Friday, August 19, 2005

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A Realist By Any Other Name

My former host Greg Djerejian introduces a New York Times Op-Ed by the managing editor of Foreign Affairs briskly, thus:

"Gideon Rose cuts through a lot of chaff today in the New York Times..."

Let's pause right there. On the theory that every aspiring statesman requires the aid of a Bernard Woolley, let me point out that if you cut through a lot of chaff all you get is a lot of chopped up chaff. Chaff is the husk of wheat and other grains; to mill the grain the chaff must be separated from the grain. In metaphor, chaff is often opposed to wheat to suggest the distinction between unworthy people or ideas and those of quality. It is true that after grain has been threshed out, chaff may then be chopped up and used as bedding, feed for farm animals, or ground cover for erosion control, but these uses are too obscure to be metaphor material in a discussion of foreign policy.


Gideon Rose takes the kind of academic approach to recent American foreign policy that makes me cringe when I hear it applied to any public policy subject. This approach is based on the contention between schools of thought -- in this case between foreign policy "realists" (good) and "idealists" (bad) -- in other words between things that can be analyzed in an academic context with minimum reference to the people involved. Understand the school of thought a given group of officials subscribes to and you have a good idea whether the administration they serve is on the right or the wrong track.

What does this approach miss? Think of it this way: you would never say Steve DeBerg was a quarterback in the Joe Montana tradition because like Montana he played for the 49ers and ran the West Coast offense. Why not? Simply because Montana was a far more talented player; he saw the field more completely and executed his plays better. Similarly it would be highly misleading to describe Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, as an Achesonian without noting his old boss's superior skill, intellect, and force of personality. Consider, in light of this, Rose:

"George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft then offered an updated and nonpathological version of the Nixon-Kissinger approach and presided over the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reversal of the occupation of Kuwait. Their reward? To be hounded from office after one term and derided as cold-blooded amoralists. They, too, were succeeded by a left-wing idealist (Bill Clinton) and then a right-wing one (George W. Bush), who once again loudly dedicated themselves to moralism in foreign policy and had more than their share of failures."

There are a number of things wrong with this picture, but let's observe just one of them. Henry Kissinger when in office hired a large number of people competent to staff him but not to replace him as an architect of American foreign policy: Alexander Haig, Robert McFarlane, Tony Lake, Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush himself. All of these people made their limitations abundantly clear when they attained high office themselves; none of them, with the possible exception of McFarlane, really grasped them, attributing the difficulties they encountered to factors beyond their control.

Looking specifically at the first Bush administration, let's remember that in foreign policy as in most other things offense is a lot harder than defense; attempting to change an unsatisfactory status quo is far more difficult than passively awaiting events. The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, begun under the enormous burden of the war in Vietnam, was nonetheless on offense more often than not. The first Bush administration essentially left the Reagan administration's foreign policy on autopilot. When a problem like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq war seemed to go away, the Bush administration invariable followed the path of least resistance, disengaging from the first and pursuing normal relations with an Iraqi government that should never have been treated as anything other than a disposable ally of convenience. When Yugoslavia began to implode Bush neither warned breakaway republics that they could expect no American recognition or help, nor did he mobilize allied governments against Serbia in an effort to let the country dissolve without bloodshed.

To be fair, Bush was aided by a Secretary of State with a genuine talent for diplomacy. And in some respects, events were kind to his administration. Bush's instinct for passivity and reaction and his tendency to allow American foreign policy follow lines suggested by persuasive allies led to successful policy toward the reunification of Germany; it at least did no harm as newly independent states emerged in Eastern Europe. But having called for a New World Order Bush had few ideas as to what it should look like. And his wretched judgment and loss of nerve at the end of the Gulf War led to a human catastrophe in Iraq and a permanent, profitless commitment to contain a regime Bush had just sent half a million men halfway around the world to fight. His admirers were celebrating that fiasco as a triumph of foreign policy long before his son's administration proved it is possible to screw up in other ways; Rose appears to be still doing it.

Politically, Bush was done in by the way his passivity and zeal for repose was perceived in domestic affairs, not by foreign policy. The fact remains that in both areas his administration was what might have been expected from a lifelong ticket-puncher accustomed to being a spokesman and occasionally an implementer of policies designed by other men. If we are to draw correct lessons from it they will not concern foreign policy doctrine.

