Plus ca change

Originally posted by Bastoche on 09/08/07

While we’re waiting for the Good General, on 9/11, to tell us that if we show sufficient patience and pluck, we’ll pull this thing out, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the foreign policy ideas of two men who have associated themselves with 9/11. One is the man who on 9/11 became America’s Mayor and who is now campaigning for an upgrade to America’s Commander-in-Chief. The other is the man who on Tuesday, the sixth anniversary of 9/11, is publishing a book on “The Long Struggle” that started on 9/11 and who is, not so coincidentally, one of the chief foreign policy advisors of the man who became America’s Mayor on 9/11.

Crossposted at dailykos

The former is, of course, Rudy Giuliani, and the latter, only marginally less entitled to an “of course,” is Norman Podhoretz. In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, Rudy published an article summarizing his foreign policy views, “Toward a Realistic Peace.” A number of critics have already taken a whack at Rudy’s article, including Greg Djerejian and Fred Kaplan, and they are well worth reading. Rather than put forth another such critique, I will try to explain the adjective that Rudy uses in his title-realistic. No easy thing, such explanation, since Rudy’s essay is not a model of lucidity and cogent argument, but I have as guidance the essay that Rudy’s foreign policy advisor, Norman Podhoretz, published in the September 2004 issue of Commentary. As we’ll see, I think, Rudy has thoroughly absorbed the wisdom of his great neocon teacher and made it his own.

Podhoretz wrote his essay to counteract the “plague of amnesia” that seemed to be gripping the country in the spring and summer of ’04. The insurgency in Iraq was focusing our attention on the difficulties that attend any long struggle and causing us to lose sight of the larger context within which those local difficulties were taking place. The context, as Podhoretz terms it in his essay, is the Long War in which we are now engaged against the new enemy, Islamofascism, that attacked us on 9/11. It is a war comparable in importance and scope to World War II and World War III, his term for the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

For today, no less than in those titanic conflicts, we are up against a truly malignant force in radical Islamism and in the states breeding, sheltering, or financing its terrorist armory.

How we respond to the threat posed our way of life by that malignant force is, of course, crucial. According to Podhoretz, two alternatives were open to us in the aftermath of 9/11, and we chose the right one. Having made that choice Podhoretz now wants to make sure that we remain committed to it. And we will remain committed to it if we focus our attention not on the current difficulties in Iraq but on the doctrinal realism of the man whose will was irrevocably transformed by the events of 9/11.

1. The Real, the Ideal, and 9/11

In the aftermath of the events of 9/11 two alternatives were available to George W. Bush. One alternative was to respond to those events as a foreign policy realist: invade only the country that harbored the terrorists who attacked us, Afghanistan, topple the Taliban regime, and commence a thorough economic and political reconstruction. The other alternative was to respond to those events with the strength and will of a foreign policy idealist: topple not only the Taliban regime but also the regime of the evil despot, Saddam Hussein, thus beginning an epochal transformation of the Middle East from a region of terror and fanaticism to one of democracy and peace.

The speech that George W. Bush delivered on 9/20, a speech that marked both a personal and political turning point in the President’s life, clearly showed to what foreign policy faction he belonged. Prior to 9/11 George W. Bush adhered to his father’s realist approach regarding matters of foreign policy and distanced himself from the idealist approach of that “dangerous ideologue,” Ronald Reagan. For many, though, Reagan, far from being an ideologue, had a grasp of foreign affairs that was deeply, even profoundly realistic precisely because it was informed by his idealist vision of the world. Even the first President Bush, feeling the shadow of his great predecessor looming over his Presidency, acknowledged that he lacked what Ronald Reagan so amply possessed: “the vision thing.”

The charge was fair in that the elder Bush had no guiding sense of what role the United States might play in reshaping the post-cold-war world. A strong adherent of the “realist” perspective on world affairs, he believed that the maintenance of stability was the proper purpose of American foreign policy, and the only wise and prudential course to follow.

