When the first issue of The National Interest was published in 1985, its editor, Owen Harries, proclaimed an affinity between realpolitik and conservatism. By this he meant that realism—a foreign policy that respected the primacy of self-interest as a motive and of power as a means in an anarchic international system—reflected a conservative temperament. After all, both realism and conservatism put “their stress on what is, rather than what should or might be.” Both “emphasize the importance of circumstance and are suspicious of abstract theory and general principles as bases for action.” And both are “aware of the intractability of things and the difficulties and dangers involved in attempting sweeping changes.”
For Harries, realism was not incompatible with the pull to incorporate moral principles into foreign policy; democratic values simply had to be treated as one among many interests. Looking back to George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1797, Harries pointed to the first president’s clear-eyed assertion that U.S. interests must not be compromised by “permanent alliances,” which in turn might undermine America’s diplomatic flexibility. Harries also reminded his readers that John Quincy Adams warned that freedoms at home would only be tarnished by wars abroad. In Adams’s words, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Were she to “become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” Not for Harries any ideological crusades or grandiose plans for global social engineering.
Yet when the foreign-policy journal he edited was officially launched at the Sheraton Carlton (now St. Regis) in Washington on October 9, 1985, guests were a Who’s Who of leading neoconservatives, including Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest; former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; former chairman of Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein; Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams; Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz; writers Gertrude Himmelfarb and Midge Decter; and the rising 35-year-old star columnist Charles Krauthammer. Writing in the Washington Post to mark the event, future Hillary Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal adjudged: “In an effort to influence the foreign-policy agenda, a group of neo-conservatives is rolling out what its members consider their ultimate weapon.”
Which raises a few questions. How could a realist magazine carry a torch for neoconservatism? Why would realists be in cahoots with the very writers whose ideological disposition came to define a war in Iraq that realists strongly opposed two decades later?
The answers lie in understanding that conservatives and neoconservatives alike supported an activist, assertive global policy in response to the geopolitical threat represented by the Soviet Union. By and large, the American right knew what it was and what it was about during the Cold War. But once the designated enemy collapsed, and the moral and strategic life-and-death struggle came to an end, things changed. Victory over Communism involved disorientation for conservatives. Harries called it “enemy deprivation syndrome.” In the absence of the Cold War’s zero-sum struggle between democratic freedom and totalitarian evil, there was no coherent worldview for the right, nor was there a larger sense of purpose. Without an overriding strategic and ideological foe, the conservative foreign-policy position was essentially up for grabs.
And so realists and neoconservatives clashed. For National Interest realists, the end of the Cold War signaled a reordering of priorities in favor of restraint, discrimination, and prudence. Foreign policy required cold-eyed calculation and a keen sense of the limits of power in a messy world that did not conform to American expectations. For neoconservatives, the collapse of the Soviet Empire represented the triumph of America’s mission. If foreign policy was not infused with some higher moral purpose, then the popular support necessary to export democracy and fulfill America’s destiny would not be forthcoming.
The first generation of neoconservatives—who in certain cases had migrated from Trotskyism to Cold War conservatism as the repressive nature of the Soviet Union became clear—gave way to a subsequent generation with different emphases. For the former, the lessons that followed from the unanticipated negative consequences of grand social engineering at home—think President Johnson’s Great Society—tempered their advocacy of imbuing U.S. foreign policy with moral content. Not so for their successors, however, among whom Irving Kristol’s son, Bill, was prominent. As Francis Fukuyama has explained, they instead took Cold War victory to mean that America should press on and impose a Pax Americana upon the world. This triumph of the unhesitant crusaders within neoconservatism widened the gulf between realism and neoconservatism: if America’s “unipolar moment” after the Cold War was a problem for realists, it was an opportunity for the neoconservatives.
In other words, the divergence between realist and neoconservative views that was on vivid display in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 first became evident after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it was Harries, a Welsh-Australian intellectual, who became the leading realist critic of neoconservative foreign-policy thought in the decade leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. His views often attracted high praise from distinguished strategists. George Kennan was one. Another was Henry Kissinger: after Harries had written a National Review cover article in 1997 on the perils of containing China, for instance, the former secretary of state wrote, “I can’t remember when I have read an article in which I have agreed with every word. I am only sorry I didn’t write it myself, but I will plagiarise it liberally.”
