The Left Gets Real

The Left Gets Real

Is the coziness of progressives and foreign policy realists a strategic alliance or a sign that the conservative co-optation of “human rights” has disillusioned the left?


This past October after Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Adviser under George H.W. Bush, vented his frustration with the current Administration’s foreign policy in an interview with The New Yorker, the liberal blogosphere anointed him a hero. “Scowcroft is a poet,” gushed one blogger on Daily Kos, which trumpeted the news under the heading “Scowcroft’s Scathing Critique of the Iraq Debacle.” “Wow,” cooed another. “Amen,” wrote a third.

Some of what Scowcroft said about his former boss’s son was indeed scathing. Scowcroft’s admirers in cyberspace, though, were curiously silent about other, less savory aspects of his career. In 1989, several months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, Scowcroft was dispatched to China to smooth over relations with Beijing, which he did by toasting his Chinese hosts at a banquet. He was Henry Kissinger’s deputy back when the Nixon Administration was prolonging the Vietnam War. Like Kissinger, Scowcroft is a self-proclaimed realist for whom moral considerations pale next to strategic concerns.

This is not a school of thought that has traditionally mustered sympathy on the left. In the 1980s realists were among the people who argued that the United States should maintain cozy ties with apartheid South Africa if it suited our strategic interests. They had no objection, in principle, to forging alliances with dictators in countries like Indonesia and Chile. They scoffed at human rights advocates who demanded that foreign policy hew to certain ethical principles, a perspective realists tend to dismiss as naïve, since diplomacy is, at root, a Machiavellian struggle for power in a cutthroat world.

Many realists still hold such views. And yet, since the attacks of September 11, the gulf that once separated them from liberal and radical critics of US foreign policy appears to have narrowed, if not altogether disappeared. The views of realist thinkers like Anatol Lieven, Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson now appear frequently in the left-liberal press. This fall The Nation, whose pages have regularly featured their voices, will be co-hosting a discussion with The National Interest, a realist journal that has Daniel Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski on its masthead, about views of realism from the left and the right. Groups like have sprinkled their press releases with collegial references to Kissinger and Scowcroft. The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an alliance of experts that formed not long ago to oppose the Bush Administration’s overseas agenda, has issued statements bearing the signatures of former Reagan Administration officials as well as left-leaning academics like Bruce Cumings, Joel Beinin and Marilyn Young.

As progressives attempt to thrash out a compelling alternative to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy vision, it’s worth asking whether these are mere tactical alliances or if there is something deeper under way–a warming to realism among disillusioned critics of the Iraq War, born of growing unease with the idea of a US foreign policy that even aspires to promote positive ideals. Next to the White House’s messianic post-9/11 agenda, realism, which stresses the limits of power and the danger of launching open-ended crusades to rid the world of evil, is understandably appealing–all the more so because it’s hard for neoconservatives and other Administration supporters to dismiss its devotees as “soft.” Realists, after all, are famously hard-nosed about power. The withering appraisals of the Bush Administration penned by realists in recent years have acknowledged that Al Qaeda is a threat but have argued that we’ve exacerbated it by assuming it is our right to topple foreign governments and export our values to places like the Middle East. They have echoed Walter Lippmann, who in 1965 explained his opposition to the Vietnam War by warning, “A mature great power will make measured and limited use of its power. It will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness, that each war is a war to end all war.”

The words sound eerily prescient. Before one goes too far in romanticizing Lippmann, though, it bears recalling that, as his biographer Ronald Steel has observed, the celebrated columnist “did not view foreign policy as a moral issue. For him it was a question of geopolitics and a cold calculation of national interest.” Is the left in the era of George W. Bush resigned to seeing the world from a similarly jaded perspective? Shouldn’t progressives who care about human rights and democracy–and want to see these terms reclaimed from the neoconservatives who have hijacked them–be concerned about this? Or is the rapprochement between realists and the left a healthy sign that progressives have given up on the misguided goal of aggressively promoting America’s values abroad?

Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle Eastern history at Columbia University, cautions against viewing the growing camaraderie between realists and the left as anything more than a chance intersection, driven by mutual opposition to George W. Bush rather than a shared set of principles. “I don’t find it strange that the attacks on the Bush Administration from within the CIA or from retired military officers or from other realists should be welcome on the left,” says Khalidi. “That doesn’t mean that we’ve all become Brzezinski/Scowcroft realists. It simply means that what they’re saying in many respects is absolutely true.”

Khalidi has a point. And considering how frozen out of power progressives have been in recent years, it’s hardly surprising that some leftists find it heartening that a growing chorus of realists, from Richard Clarke to Brzezinski, has come to echo their views of the Bush Administration. Yet others feel there has been an accompanying tendency to gloss over the more unsettling aspects of the realist worldview. “The Bush Administration’s move toward a regressive form of foreign policy idealism has created an unacknowledged nostalgia for realism among many people on the left,” says Richard Falk, professor of international relations at UC-Santa Barbara. “Of course, that’s difficult for people to acknowledge because it’s a retrospective affirmation of people like Kissinger.” Falk himself acknowledges that “relative to imperialism, yes, realism is better than that. But is it good enough for the kind of world order that is both desirable and sustainable? I would say no.”

One thing realists and many leftists share is deep skepticism about America’s claim to moral superiority and to acting with benign, idealistic intentions. “I’m a historian and I look at the way idealism has tended to operate, and it’s not a pretty picture,” says Khalidi. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who feel you can ride the horse of American foreign policy for idealistic purposes without that horse having a mind of its own–there’s an institutional reality there. Just look at Iraq–bases, oil, the Project for the New American Century. These things were infinitely more important than idealism, and I have great difficulty understanding how anybody could have failed to see that.”

Falk goes so far as to say that “at this point in history, the US is so suspect as a vehicle for promoting democracy or human rights that one should repudiate these visionary claims.” At the same time, however, he also says, “I think there’s not only a place for idealism but a need for it.”

Of course, one can argue that these two sentiments are not contradictory: One can be a realist about what to expect from the Bush Administration and an idealist about how the world ought to be. Six years ago, in May 2000, this magazine published a special issue devoted to outlining “A New Vision for Foreign Policy” that brimmed with idealistic suggestions: the creation of a viable International Criminal Court, a global push for energy efficiency, a renewed commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, an American agenda geared around Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of “an attainable world in which there would be not only freedom of speech and worship but also freedom from want and fear.” The latter sentiment appeared in a cover essay by Kai Bird, who told me he sees no reason the left should be any less vocal about championing such an agenda today, notwithstanding the slim chance that it will be adopted by Bush. “I would argue that nothing has changed,” he says. “There’s been a corruption of language, and the United States is a lot more unpopular than we were before, and the world looks at us as hypocrites. But if we were to elect a liberal-left President and the Democrats took back the House and Senate, we could make things different.”

It is a view more radical critics dismiss as naïve. “There can be no such thing as a ‘positive U.S. foreign policy agenda,'” wrote Tariq Ali in response to an e-mail asking whether he saw any place for idealism in US foreign policy–and he was not speaking merely of the Bush Administration. “The foreign policy of Empires past and present is dominated by defending their interests and those of states or satrapies allied to or controlled by them. This has been the case with the United States for over 200 years.”

Like many realists, Ali and others on the radical left look askance at the idea of using American power–in particular, military force–to alleviate humanitarian crises of the kind that unfolded in Bosnia and Rwanda during the 1990s. “There are occasions in extremis when an intervention is needed, but even here it is best if it were carried out regionally,” Ali believes. Practically speaking, this is not so different from what the CATO Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter told me. American troops should be deployed abroad, he said, only when there is a pressing “security issue” at stake. One side opposes “humanitarian intervention” because it will further an imperial agenda, the other because foreign policy shouldn’t (to paraphrase a famous remark of Henry Kissinger’s) be confused with charity work. Both balk at the sort of values-driven outlook that led some liberals to support the Iraq War on humanitarian grounds.

