Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Case for Realism

There’s been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth within the liberal blogosphere over the New York Times’ decision to hire William Kristol as a weekly columnist. The liberals’ dismay was, in turn, gleefully noted by conservative bloggers, generating still more grist for countless mills.

For my part, I thought this Tom Tomorrow cartoon captured quite nicely the crux of Mr. Kristol’s unsuitability for the job.

But just when I thought that the subject had pretty much been beaten to death, Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt offered up an incisive critique of the Times’ decision. In particular, Walt’s suggestion that the Times (or any major American newspaper for that matter) should provide space for foreign policy realists deserves serious consideration.

As Walt notes, realism has a long and proud tradition in American foreign policy, is the dominant point of view within the academy today, especially among international relations scholars, and yet it is seriously under-represented in the pages of major newspapers.

The best case to be made, however, is that, as Walt writes “realism’s track record as a guide to foreign policy is quite impressive, especially when compared to the neocons’ catalog of blunders.” He continues:

[Hans J.] Morgenthau, [Kenneth] Waltz and [George] Kennan were among the first to recognize that the Vietnam War was a foolish diversion of American power, and Waltz was one of the few foreign policy experts who understood the Soviet Union was a Potemkin colossus with feet of clay. When assorted hawks were sounding frantic alarms about Soviet dominance in the late 1970s, Waltz was writing that the real issue was whether the Soviets could hope to keep up with the far wealthier and more powerful United States. The 1980s proved they couldn’t, and that Waltz and his fellow realists had been essentially correct.

[…]

Most important, realists were among the most visible opponents to America’s more recent misadventure in Iraq. In September 2002, for example, 33 international security scholars paid for an ad in the New York Timesdeclaring “War With Iraq Is Not in the U.S. National Interest.” About half of the signatories were prominent realists, and several others wrote articles before the war explaining why it was unnecessary and unwise. By contrast, it was the neocons who conceived and promoted the Iraq war, while many prominent liberals endorsed it. Surely Americans deserve to hear from a perspective that has been an accurate guide to recent events, instead of relying on pundits who have been consistently wrong.

Walt makes a very compelling case. Of course, as a realist myself, I didn’t need much convincing. The bigger question remains: Which of the leading newspapers will be the first to take up his suggestion?

DHS: Require REAL ID for Prescriptions

C|Net News reports that DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker called today for national ID checks when Americans buy prescription drugs. This is yet another in a growing list of activities that federal authorities would bring within their control should the national ID system created by the REAL ID Act be implemented.

The eminently savvy Baker was unintentionally ironic when he reportedly said he “doesn’t ‘understand’ the civil liberties objections to the plan.”

To Hell With the Facts, We’re Still in This Thing!

Readers will no doubt be relieved that the new US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has done nothing to dampen literary-critic-cum-Giuliani-foreign-policy-adviser Norman Podhoretz’s enthusiasm for starting another Middle Eastern war.

The Munich analogy and Winston Churchill make prominent appearances. No word, per Podhoretz’s prior comments on what went wrong after Vietnam, on whether gay people are to blame for the NIE.

NATO’s New Troubles

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is beginning to fracture. Its members have taken on burdens that have proved more difficult than expected, and increasingly, they are failing to meet the challenges confronting them. In “Cracks in the Foundation: NATO’s New Troubles,” Cato scholar Stanley Kober argues that the future of the alliance is unclear and the United States should begin discussions with our allies about what a post-NATO world would look like.

It’s Not My Fault They’re Kissing

My friend Blake Hounshell (he’s actually a friend, not “my friend” in the Washington sense) has a post up at FP Passport observing President Bush’s and Saudi dictator King Abdullah’s latest canoodling. In that post, Blake argues that

if you’re a gasoline-consuming American, you’re deeply complicit in this marriage, too. So laugh all you want at Bush, but he kisses Saudi cheek for thee—just as U.S. presidents have done for decades.

To which I would respond “baloney!” There’s nothing about the fact that we–or Europe, or China, or Japan–consume oil that mandates that we play kissy-poo with Abdullah or anybody else. There are a few theories why we would want to kiss up to the Saudis, and none of them hold water. The first is that the Saudis, who control 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves, make production decisions based on political relationships rather than economic considerations, and therefore when we kiss up to them, we increase the likelihood that they’ll make production decisions that are in our interests (and in contravention of their own). Like now, for example, the president is pleading that OPEC members increase production so as to tamp down the price of gasoline in the U.S.

As my colleague Jerry Taylor is wont to point out, however, “no amount of ‘get tough’ rhetoric or ‘pretty please’ diplomacy has ever affected OPEC production decisions, despite what American politicians would have you believe.” So that theory needs reworking.

There’s also the belief that we need to keep a close relationship with the Saudis to shore up our position in the region and resume the pursuit of our *ahem* traditional goal in the region of “promoting stability.” But this theory, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Our traditional posture in the Middle East has essentially amounted to a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers to the Saudi Royal Family and the oil companies it runs. (Kuwait and the GCC countries, too.) Essentially we cover a substantial amount of the cost that it takes to defend these countries from prospective predators. But one has to ask “What would the Arabs do in the absence of an American security commitment?” 75% of the Saudi government’s revenue comes from oil. 45% of the country’s GDP comes from oil. Are we to assume that, absent a U.S. security commitment, the Saudi royal family is just going to cower in a defensive crouch and leave that money on the table for any rogue actor in the region to swoop in and take? Seems unlikely. The royal family seems much more interested in preserving itself and expanding its wealth than that.

To the contrary, it seems more likely that they would spend more, and get more serious about defending themselves from outside threats. Now, one could make the argument at this point that the Arabs in recent years have not proved themselves to be particularly formidable opponents on the battlefield, which is persuasive to a point. But even if, say, Iran made the remarkably rash move of launching a war against Saudi Arabia, Saudi’s defense budget dwarfs Iran’s and Saudi’s military technology is decades ahead of Iran’s. Even if they were to begin losing a conventional conflict against (hypothetically, again) Iran, standoff forces like long-range U.S. bombers could zoom in to restore the status quo ante without batting an eyelash.

So I’m left wondering why, exactly, it’s American gasoline consumers who are forcing U.S. presidents to suck up to Abdullah and the Saudi Royal Family. Any theories are hereby welcomed. In the meantime, please do give a read to Eugene Gholz’s and Daryl Press’s Policy Analysis titled “Energy Alarmism: The Myths that Make Americans Worry about Oil” for much more detail, and data that informed my arguments above.