Harries—whom I’ve known well for two decades—edited The National Interest from 1985 to 2001, and his tenure illustrates the relationship between Cold War realism (which liberals denounced as too harsh, selfish, and hawkish) and the smartest version of realism in the post-9/11 era (which neo-cons have deemed too accommodating, compromising, and dovish). As the magazine celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it’s worth recalling that Harries’s brand of realism has not only been remarkably consistent but has also proved a useful corrective to the fog with which neoconservatism has shrouded American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.
Born in a South Wales mining valley in 1930, Harries was educated at the University of Wales and then Oxford, where he came under the influence of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In 1955, Harries and his wife Dorothy moved down under, where he accepted a position teaching political science at the University of Sydney. During the next few years this social democrat rapidly became a confirmed anti-communist as the intellectual life of Sydney divided into bitter argument over the Cold War. He also became a Burkean conservative, conscious that radical change can lead to loss as well as gain and is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences.
Unlike realists such as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Walter Lippmann, Harries was an unapologetic cold warrior. This had more to do with his newly acquired Australianness than with any Kennedy-esque desire to “pay any price” for freedom. In the 1960s, Southeast Asia was the most unstable and violent region in the world. Indonesia—the largest state in the region and Australia’s nearest neighbor—had the third largest Communist Party on earth, and in 1965 the country only narrowly avoided succumbing to a Communist coup. Fear of the downward thrust of Communism was based on something more substantial than paranoia. From Australia’s standpoint, Harries believed, there was a compelling interest in keeping Washington committed to the region, which meant actively supporting U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
That may also explain why Harries and Irving Kristol got on famously in New York at the height of the conflict in 1968, when they met for the first time. They had both just had articles published in Foreign Affairs and, as Harries later wrote in a 1995 book of essays dedicated to Kristol, “Irving helped put me at ease by adopting the flattering fiction that the two articles were equally vital contributions to the intellectual life of Manhattan.” An enduring and greatly valued friendship had begun.
In 1975, after two decades in academia, Harries left the ivory tower—left, as he later put it, “with no regrets whatsoever, for the foolishness and cowardice of the American university scene had been faithfully copied in Australia.” He then went into the rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics in Canberra, where he was the senior foreign advisor in the center-right Liberal government of prime minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-83). In 1982-83, Harries came to the attention of the American right as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO, an organization which he denounced, supporting the U.S. withdrawal. Thereafter, Kristol invited Harries to launch and run a new foreign-policy quarterly, backed by Michael Joyce and the conservative Olin Foundation. So The National Interest was conceived.
In 1985, that journal could be fairly characterized as a Cold War magazine, and notable contributors included Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Eliot Cohen and Michael Ledeen. Yet although the Cold War had united the right, Harries and co-editor Robert Tucker distinguished themselves from neoconservatives: “We’re both sort of Realpolitik chaps,” Harries told the Washington Times. By this, he meant that by and large The National Interest would see politics as a struggle for power and would shy away from moralistic attempts to sway other nations or the use of ideological criteria to judge them.
With the demise of Soviet Communism, Harries intended the journal to serve as a venue for debate on the future of conservative foreign policy. He allowed space not just for realists and neoconservatives but also for paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan to pick up George McGovern’s plea of “Come home, America.” Harries also examined the nature of the post-Cold War era more quickly, and in more lively fashion, than The National Interest’s two main rivals, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. In the summer of 1989, months before the Berlin Wall came down, Harries published a feature that hardly reflected his own realist principles: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?”, an essay that heralded the universalization of liberal democracy. As Harries proudly recalled, it was an overnight sensation, giving rise to innumerable op-ed articles, translations into more than 20 languages, requests for copies from No. 10 Downing Street, and disparaging references in Mikhail Gorbachev’s speeches.
While the magazine had always welcomed a variety of conservative views—small-“l” liberals, Harries once quipped, had hardly any decent ideas about foreign policy in decades—its prevailing editorial position had been one of restrained and measured realism, which took account of the intractability of things, the limits of what most Americans were prepared to support, and what in the longer term other states would tolerate.
During the 1990s, Harries kept highlighting the changing circumstances of the post-Cold War world and America’s place in it. He was fond of quoting both John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”) and Edmund Burke (“He who does not take circumstances into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad”). With the collapse of Soviet Communism, the “facts” of the international scene had changed dramatically and the “circumstances” were conducive to a new way of looking at the world.
