Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Realpolitik, Paleoconservatism, and the Future

I just finished reading Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, which is a serious investigation by a serious man on the ebbs, flows, and problems of foreign policy. Kissinger is a believer in "realism," which is to say interest-based power politics, not Wilsonian idealism. Diplomacy was written in 1993, thus closing with the end of the Cold War and the brief respite America enjoyed between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, starts with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and ends in 1993. And while Kissinger probably bears the taint of association with Nixon, he also demands a hearing. Specifically, his focus on American interests rather than idealism provides an alternative viewpoint in the 2008 election.

Kissinger believes firmly in moderating (or enacting) American idealism through interest-based realism. He cautions (in Diplomacy) against the temptation to strategic overreach in our desire to remake the world in our own image. Now might be a good time to employ Kissinger's (and yes, Nixon's) foreign policy in the next presidential term or two. HK's take on Vietnam is instructive.

Let's start with one important point: we are in much better shape in Iraq today than we were in Vietnam in 1968. We have fewer troops there, have had fewer casualties, and have--despite the bombings and other al-Qaeda-based foolishness--more political stability. We still require "peace with honor" because a) our political reputation in the world is now at stake, regardless of what the next president thinks; and b) because we owe it to our troops, who DO value honor, even if Congress does not. There is not (yet) a political consensus to withdraw from Iraq in the face of totalitarianism or massive opposition here at home. We can draw down our troops gradually, enabling Iraq--a made-up post-colonial state like Vietnam--to have the military breathing space to establish stable political institutions. This is, essentially, what Bush and Petraeus are trying to do now. Taking HK's theory to heart, we got into Iraq for idealistic reasons (eliminate dictatorship, export democracy, elilminate a WMD threat); if the next president wants to get out, they can do so using this power-based theory--we finish the job because it is in our best interests to do so.

However, having said that about Iraq (and Afghanistan), we need not go forth in search of more dragons to slay. Further changes in the Middle East can be made through more traditional, Realpolitik methods: surrounding known or potential enemies with coalitions of the willing, economic isolation of rogue states, economic rewards for allied nations and nations that change their internal policies, punishing nations or specific individuals that harm our citizens without resorting to occupations, providing financial or military support to dissident movements or to terrorist-supporting nations that change their behavior--in short, sparing our legions of long-drawn-out bloodletting.

Unfortunately, I fear that both "conservatives" (neocons) and liberals have been bitten by the imperial bug, the desire to Do Good, as Jerry Pournelle might say, just because we can. We can still be a beacon to the world, Kissinger reminds us, but we needn't overreach ourselves in the attempt. Otherwise, we will eventually inspire the hatred and envy of a new coalition of the willing--this one directed at us.

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