The Region: The hijacking of political 'realism'

Historically, realism has been the core of diplomatic practice.

By BARRY RUBIN
November 19, 2006 22:43
4 minute read.
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barry rubin 88. (photo credit: )

The time has come to speak of what "Realism" means in international affairs. Historically, realism has been the core of diplomatic practice. This concept says that countries rationally formulate their national interests and pursue them. These interests are defined in material, not sentimental, terms - obtaining or holding security, territory and economic assets. As an explicit doctrine this arose in Europe. America has always had some trouble accepting this approach. It often seeks to inject ideas and values into its foreign policy. If George W. Bush is only the latest example of this (promoting democracy), it is a concept central also to the thinking of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton. In general, Realism needs some small, reasonable adjustments. Let me mention three:

  • Ideology does matter. The USSR and Russia have parallel interests, but how they define and pursue them is related to the difference between seeking world hegemony for Communism and just trying to keep a country afloat. Both the Shah's and Islamist Iran tried to become the leading power in the Persian Gulf, but the way they went about it is rather significantly not the same.
  • The interests of the regime might not be that of the nation. Syria as a country would benefit from peace with Israel and good relations with the West. But these things would mean death for the current regime. Therefore, these are not its policies.
  • Ideas can be an important part of a Realist policy. For example, the US knew that promoting democracy and prosperity in Europe was essential to avoiding Communist takeovers. During the Cold War it was the liberal position - for example that of John Kennedy - that America should promote reform and democracy in, say, Latin America, to achieve victory over the pro-Soviet forces. But if Islam was "hijacked" by radical Islamists, Realism is now being hijacked by those who are far from being realistic. REALISM does not mean that all countries think alike even if they act structurally in similar ways. The key is to understand how a given regime defines the national interest. This requires real knowledge of various countries, not just conversations with leaders or reading their newspaper interviews with Western correspondents. Here's how Lewis Carroll put it in Alice in Wonderland, one of the best guides for understanding Western policy toward the Middle East: "Would you tell me," asked Alice, "why you are painting those roses?" The playing card painter replied, "You see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off." A Realist is not someone who repaints Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas from white to red, but rather one whose starting point is to recognize their true color. To be so deluded as to believe one can profitably "engage" these forces is not Realism, but Surrealism. Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler at Munich with the gift of Czechoslovakia not because he was a bad man but because he thought it would work. The same applies to those who today are ready to sacrifice Iraq, Lebanon and Israel on the same principles. Human beings are supposed to learn from experience and observation. Syria has sponsored terrorism, lied repeatedly to the West, plotted to seize control of Lebanon, sponsored terrorists in Iraq, and so on. Are these strategies not a true picture of its national interests as perceived and practiced by the rulers? For five years the US government tried to engage Syria and found out it was impossible. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, spreading hatred and incitement, sabotaging an Arab-Israeli diplomatic resolution, sponsoring terrorism, trying to take over Iraq, and so on. Do its leaders have any idea of what they think suits Iran? For three years the world has been trying to engage Iran on the nuclear issue and found it was impossible. CONCLUSION: There is a genuine clash of interests between the Iran-led alliance and those of the West which cannot be bridged by diplomacy because of its goals and methods. The Washington Post understands this in a November 15 editorial which advocates a truly Realist policy:
  • The UN Security Council should quickly establish an international tribunal to begin criminal proceedings against Syria's government for murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
  • It should consider other actions against Syria, including sanctions, if Syria continues trying to block the tribunal's formation and sponsoring political violence in Lebanon.
  • "Security Council action against Iran for its refusal to suspend its nuclear program is long overdue; governments that are holding it up, beginning with Russia, must be forced to choose between supporting sanctions and breaking off strategic cooperation with the West."
  • "Until Iran and Syria are made to pay a price for their attempts to radicalize the Middle East, they will have no incentive to rein in clients such as Hizbullah." And if this doesn't happen, others in the Middle East will copy, join, or surrender to the extremists. As a great document of Realist politics put it: "On every side the wicked roam when vileness is exalted." (Psalm 12)


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