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Michael Gerson's moral myopia

There was a brief flap last week when the Nixon Library released a tape of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the former president. At one point, Kissinger says "the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

A number of pundits have already explored what these disturbing remarks tell us about Kissinger himself and his relationship with Nixon, but Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, has decided that the real culprit is the entire "realist" approach to foreign policy. Not only does he consider realism to be a "sadly limited view of power, discounting American ideological advantages in global ideological struggles," he claims that "repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience."

Such statements tell us two things: 1) Gerson hasn't read many (any?) realists, and 2) Gerson hasn't spent much time reflecting on the morality of his own government service. If he had, perhaps his own conscience would be a bit more troubled.

For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy. Most academic realists thought the Vietnam War a foolish waste of U.S. resources, for example, yet Kissinger prosecuted that war with enthusiasm during his tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state. Similarly, most contemporary realists opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Kissinger supported it (as did Gerson). Before indicting an entire school of thought on foreign policy, therefore, you'd think Gerson would have spent some time familiarizing himself with what realists actually wrote.

Furthermore, Gerson is wrong to claim that realists are indifferent to moral concerns. (See here for a thoughtful discussion of this issue). Realists emphasize the role of hard power and are generally skeptical of idealistic crusades, but not because they think morality has no place in human affairs. Indeed, most realists that I know are deeply moral individuals who wish that humans (and states) behaved in a more ethical fashion; unfortunately, history makes it abundantly clear that bad behavior is commonplace and that prudent leaders have to take that possibility into account.

Realists are cautious and prudent because they know that misguided moral crusades can place one's own country in danger and get lots of innocent people killed. Realists also know that states often have to make uncomfortable compromises, as the United States did when it allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II. For that matter, it made good strategic sense for the United States to move closer to communist China in the 1970s -- doing so put more pressure on the USSR -- even though this policy involved tacit cooperation with a government led by Mao Zedong, one of history's greatest mass murderers. A simple-minded focus on "good versus evil" is useless when the choice is between two equally despicable tyrants.

Nor are realists opposed to using ideals as an instrument of foreign policy, particularly when doing so gives one an advantage over an adversary. After all, because realists see international politics as inherently competitive, they readily support using any weapon that is likely to be effective. The debate over initiatives like the Jackson-Vanik amendment (which linked U.S.-Soviet trade to the emigration of Soviet Jewry) concerned whether these policies were likely to be effective (Kissinger thought not), and whether the costs outweighed the benefits.

Gerson believes Jackson-Vanik (and other human rights initiatives) played a key role in helping bring the Soviet empire down. Realists do not deny that communism's moral deficiencies played some role in this process, but the superior economic and military power of the Western alliance was far more important. In the 1980s, it was U.S. support for the Afghan mujahedin -- who were hardly good liberal democrats -- that pounded the final nail in the coffin of Soviet-style communism.

For realists, in short, the pursuit of moral ends must be tempered by a clear sense of the national interest and a hard-headed calculation of means, ends, costs, and benefits. And the clearest demonstration of that enduring reality is the performance of the administration in which Gerson served. George W. Bush liked to talk a lot about ideals and morality -- most notably in his second inaugural address -- but his decidedly non-realist policies produced a steady erosion of America's standing in the world and tarnished our moral credibility. More importantly, Bush's foolish policies led to the unnecessary deaths of many human beings; people who would be alive today had Bush and his administration paid more attention to realist warnings.

Finally, Gerson's emphasis on moral ideals would be more credible if it were less selective. He's understandably upset by Kissinger's unfeeling remarks about the plight of Soviet Jews, but he seems unfazed by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a result of the U.S. invasion, not to mention the millions of refugees that the war he helped sell produced. Gerson never expressed any moral outrage when Israel pummeled Lebanon in 2006 or killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza in 2009-2009; on the contrary, he defended these actions. Despite his evangelical background, you didn't see him raising moral objections when the government in which he served began waterboarding prisoners. (Gerson ultimately decided that maybe torturing prisoners was on balance a tactical mistake, but as you can read here, he remained pretty ambivalent about the whole business). All of which leads me to suspect that a commitment to foreign policy realism doesn't deaden the conscience, but too much time working inside-the-Beltway can.

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