For Harries, the new era demanded a profound reassessment of foreign policy—a scaling down of commitments and a reordering of priorities in Washington. “If we spend 40 or 50 years saying the Cold War was a tremendously important event, a critical life-and-death struggle, then for Christ’s sake, the end of the Cold War must also be important,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997. “You can’t say ‘Well, it’s finished but that doesn’t mean much; the world goes on pretty well as it is.’ When life-and-death struggles end, it is supposed to make a very large difference, and I think it has.”
The message from Harries and like-minded contributors to the magazine, such as Andrew Bacevich, Michael Lind, Jonathan Clarke, and former Nixon-Ford-Carter cabinet secretary James Schlesinger, was clear: it was time for America to recognize that even a global hegemon, however “benign” and “indispensable,” is not immune to the historic tendencies of power politics, that other rising (and declining) great powers had legitimate interests to protect, and that democracy was “not an export commodity,” but a “do-it-yourself enterprise” that required special circumstances and conditions. That meant, among other things, opposing NATO expansion into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, ending the isolation of Castro’s Cuba, and keeping out of the civil war in Yugoslavia.
Most neoconservatives disagreed. According to the likes of Robert Kagan—writing chiefly in Commentary in the early 1990s, then The Weekly Standard from 1995 onwards—anyone who argued for any scaling down of America’s commitments could not possibly be making a rational response to radically altered circumstances but was rather suffering from a collapse of confidence. So-called realists, charged another neoconservative, Joshua Muravchik, are really “neo-isolationists.” The only plausible foreign policy was to embrace American global leadership, which of course was another way of saying the U.S. is a “benign hegemon” or “indispensable nation.” Realists, on the other hand, had no qualms about using military force to protect vital interests, but their goal was—and remains—carefully attending to the balance of power and seeking to share initiative with other states.
All of this explains why Harries gave a qualified defense of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. His point in a cover article for The New Republic in 1994 was that Clinton, bereft of serious purpose, had inadvertently provided a counter to the dangers associated with the kind of muscular Wilsonianism that characterized the writings of neoconservatives.
The argument was sound: although America’s armed forces were maintained at a high level, new commitments over and above the maintenance of existing alliances were scrutinized mercilessly and any undertakings were kept limited in time and scope. In the 1990s, the Pentagon often seemed more concerned with effective exit strategies than with implementing ambitious, open-ended foreign-policy projects, whether in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, or places entirely avoided, such as Rwanda.
By the time Harries retired as National Interest editor in the early 2000s, congressional Republicans were largely opposed to intervention in the Balkans. “We’ll have a foreign policy that is humble,” declared Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000. “By that, I mean … the country cannot try to impose our prescriptions on nations.” It looked like Harries’s brand of realism was making converts in Washington.
All that changed on 9/11. Outrage over the terrorist attacks, combined with the ideology of American exceptionalism and the mental habits of global hegemony, suddenly gave the American people and their political leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission, one that reflected the thinking of Krauthammer, Kagan, and Bill Kristol. In an instant, realists were on the back foot. The result was the Bush doctrine of aggressive unilateralism, pre-emption, and regime change in a world divided between good guys and bad guys, which culminated in the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Whereas a broad cross-section of Americans, especially rank-and-file Republicans, supported the “liberation” of Iraq, Harries voiced skepticism from the outset. “What would worry me about Iraq is what America would do after the downfall of Saddam Hussein,” he told the Sydney-based magazine Policy in March 2002, one year before the invasion. “To be responsible for a country of that size, and to put something together that would work with the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, would involve America in nation building, and I doubt it could be brought off successfully.” He was right. Iraq would show the limitations of America’s vast military power: its capacity to destroy was enormous; its ability to control what it had defeated much less so. And so America found itself wrong-footed by medieval warlords and sectarian thugs.
Clearly a rejection of realism remains ingrained in the consciousness of those who make U.S. foreign policy, even when the drift of events—as in the Clinton era, for example—leads them temporarily in the direction of restraint. Yet “the ultimate weapon of neo-conservatism,” as The National Interest was dubbed three decades ago, became something quite different thanks to Owen Harries and those who have followed in his spirit. If the American right or the foreign-policy community had likewise embraced Harries’s brand of realism at the turn of the century—a modest, measured, prudent, and discriminating response to national-security threats—the U.S. would have avoided the kind of foolish foreign adventures that have tarnished its prestige and credibility, and thus its ability to lead and persuade.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and host of “Between the Lines” on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.
