“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean…”
Read only the title of Condoleezza Rice’s new Foreign Affairs article, “Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World,” and you might think that she has been visited by the ghost of George Kennan. No such luck. If Rice has undergone any conversion, it’s from her 2000 denunciation of nation building that appeared in these same pages.
Unlike Browning’s “he said true things but called them by wrong names,” she says untrue things but calls them by right names. It’s an old trick for muzzling critics and, in this case, may mollify those weary of Bush utopianism but unlikely to wade through 9,000 words.
Indeed, some thought to the national interest is long overdue—if not so much rethinking. But Rice’s version is scarcely the variety neglected. Her “urgent component of our national interest” is “democratic state building,” which has little to do with a conventional understanding of American goals. It would be hard to argue that our solvency and security have been bolstered by the most recent test case. (Actually, it might not be that hard for Rice, who characterizes Iraq as merely suffering “difficulties.” Her affection for the “long term” is understandable.)
Without irony, she writes of the Mideast:
The Bush administration’s approach to this region has been its most vivid departure from prior policy. But our approach is, in reality, an extension of traditional tenets—incorporating human rights and the promotion of democratic development into a policy meant to further our national interest.
The “meant to” is generous, though in reality, it’s scarcely traditional for the American interest to be defined by others. Our rights aren’t tethered to their global adoption. Our security has not historically been ensured by forcing others to imitate our democracy.
But in Rice’s convoluted calculus, stability, once the grail in international relations, is no longer a worthy end of itself: “Freedom and democracy are the only ideas that can, over time, lead to just and lasting stability.” To secure peace, we must first, in true revolutionary fashion, destabilize: “the process of democratization is likely to be messy and unsatisfactory.” How else to explain away the electoral successes of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood? Temporary “untidiness.” She sees this upheaval as a transitional period in a “generational” project—which means she has time to get out of town.
Realism, also overdue for a revival, fares no better in the Rice rebranding scheme. Surely no resident of the reality-based community believes that “what will most determine whether the United States can succeed in the twenty-first century is our imagination.”
Rice’s “uniquely American realism” requires “marrying American power and values.” But the child of that union is armed messianism—a dangerous hydra that exhibits none of realism’s defining characteristics. Whither pragmatism, a sense of the limits of power, respect for history, or recognition of cultural context? Search in vain. “We live in the future, not in the past.”
She goes on to argue, “The fact is, few nations begin the democratic journey with a democratic culture.” No, the fact is, few begin it by having their countries creatively destroyed by benevolent occupation. In one rare instance Rice allows reality to seep in: “Democracy, it is said, cannot be imposed, particularly by a foreign power.” But the veil quickly drops: “This is true but beside the point.” Actually, Madam Secretary, it is the point.
Rice takes her liberty to redefine terms from a simple formulation: “After September 11.” But not everything has changed utterly. Realism is still a modest temperament, narrowly construed and firmly grounded in the as-is, not the wish-were. And the nation is not yet persuaded that its interests depend on a global gamble that peaceful order will emerge at gunpoint.
Were these the delusions of a streetcorner radical, they might be silly. But coming from the Secretary of State, they’re dangerously mad–and appropriating sound labels doesn’t make them less so.