clear that a democratic government was a wise idea, or that Iraq can ever function as a country at all.

Today, it's hard to understand why realists remain so confident about their doctrine, given that changes in the nature of states have benefited the U.S. national interest in so many instances -- not only the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of apartheid in South Africa, but also with the many transitions from dictatorship to democracy that have deepened security in almost every region of the world. Moreover, there are so many other instances where a disregard for such issues has set back the national interest.

Indeed, many of the most significant foreign-policy achievements of the elder Bush's presidency -- liberating Kuwait, unifying a democratic Germany, restoring democracy in Panama, and rescuing Somalia from starvation -- were the result of bold actions with a moral dimension concerning the nature of states.

A series of terrible examples: the South Africa case is sui generis and more a case of belated decolonization than democratic reform. The USSR collapsed because of the contradictions of the state under perestroika: US policy had little to do with it, and certainly holding a hammer over the head of the Soviets had nothing to do with it at all. Moreover, subsequent Western meddling with Russia's nascent democracy quickly snuffed out any chance it may have had. Meanwhile, liberating Kuwait had nothing to do with democracy promotion, as Kuwait is not especially democratic. Unifying Germany simply made sense after the Cold War, the US invasion of Panama had very little to do with democracy promotion, and Somalia, as I've previously argued, is perhaps the worst case of humanitarian intervention on record. The realist point is not that democracies aren't better and easier to deal with, it's that it's not realistic for the US to try to project power abroad to affect such changes because it won't work very well.

The USSR example is particularly galling: there's no doubt Reagan made human rights an issue with the Soviets and appropriately softened his rhetoric as Gorbachev improved Moscow's record, but here's the point: we were talking to the Soviets the whole time, no matter how crappy they were... because it was in our interest to do so. Wolfowitz then turns around and tries to use this logic to say that we should not talk to regimes like DPRK, Iran, and Burma, when not talking to them has clearly counteracted our own interests, and our values.

In fact, the perception of U.S. weakness in supporting its friends is a great disadvantage when negotiating with regimes like those in North Korea and Iran that are quick to perceive vulnerability. These states will negotiate -- if they do -- when they see it in their interest, not because the United States soft-pedals its differences.

Words fail me. Who has ever talked nicely about Iran or North Korea? They negotiate with us when it's in their interest to do so... and we should do the same with them. The North Koreans have tried to get bilaterals with the US for three decades. It's not as if they've done this because we've shown weakness towards our allies... we've put Japan and South Korea under a nuclear umbrella and kept thousands of troops in the region.

Wolfowitz is right that support for reformers shouldn't be abandoned, even with countries like Egypt and China... but actively encouraging the reformers makes it easy for the government to pick them off in a nationalist backlash. As with the USSR, change within is what undoes totalitarian regimes. The US capacity to influence that is limited and subtle.

"America Can't Impose Its Values on Others." That sounds familiar.

Here Wolfowitz trots out, and knocks down, the straw man of "Arabs can't handle democracy." Of course they can. However, bitterly ethnically divided countries really can't... no matter where they are. Bolivia is in crisis. Sudan is in crisis. Congo. Sri Lanka. That was why attempting to impose democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was a dumb idea. The former is feudal and the latter has arbitrary post-colonial borders, and neither has the institutions or sense of national identity necessary for democratic elections. It's not that Muslims don't want US support for democracy, it's that they don't trust us to or any other foreigners to run their countries. And let's be honest, after the last seven years or so, they shouldn't, any more than we'd want them running ours.

In promoting reform, it's important to keep in mind the admonition to "do no harm." The collapse of the shah's regime in Iran led to something worse for Iranians and for U.S. interests.

Um, "do no harm" from the architect of the Iraq war? Really? The problem here is that Wolfowitz thinks we must either support democratic reform or oppression. It's a false distinction. If we didn't want the Iranian revolution, we shouldn't have supported the shah in the first place. And that means, we shouldn't have overthrown Mossadeqh, no matter what we thought of him. Again, a smart realist worldview must include the primacy of ethnonationalism: installing oppressive puppets will lead to a nationalistic backlash, and thus, a belligerent and possibly nuclear-arming enemy in Iran. By contrast, we definitely did not install the regime in North Korea... but we can still negotiate with them without being seen as supporters of oppression, just as we did with China and the Soviet Union. We can prod our autocratic allies like Egypt to be more liberal about human rights, but we must recognize that some measure of prosperity must accrue to the population, and some form of middle class should be achieved, a la South Korea, before a true democratic movement takes place.

Change comes largely from within. The United States does not have the power to wave its flag or its missiles and make bad leaders go away. Ultimately, we have to work with them towards some kind of stability, because an unstable world does not favor democratic transformation. In an unstable world with the threat of foreign occupation, nationalist demagogues like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have a much easier time holding onto power. No coincidence, then, that President Obama dialed back American bellicosity towards Iran and almost immediately, the Iranian people voted Ahmadinejad out, forcing him to transparently steal the election and, in the process, deal a deep, self-inflicted blow to the Iranian government's legitimacy. If the White House had been blasting away at Iran's human rights record and threatening war over the nuclear programme, as Wolfowitz prefers, this would definitely not have happened.

Thus, a realist's view of foreign policy -- focusing on managing affairs between states -- actually promotes human rights more than Wolfowitz's neoconservatism does. It's also a lot cheaper. Cost of invading Iraq, which is now hopelessly mired in violence and sectarianism, probably for a generation or more: $3 trillion and thousand of American casualties. Cost of not invading Iran: $0, and no American casualties. Which country is more likely to have a stable democratic reform in the next few decades? After the most recent election, I'm going with Iran, myself... as long as Wolfowitz and his ilk never return to power at least.

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