What is the only nation to have joined the United States in the foxhole in every major military intervention in the past century? If you thought Britain or Canada or other NATO allies, you’d be wrong. In fact, it is Australia—which Charles Krauthammer once observed, “understands America’s role and is sympathetic to its predicament as reluctant hegemon.”
So it is hardly surprising we Aussies were the first nation to back the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL. Last September, our conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott sent 400 airmen and about 200 Special Forces personnel to the fight. And this week he announced the deployment of 300 Australian army instructors to Iraq by the middle of this year. It is part of a joint training mission with New Zealand to help degrade and destroy the Sunni jihadist group that, as Abbott put it today, “has been reaching out to us for months now.”
Australia has foiled several homegrown terrorist plots during the past decade, and the reach of Islamist terror hit Sydney last December when a self-styled sheikh held dozens of hostages in a downtown café; two died. That is why Abbott speaks for Middle Australia when he says the aspirations of the “apocalyptic death cult” are not simply to conquer and control a limited territory in the Middle East. “It claims a universal allegiance.”
It is also true that the new mission to help train the Iraqi army to recapture the Sunni strongholds from Sunni insurgents resonates with the broad cross-section of the Australian people, including the opposition Labor Party. The logic here is that because the Islamic State is a bunch of brutal barbarians, and the world would be a much better place without them, then the mission is self evidently a noble cause.
And yet the new mission in Iraq hardly serves the national interest of Australia or New Zealand, or for that matter the U.S. The goal to eradicate Sunni jihadists, if one is concerned to be effective and not merely to feel virtuous, is complicated, potentially dangerous and fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. Ending evil is a long, tough slog.
For one thing, we’ve been there before, and the result was an unmitigated disaster that cost what Australia’s longest serving prime minister Robert Menzies called “our great and powerful friend” dearly in blood, treasure, credibility and prestige. We not only played a high-profile role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; we were part of the U.S.-led coalition that trained an Iraqi army to the cost of US$25 billion. This was, remember, the very same Iraqi army that disintegrated in the face of the initial Islamic State assault last summer. The same Iraqi army that has shown itself to be woefully unprepared to mount any successful attacks on Sunni strongholds north of Baghdad.
Not so long ago, Tony Abbott himself recognized the perils of western involvement in Middle East quagmires. The civil war in Syria “between two unsavoury sides”, he warned in September 2013, was “not goodies versus baddies; it’s baddies versus baddies.” Sounding more like Rand Paul than John McCain, Abbott warned: “We’ve got to be very careful dealing in a powder keg like the Middle East that we don’t take action, well-intentioned action, which could end up making a bad situation worse.”
Alas, that pragmatic and prudent realist no longer exists. Abbott is instead a true believer in the idea that air power, with some Special Forces and army instructors to train the grossly incompetent local army, can help regain Sunni strongholds from Sunni jihadists. Like most Australians, indeed most Americans, he fails to recognize that only a large-scale Iranian-backed Shia militia offensive remains the best hope of defeating the Islamic State jihadists.
And yet as Henry Kissinger once said: “Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem.” Iraqi Sunnis view the Shia militia as an alien occupation army that would more than likely commit plenty of atrocities of their own. If the Islamic State fanatics are indeed defeated, moreover, the likely winner would be Iran, a terrorist-sponsoring Shia power that wants to dominate the region.
Like Americans, Australians are understandably spooked by the footage of beheadings of western and Japanese hostages. Little do they know, however, that those carefully choreographed video links are designed to lure us into Iraq. They understandably shock our sensitivities. But with our intervention we are taking the terrorists’ bait. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion,” says Graeme Wood in a widely read article in The Atlantic, “is the Islamic State itself.”
Meanwhile, by intervening in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq for the second time in as many decades, we are reaffirming the potent Sunni narrative that the West is in cahoots with the Shia-run regime in Baghdad. To the extent that such attitudes prevail, and Sunnis feel their loss of power and influence is absolute, many will continue to tolerate or even join Sunni jihadists. In other words, far from draining the swamps of Sunni jihadism, we are likely to replenish them. How the national interest of Australia or the U.S. is served by increasing the prospects of that outcome is not clear.
