Paul Wolfowitz's provocative critique of foreign-policy realism
("Think Again: Realism," September/October 2009) has several flaws.
For one, he punts on the Iraq war.
By dropping the subject, he misses a fundamental reality: The power a president
inherits when he or she gets the keys to the White House is not the same from
president to president.
President Barack Obama, in his
early foreign-policy moves, has found his "inner Nixon" and made a number of
key realist-like gestures -- not because Nixonianism was lurking just under the
skin of his campaign for the White House all along, but because he had to. John
McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign, also would have
been compelled to find his "inner Nixon," because the United States is
substantially constrained today and viewed by much of the world as a superpower
The Iraq war punctured the mystique
of America's superpower status and exposed military limits, followed later by
economic limits that have undermined the confidence of key allies in American
power and dependability. Had the Iraq invasion not occurred, and had George W.
Bush's team dealt a crushing blow to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and come
home, the world and America would be in a different place. In those
circumstances, Obama might have been the type of values crusader that Bush got
to be-at least for a short while.
Another issue I wish Wolfowitz had
raised is the importance of America's demonstrating by example the kind of
democracy it hopes others aspire to. We saw how the reactions to the September
11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq war led to a national security pathology
in the United States in which core democratic values, including our beliefs
about universal human rights, were undermined. This kind of example is
something that authoritarian governments salivate at-and true democrats abroad
The New America
It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism."
On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold
War -- the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq -- the realists who opposed it were right
and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he
begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq
War." I'd try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him, too.
Contrary to Wolfowitz's claims,
there is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of
democratic government and human rights. I know of no realists who oppose the
peaceful encouragement of these values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of
any. The real issue, as the Iraq debate revealed, is whether the United States
and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point
of a gun or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.
Wolfowitz is correct about one
thing: Barack Obama is probably not a "realist." He is essentially a
pragmatist. But his administration is chock full of traditional liberal
internationalists, many of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003 and still think
America's mission is to right wrongs wherever they may arise. That's why we are
plunging deeper into Afghanistan and why the foreign-policy establishment
continues to think we are making progress every time Washington has to assume
responsibility for fixing some foreign problem.
The bottom line is that it really
doesn't matter whether Obama is a "realist" or not. But the sooner he starts to
act like one, the better off the United States will be.
Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renée Belfer
Stephen M. Walt is a blogger for ForeignPolicy.com.