In 2000, in its special issue on foreign policy, The Nation ran a forum on humanitarian intervention in which Holly Burkhalter, advocacy director of Physicians for Human Rights, wrote: “We as citizens should demand that our President declare the principle that prevention and suppression of genocide and crimes against humanity, and punishment of those responsible, are of vital interest to the United States, and announce a program to make this pledge meaningful.” One suspects many people on the left would hesitate before issuing such a call right now: Burkhalter’s reasoning, after all, could have been invoked to justify the US invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. (The Iraqi dictator may not have been committing genocide at the time of the invasion, but few would argue his regime hadn’t perpetrated massive crimes against humanity.) And yet, judging by the number of students and peace activists currently urging the international community–including the United States–to do something to stop the carnage in Darfur, it’s clear many progressives still believe some humanitarian crises do warrant outside intervention. Several people I interviewed said that, notwithstanding the lessons of Iraq, progressives should remain open to the possibility that some situations justify this–ideally, by a UN force empowered with what foreign policy expert Sherle Schwenninger terms “the right to protect” in a way that “doesn’t depend on a particular first world imperial power’s interests.”

The debate about humanitarian intervention is arguably less pressing today than it was in the 1990s. Not so with human rights, an area where it seems that the views of realists and progressives would sharply diverge. Hard-core realists consider human rights a peripheral concern, at best. Liberals and radicals have spent decades dreaming of the day when America’s leaders would place human rights principles at the center of their worldview.

Now that the Bush Administration (in its rhetoric, at least) has done just that, however, some on the left have begun to wonder whether those principles have been emptied of their meaning–or, worse, turned into a justification for launching unilateral wars. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” declared Bush in his second inaugural address. “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude,” he proclaimed.

The melding of such language with cowboy imperialism–one British newspaper likened the second inaugural to a bulletin from “the armed wing of Amnesty International”–has put advocates of human rights in something of a bind. “I think the human rights movement has allowed the Bush Administration to appropriate human rights language and has been very confused in its response,” acknowledges William Schulz, who until recently served as executive director of Amnesty International USA. The war in Iraq, he notes, threw into sharp relief the fact that a discourse advocates had always assumed serves the interests of the powerless against the powerful can be used for very different purposes. Writer David Rieff has gone further, characterizing human rights as “the official ideology of the American empire.” Tariq Ali wrote in an e-mail that the discourse of universal rights “has become a weapon to bludgeon states opposed to or nervous of the Washington consensus.”

A large segment of the left has grown equally, if not more, cynical about democracy promotion, which many have come to view as a ploy aimed at shoring up America’s influence rather than as a tool to open political space in repressive countries. The Bush Administration’s reactions to recent elections in Iraq and Palestine seem to confirm this: We’re all for human rights and democracy, on condition that the people we’ve liberated do what we want. But those elections also show that democracy promotion can have results its architects neither control nor predict, which is among the reasons Zachary Lockman, chair of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program at New York University, believes it would be a mistake for the left to cede the discourse on human rights and democracy to conservatives. “I think we need to embrace these ideas,” he says, “but the key is to have a consistent set of standards that place at the center of US foreign policy a commitment to supporting the struggles of people for democracy, human rights and freedom in all cases, not merely when it suits our interests. That means distancing from and putting pressure on some regimes that have long been our allies in the Middle East. It means respecting the needs and aspirations of the people in the region.”

Lockman acknowledges that there is good reason some on the left have grown cynical about the very terms human rights and democracy. But, he adds, “in places around the world, people go into the streets and risk their lives for these things.” Too often in the past, he contends, the left has failed to voice support for human rights in countries that happen to be enemies of the United States and thus made it easy for conservatives to claim they alone care about the people there, something he feels happened in the prelude to the war in Iraq. Although progressives drew attention to the inhumanity of the sanctions (which supporters of the war either ignored or justified), the crimes of the Baathist regime were often passed over in silence. This inattention was “a very grave problem because it allowed the right to seize the moral high ground,” he argues.