Unfashionable though it is to say so, we Australians and Americans should keep out of this mess-in-potamia and let the rival sectarian groups settle their differences and reach a political settlement, perhaps even a partition of this arbitrarily created state and ethnically fractured society. Iraq is ultimately a Shia-Sunni war, not ours—unless we continue to make it so.
Tom Switzer is research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and host at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.
The downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17 was a great tragedy, and the world wants to make sure that such an event never happens again. People all over the globe, not least Australians and the Dutch who have lost more than 230 civilians, have been understandably angry about the failure of the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine to respond satisfactorily to this calamity.
But it is imperative that we think clearly and, if necessary, coldly, about the underlying cause of the Russia-Ukraine standoff, which sparked the military blunder. If we fail to do so, we’ll have little hope of trying to solve it. Alas, there is a real danger that the West’s response—more sanctions against Russia, diplomatic isolation of Vladimir Putin, increased military support to Ukraine—could exacerbate tensions.
The conventional wisdom in the West blames the turmoil on Putin’s goal to recreate the former Soviet Empire. The Bear is on the prowl again, we’re told, and it must be put back in its cage.
But the United States and the European Union are hardly blameless. As John Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading experts on international relations, points out in a forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, it was the West’s efforts to pull Ukraine away from Russia’s strategic orbit that was guaranteed to cause big trouble.
By expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders in the Clinton and George W. Bush eras, and by helping bring down a democratically elected, pro-Moscow—albeit corrupt and thuggish—government in Kiev last February, the West has poked at the Bear and failed to see how those decisions look from its perspective.
It has repudiated the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a region that Russia has viewed as a necessary zone of protection long before Stalin appeared on the scene. In so doing, the West has taken no account at all for Russian susceptibilities and interests.
For Moscow, unlike Washington and Brussels, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance: it covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. As Professor Mearsheimer asks: why would any Russian leader tolerate a cold-war military pact to move into his nation’s backyard? And why would he acquiesce in a Western-backed coup to replace an ally with an anti-Russian regime in Kiev?
Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Western liberals and neo-conservatives have declared the demise of power politics and triumph of self-determination. But Putin’s calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers fight tooth and nail when vital strategic interests are at stake and doggedly guard what they deem as their spheres of influence.
This is unfortunate, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Imagine how Washington would respond if Russia had signed up Panama in a military pact, put rockets and missiles in Cuba, or helped bring down a democratically elected, pro-U.S. government in Mexico.
It was inevitable that Moscow would push back somewhere. But if Putin were the reincarnation of Hitler, as Hillary Clinton and Zbigniew Brzezinski suggest, why hasn’t he annexed the rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine? (Putin even discouraged the insurgents from holding their referendum on independence in May.)
Where were the signs of the Kremlin’s intentions to invade Crimea before the downfall of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in February? It was this episode, remember, that sparked Putin’s military incursion in the Ukrainian peninsula, the traditional home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Which suggests that he is acting defensively.
For the West to further isolate Moscow and at the same time escalate military support to Ukraine is fraught with danger. Russia is a declining power, but it maintains a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. If made desperate and humiliated further, it could be dangerous, like a cornered, wounded animal.
Strident talk about banning Putin from the G20 in Brisbane will only backfire against the West’s interests. The point of such institutions is not that they are a reward for obliging behavior, but rather that they provide a means to deal with common challenges. Moscow’s help is needed in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran.
At a time when Americans are tired of the world, moreover, it would not seem prudent to pick a fight over a region where no U.S. army has even fought before. Although American views of Russia are less positive today than at any time since the end of the Cold War, few consider Putin a critical threat to the U.S. According to recent Chicago Council survey, only 30 percent of Americans support military intervention in Ukraine if Russia invades the rest of the country.
Rather than extend economic sanctions against Russia and boost military support to Ukraine, our leaders should tone down our bombast and understand the motives for Putin’s conduct. He wants Ukraine to be a neutral buffer state (which is neither a NATO nor EU member) and its government to respect minority rights of ethnic Russians in this bitterly divided country. If Moscow and the Western-backed Kiev regime can’t reach a settlement, and if the latter continues to bomb cities in eastern Ukraine, more disasters like the downing of a passenger jet can’t be ruled out.
