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Two Tedious Attacks on Realists

Andrew Bacevich responds to a tedious attack on several realist scholars, including several current and past contributors to TAC:

While it may not be their intended purpose, by mounting their overheated attack on “academic realism,” Brands and Feaver succeed in demonstrating why genuine realism rarely receives a serious hearing inside the Beltway. The answer is simply this: Especially since the end of the Cold War, reality itself is impinging on the prerogatives to which members of the American foreign-policy establishment have grown accustomed and to the arrangements that sustain those prerogatives. It therefore becomes incumbent upon scholars who serve that establishment to deflect such threats. They do so by contriving a “reality” conducive to affirming existing prerogatives and arrangements.

Bacevich says most of what needs to be said about the Brands/Feaver article. It was a frustrating article for many reasons, but what stands out is the obvious contempt that the authors have for any realist foreign policy views that can’t be co-opted to justify unnecessary wars and endless global commitments. They might have saved everyone a lot of time if they had simply said, “Kissinger, si, Kennan, no.” If a self-described realist has made no serious objections to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy over the last twenty-five years, he passes their test, and if he objects strongly to much or all of that record he is dismissed. It’s all very predictable and boring, and it has nothing to do with “saving realism” from anyone. It is a more long-winded version of the standard hawkish insult that says realists aren’t realistic, and it isn’t any more compelling. It is also the latest in a tedious tradition of policing foreign policy discourse on the right while refusing to engage with the arguments of the dissenters that are being denounced.

As it happens, there was another attack on the same realists (i.e., Walt, Mearsheimer, Desch, Layne, Posen) published recently in an issue of the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. This time the attack was carried out in the name of vindicating liberal internationalism and whitewashing liberal internationalist support for the Iraq war. Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry wrote the article, and in it they advanced a different but equally ludicrous argument that neoconservatism is a branch of realism and the Iraq war is therefore also an indictment of realism. It is a very sloppy, disingenuous argument, and it fails in its attempt to turn realist criticisms of the Iraq war around on the critics, but then the purpose of the article was just to smear realist opponents of the Iraq war by asserting some tenuous connection with the supporters of the war whom they have bitterly opposed for decades.

These two attacks aren’t persuasive to anyone not already convinced to ignore realist critics of U.S. foreign policy, but they aren’t intended to persuade. As Prof. Bacevich observes, they are written to shore up the boundaries of what passes for acceptable “mainstream” foreign policy thought in Washington and to ridicule those that stray outside of those boundaries on a regular basis. They are timely reminders that realists and their ideas aren’t welcome on either side of the partisan divide.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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