Those on the left who wince at the very idea of exporting democracy are not necessarily apologists for the likes of Saddam Hussein. Like most people in the world today, they simply don’t trust Washington’s intentions. But the question remains: If the rhetoric of rights is dismissed as a mere cover for imperialism, where does that leave the ideology underlying it? Need that be discarded as well? Should activists in America not stand up for the rights of dissidents in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt? Should we not express solidarity with those fighting against repression in places like Cuba and Iran? It’s perfectly reasonable to debate the form such solidarity should take (US funding of opposition groups in Iran, for instance, has elicited complaints from within that country that this merely discredits and endangers those fighting for freedom there). But it’s unsettling to imagine the very principle being questioned.

That said, there is no getting around the fact that terms such as freedom, human rights and democracy have acquired a bad name. Is there any way to alter this–to reclaim these terms from the neocons, who have sullied them in the name of regime change and unilateralism?

Some analysts have suggested that the answer lies in forging what might be termed “realism with a human face.” Thus Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, took to the pages of the New York Times recently to champion “progressive realism,” a foreign policy built on the notion that strategic interests and humanitarian concerns are not contradictory but complementary, particularly in an integrated world where threats like terrorism and disease easily cross borders. Andrew Bacevich has called for reviving a “distinctively American realist tradition” that does not dismiss moral considerations, a view embraced in the past by thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Charles Beard. Historians Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman are about to publish Ethical Realism, a book that promises to illustrate “how the United States can successfully combine genuine morality with tough and practical common sense.”

There are, in fact, strains of realism less plainly amoral than the Kissingerian one. Historian Tony Judt believes the distinction between realism and idealism is, indeed, false. “It may be convenient for professional international relations theory,” says Judt, “but most idealist theories of foreign policy are driven by a notion of interest–it’s just that they think it’s in the interest of the United States to contribute to constructing a better world, and that therefore we operate against our own best interests if we fail to try.”

It’s a fair point. But “progressive realism” could also be viewed as a clever rhetorical maneuver that glosses over the dilemmas that remain: what to do in cases like Rwanda, how to bal ance the pursuit of strategic interests with the principles of international law. More radical critics of US foreign policy, moreover, might argue that, whatever the label, you can be sure any foreign policy vision with establishment backing will end up benefiting the powerful. In practice, as critics like Noam Chomsky have frequently noted, both Wilsonian idealists and Kissingerian realists have sanctioned remarkably similar prescriptions for the developing world, which won’t change until institutions like the IMF, and the distribution of power within the United States, are radically transformed.

Underlying the Chomskian view is a belief that those in the foreign policy establishment, Democrats no less than Republicans, share a set of core assumptions about how the world should be run. This might still be the case among politicians in Washington. But thanks to the radicalism of the Bush Administration, one could argue it is no longer true among intellectuals and foreign policy analysts, or for that matter the American people. You don’t have to drop by the headquarters of the War Resisters League these days to find bracing critiques of US imperialism. You can find them in just about every issue of The National Interest. You don’t have to go searching through the catalogue of Monthly Review Press for scathing assessments of America’s policies in the Middle East. Just check out the new releases table at the nearest Barnes & Noble, or go to any city and listen to people talk about the war in Iraq. The left may be more removed from power today than it has ever been. But its ideas about what is wrong with US foreign policy are arguably more widely shared than at any time in recent history. Given this, engaging in dialogue with realists to forge a vision that might appeal to people across the political spectrum who are disgusted with the Bush Administration might not be the worst thing, provided it’s understood there are risks as well as benefits to doing so, and that terms like human rights, freedom and democracy should not be thrown away, but salvaged.

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