Let me be clear: my aim here is not to defend anything Putin has done, but simply to explain his response to what he deems a genuine threat to Russia’s vital interests. If we understand Putin’s motivations, his conduct is easy to understand, which is not to say we have to like it. We need to understand what caused this crisis to have any hope of trying to solve it.
Tom Switzer is editor of the American Review, published by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.
Unfashionable though it is to say, Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula does not represent, as the Financial Times editorializes, a second Cold War. Instead, it is the rational reaction of a great power into the affairs of an unruly state in its neighborhood. Call it the return of realism.
Foreign policy realism, among other things, reflects a way of seeing things as they really are. And at least since the birth of the nation-state in 1648, great powers have been determined to protect what they deem their vital interests in their “own backyard” or “near abroad.” As realists from Walter Lippmann to Brent Scowcroft have observed, a sphere of influence is a key characteristic of any great power, authoritarian or democratic. It is one of the features that have qualified a power as “great.”
Americans, guided by the notion of exceptionalism, may think they are immune to the historic tendencies of power politics. But it is worth bearing in mind that well before the U.S. emerged as a genuine great power, President Monroe claimed for the United States a sphere of influence in the Caribbean and Central America. When commentators and politicians hyperventilate over Russia’s recent behavior, they should recall U.S. military interventions in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic. None of this is extraordinary; it is the way the world works, and has always worked.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, however, a new orthodoxy has emerged: a belief that, as Bill Clinton once declared, “the cynical calculus of power politics” no longer works in the era of globalization and the spread of democracy. No more accommodation of aggression. National self-determination represents the wave of the future. A rules-based international order is the norm. We arrived at the End of History: Woodrow Wilson won; Prince Metternich lost.
That is why President Obama speaks for many people when he insists that Russia is “on the wrong side of history.” But one can sympathize with the new Ukrainian government and label Vladimir Putin a thuggish dictator, and still believe Putin merely wants to restore Russia’s traditional zone of protection on its borders. After all, he is the president of a great power still bruised and humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and deeply resentful of the prospect of U.S. missiles in its backyard. Imagine how Washington would regard Russian military intrusion in northern Mexico.
For Moscow, there has long been a geopolitical and historical basis for its interest in the territories of central Asia. Strategic interests and traditional motives of prestige made Ukraine a matter of intense importance to Russia, even under the Tsars. Remember the Crimean War of 1853-56?
More recently, Ukraine is a conduit for gas exports to Western European markets. Its naval base in Sevastopol hosts the Black Sea fleet. And ethnic Russians comprise nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s two million citizens (many of whom would support reunification with the motherland).
Meanwhile, a democratically elected, pro-Russian government has been overthrown. And the new Western-backed interim government with no democratic legitimacy includes hard-line nationalists with possible links to terrorists. (President George H.W. Bush’s warnings that Ukrainian independence could unleash “suicidal nationalism” do not sound so absurd 23 years later.)
Of course, Putin may overreach by toppling Kiev. But if he is as calculating as many Russian specialists say he is, and as he appeared to indicate in his press conference yesterday, then he is more likely to encourage Ukraine’s new leaders to allow the de facto partition of areas populated predominantly by ethnic Russians—from the Crimea in the south to the industrial heartland in the east.
For the West to ignore Russian susceptibilities and to further isolate Moscow is surely an act of folly. It could provoke more chauvinistic elements in Russia to exploit resentments and wounded national pride in ways that could be dangerous at home and abroad. We are, remember, dealing with a regime whose nuclear arsenal poses a threat to the U.S. and NATO allies.
At a time when Americans are suffering from foreign policy fatigue and Europeans have no stomach for a stoush, it would not seem prudent to pick a fight with Russia over a region where no U.S. army has even fought before. Even those cold warriors, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, backed away from confrontation with Moscow over its meddling in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively. And when the Communists crushed the Polish Solidarity in a Ukraine-like emergency in 1981, it was (of all people) Ronald Reagan who showed restraint and caution.
Why then would Barack Obama and other Western leaders risk a clash with Moscow nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Where is the vital U.S. interest? And given Obama’s vacillation and ineptitude over the Syrian crisis, why should Putin take his threats seriously? Why should the Kremlin believe the West’s warnings are any more than a bluff, something done in the hope that the warning itself would be an effective deterrent with no serious intention of honoring it?
