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 MoveOn.org 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.”