The same thing applies to his son's administration. The Bush Doctrine is a piece of paper that academics can study. This doesn't mean it explains the war in Iraq. For that, we must look at a President largely ignorant of foreign policy when he took office, badly rattled by 9/11, and determined to do something dramatic about in response. Everything after that has been improvisation.

Not all complaints about the limited vision of self-identified "realists" are wrong, nor is it evident that the current administration's "idealism" is the wellspring of its policies as opposed to an ex post facto justification for them. Effective foreign policy requires an understanding of what you want to do, a strategy for getting it done, and the ability both to distinguish the battles that can be won from those that cannot and to distinguish the situations where America can impose its will from those in which we must respond to events. It is not an accident that the period of greatest American success in foreign policy have come when the people running it -- Marshall, Acheson, Nixon, Kissinger -- have had these things and something else that is mostly lacking today, an understanding that a foreign policy made with one eye on campaign politics is bound to run into trouble regardless of what doctrine it proclaims. The people, not their doctrines, make the policy.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM


Perhaps he was using "chaff" as a non-profane subsitute for "crap", much as some might say: "That son-of-a-gun stole my flipping wallet."

Then again, lack of agricultural knowledge is the most likely explanation.

posted by: Phil on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

For another take on the GHWB foreign policy, see

posted by: Reihan on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

Maybe I have a more military/urban mindset, but when I think of "chaff" I think first of anti-radar flakes of aluminum or as a synonym/euphenism for "crap." My thouroughly urbanized nature makes me forget about chaff as opposed to wheat. As a sci-fi geek when I hear "chaff" I also think of chaff as an anti-laserbeam defense.

So cutting through the chaff means your radar-guided missle got through the chaff, or your radar cut through the chaff to see the enemy target clearly, or you cut through the crap, or your high-powered flag-ship laser burned right through the enemy frigate's chaff defense.

posted by: wml on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

A Haiku for Neocons

eighteen hundred sixty
rotting american corpses smell
like democracy

posted by: Mitchell Young on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

Joseph, While this is an eloquent analysis on the foreign policy of the GHWB administration, I think you miss the point of what Rose was arguing. His contention was that the idealism of the first GWB administration was a failure and, having recognized this, the administration has revamped its policies to reflect a much more realist approach. Rose is one of those realists that turn me off to a school of thought that otherwise has some valid ideas. He argues that realism is the only IR theory that works and must be dogmatically applied at all times as such. I think your more thoughtful neoconservatives, including the current administration, understands that there is room within neoconservatism for the idealism to be tempered with a bit of realism. The pendulum swinging of US foreign policy in the 20th century has proved repeatedly that one school of thought cannot be applied universally to all situations. The first GWB administration peppered (excuse the horrible metaphor) its idealism at times with realism, just as the new administration hasn't done away altogether with the idealist streak (the realist would have considered the staging base in Uxbekistan more strategically important that bothering with the internal affairs of another nation-state. This administration didn't agree.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

The Bush Doctrine is a piece of paper that academics can study.

How many academics have given the Bush Doctrine a fair hearing? Many seem to dismiss it immediately. Wasnt it Gaddis who wrote last year in Foreign Affairs that many people werent giving the Bush Doctrine enough serious scrutiny?

posted by: Sean Giovanello on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]


posted by: Alenda Lux on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

wml: Fair point. Don't think many people think of that definition first, though. I spent years working on agriculture policy, so I may not be the definitive authority on that!

Alenda, I see your point, and Rose's. My response would be that it isn't the school of thought that has been changed, but 1. the replacement of the ineffectual Colin Powell with a Rice-Zoellick team that combines better relations with the President (Rice) and greater diplomatic skill (Zoellick) and 2. circumstances -- the Uzbek. bases while useful now were probably more important in 2001 and 2002 when they were all we had. And, frankly, wholesale massacres of unarmed civilians are pretty difficult for any American to stomach in an ally, regardless of how he looks on foreign policy.

posted by: Zathras on 08.19.05 at 01:02 PM [permalink]

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