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and editor of The Spectator Australia.
Whether the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is enforceable and verifiable is an open question. But what is clear is that some cautionary lessons have already emerged from this crisis. Here are three of them.
First, be wary of the injunction “Don’t just stand there; do something.”
Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the United States to attack the Assad regime as well as to provide arms to its opponents.
But contrary to what many liberal hawks and neoconservatives claim, the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?
In the field of foreign policy, the most famous advice offered to practitioners—the French statesman Talleyrand’s “Above all, not too much zeal”—showed a profound distaste for “busyness.” It’s both wise and routinely ignored advice. Remember how can-do, hands-on liberal hawks (Rusk, McNamara) screwed things up in Vietnam or how hyperactive neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith) proved to be incompetent and ineffective in Iraq.
None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But the national interest did not require a major U.S. intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilized, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as al-Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.
Given that the political objective was perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution. As even President Obama warned as recently as last month: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
A second lesson: Don’t make threats or commitments lightly; make them only if you’re prepared and able to honor them. Read More…
In the very final episode of “Fawlty Towers,” the classic ’70s British sitcom, the local Health and Safety Inspector confronts a hapless Basil with a long and horrendous list of everything that is wrong with his hotel, including “dirty and greasy filters, encrusted deep fryer, inadequate temperature control, dirty cracked and missing wall and floor tiles, greasy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, storage of raw meat above confectionary with consequent dripping of meat juices onto cream products, refrigerator seals loose and cracked, lack of hand basins and two dead pigeons in the water tank.”
To which the inimitable John Cleese replied: “Otherwise OK?”
I was reminded of that classic comedy recently when Tony Blair, who helped lead us into the Iraq flytrap ten years ago, appeared on BBC’s “Newsnight.” In painstaking detail, the former British prime minister admitted that life in Iraq today is not quite what he had hoped it would be.
After all, there “are still terrorist activities that are killing innocent people for no good reason.” The “liberation” of Iraq saw the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians (other estimates are up to 200,000), not to mention thousands of coalition troops. The country is still facing “big problems.” All true, conceded Blair. But when all is said and done, he reasoned, at least a murderous despot is gone and democracy has taken root in the heart of the Arab world.
Never mind that the war was built on a series of falsehoods propagated by neocon-artists: who can forget the dodgy dossier and the “45-minute” Iraqi missile threat? Never mind that the tried and tested policy of containment (sanctions, no-fly zone, naval blockade) had kept Saddam Hussein in his box. And never mind that the task of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure.
The point here is that ten years since “shock and awe,” Iraq has become an unmitigated disaster, something that many antiwar critics—from Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Al Gore on the left to Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and this magazine on the right—had predicted.
The Baathists and Islamists were not in cahoots, yet Saddam’s collapse attracted al-Qaeda fighters like flies on a dying animal. The occupation replaced a Sunni regime with a Shia regime, setting Shia against Sunni. In Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency against the alien occupiers, Sunnis are rising up against the Shia-led government that the Americans left behind.
Iran has expanded its sphere of influence into the mess-in-potamia. Iraqi women are more repressed than ever. Militia killings and car bombings take place almost every week. America paid dearly in blood and treasure and its reputation was tainted by the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and the CIA’s secret prisons. The streets of many towns are less safe today than before “liberation.” Some two million refugees have fled the joint.
True, President Bush’s “surge” in 2007 bought some time to allow “democratic” elections to take place, but never enough time, as erstwhile hawk Andrew Sullivan now concedes, to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to try to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity.
Albert Wohlstetter, the intellectual mentor to leading neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, once said that “a truly bad idea never really dies.” Today, many of the same people who championed an egregious strategic blunder a decade ago support a pre-emptive strike on Iran. And many neocons and liberal hawks alike are egging on a cash-strapped Uncle Sam to meddle in Syria’s civil war.
But surely the lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy cannot be rolled out like Astroturf, and imposing it on artificial states and medieval societies courts danger. Nor is preventive war the right way to handle tyrants with nukes. Unlike terrorists who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive. If the Mullahs used WMDs against U.S. interests, the Iranian regime would meet, as academic Condi Rice put it before she entered government, “national obliteration” from the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Too bad Blair and the neocons have not learned the lessons of their misbegotten venture.
Otherwise OK, as Basil Fawlty would say.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia and a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.