- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Is there a less realistic school of American foreign policy than the one whose leaders go by the name realists? Tyrannies collapse, freedom buds, yet the realists are always surprised. Because they hold it self-evident that American foreign policy should be about strategic interests and nothing more. Ideals just get in the way, or, worse, can lead to a dangerous, Wilsonian moralism in foreign affairs.

Each generation of Americans seems to produce its apostles of realism in foreign policy. Especially when America hits a rough patch abroad. For defeat is the health of what is called “realism,” which sometimes markedly resembles traditional American isolationism, the unrealistic belief we can withdraw from the world.

Today’s realists seek out every American setback; each can be cited as a portent unless the country disengages from the world’s troubles. It’s unrealistic, we’re told, to think democracy will ever take hold in Iraq or anywhere in the Arab world. (Just as we were once told Germans and Japanese were incorrigibly autocratic; it was built into their nationalistic genes.) So forget those successful elections in Iraq; only bad news is real news.

No wonder Brent Scowcroft, a key adviser to the first President Bush and an honor graduate of the Kissinger school of realpolitik, construes even the good news out of the Middle East as bad. In a long interview in the New Yorker magazine, he deplores every sign of freedom in that dysfunctional region. Far from encouraging peace and stability, he explains, the rise of freedom abroad will only upset things.

No one can say Mr. Scowcroft isn’t consistent. In a much published and indelible photo, he toasted China’s communist leaders just after the Tiananmen Square massacre — and has been trying to explain away that revealing scene ever since.

The Scowcroft Doctrine in essence is simple: Freedom is destabilizing. Have the Syrians been obliged to end their long occupation of Lebanon, giving that country a hope of freedom at last? That’s bad news, very bad. It could lead to instability in the Middle East. For who knows what forces will be let loose if Syria’s grip on Lebanon is loosed? Why, Syria’s own dictatorship might be the next to go.

Mr. Scowcroft would prefer what he sees as the good old days when Washington propped up kings and dictators, and there was no trouble in the Middle East. His is an idyllic past that, of course, never was. At one point he refers to the “50 years of peace” that his kind of statecraft brought the Middle East. He doesn’t seem to have noticed all the wars, coups and revolutions there over the last half-century, including one in 1973 that put both superpowers on nuclear alert.

Like most “realists,” the general never has been comfortable with acknowledging real evil. That might oblige us to do something about it. He still doesn’t approve of Ronald Reagan’s calling the Soviet Union an evil empire — though that candor eroded the regime’s legitimacy at home and abroad. Soon enough the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended.

If there is one strategic factor in international relations that realists like Brent Scowcroft never seem to consider, it is the very real power of moral indignation — and moral imagination. Even now the general can’t seem to account for Ronald Reagan’s effectiveness on the global stage.

The practitioners of realpolitik have always been uncomfortable with the idea of radical evil loose in the world; to them it smacks of moral theology rather than practical judgment. And it also risks real sacrifice. As in Iraq today. Better to stay in denial when evil stalks.

Strangely enough, Brent Scowcroft is the man who brought Condoleezza Rice to Washington; he was her mentor and sponsor. Now she’s secretary of state and the personification of everything he despises about the country’s current foreign policy — especially its dedication to spreading freedom.

Condi Rice may have started out as the general’s kind of realist, but the reality of September 11, 2001, seems to have changed everything for her, as it did for so many. Brent Scowcroft, 80 now, still doesn’t seem to have noticed September 11, at least insofar as it’s changed his perception of the world. For him, foreign policy is all power politics. He’s not about to get sidetracked by anything as troublesome as an ideal.

Or as he puts it in this interview, fairly enough: “I’m a realist in the sense that I’m a cynic about human nature.” Come to think, that might be the best description of the realist school of foreign policy: cynicism.

Alas, all the realists’ fine calculations of just whom to appease when and at whose expense seem to lead inevitably to a day of reckoning — a December 7, 1941, or a September 11, 2001. Just because a policy is cynical doesn’t mean it’ll work.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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