As Podhoretz explains it, the realist goal in foreign policy is to establish and maintain international stability among nations of differing, even opposing ideologies and modes of government. Such stability is precarious, since nations of opposing ideologies often come into conflict with one another. But within that stability, as long as it lasts, America can satisfy its “vital” political and economic interests.

Idealists, on the other hand, are convinced that American foreign policy must actively seek to spread the values of freedom and democracy. The stability that the realists seek, the idealists argue, is fated to break down because nations that do not adhere to freedom as a value and democracy as a mode of government inevitably resort to violence in order to expand their power and oppress the weak. Nations that are freedom-loving and democratic avoid military conflict with one another and seek, rather, to construct and maintain a political stability within which they can safely conduct their economic and cultural affairs. It is thus in America’s “vital interest” to spread freedom and democracy since freedom and democracy demonstrably conduce to peace and international stability. But even beyond serving in this way America’s vital interests, the promotion of freedom and the liberation of people from tyranny and oppression is the moral and honorable thing to do, and America has always been a nation devoted to morality and honor.

Ronald Reagan is the great example in recent American history of an idealist in matters of foreign policy. He had no hesitation calling the Soviet Union an evil empire and committing America’s resources to the maintenance of military strength in order to oppose Communist expansion. His successor, though, was a thoroughgoing realist who lacked the courage and determination-the “vision thing”-that imbued his predecessor with such charismatic vitality. As a result of his commitment to realism and his corresponding lack of idealism, George H. W. Bush failed to follow up on his victory in the first Gulf War by invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. Lacking the grit that only true vision brings, he decided that such aggressive action might destabilize the balance of forces in the Middle East, and so he lost his geopolitical nerve and failed to complete the mission.

2. The Bush Doctrine is Born

At first, according to Podhoretz, George W. Bush seemed cut from the same realist cloth. Little in his background or presidential demeanor indicated

that he might be drawn to Ronald Reagan’s more “idealistic” ambition to change the world, especially with the “Wilsonian” aim of making it “safe for democracy” by encouraging the spread to as many other countries as possible of the liberties we Americans enjoyed.

But the speech of 9/20 revealed that the events of 9/11 had transformed him into a electrifying idealist. He now understood that the enemy confronting us was as implacable and unappeasable as the Communists had been and that the struggle to defeat our new enemy would take as long as the one to defeat the Soviet Union. “If the second President Bush had previously lacked ‘the vision thing’,” Podhoretz enthuses, “his eyes were blazing with it now.” The realist, concerned only with maintaining a cautious and sterile stability in world affairs, had vanished, and the idealist, intent on using America’s military might to advance the cause of freedom, had gloriously appeared. But though the idealist was confident that freedom would prevail, his idealism remained tempered by a necessary realism. Just as the Cold War had been a long war, extending nearly half a century, so too would the war against the Islamic fascists be a long one, World War IV, as Podhoretz calls it (and as the title of his new book trumpets it). Freedom would not prevail without a long and determined fight, but the newly hatched idealist would not flinch from it.

One reason idealists do not flinch is that they have come to a new and more realistic understanding of the enemy we face. If we compare Islamic terrorist organizations to the arms of the Soviet military that we faced during the Cold War, those organizations seem puny indeed. But these fanatics are insidiously powerful because, even though they are not nations themselves, they and their organizations are often nurtured and given safe haven by nations sympathetic to their goal of overthrowing democracy and eradicating freedom. Terrorists, as Podhoretz describes them, “were not individual psychotics acting on their own but agents of organizations that depended on the sponsorship of various governments.”

These “various” governments were and are examples of a specific type of government, the autocratic and the totalitarian, governments that have much in common with those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Such governments are indisputably evil, impervious to reason and unwilling to abide by the rules that guide the behavior of civilized nations. They are intent not only on oppressing their own peoples but also on destroying their great opponents, the nations that espouse freedom and democracy, and they have found a clever and effective means of wreaking havoc on their enemies: the terrorist. Without the support of such nations, terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda would find it much more difficult to attract and train new members and to give them operational support when they are sent on their missions. Further and most disturbing, these despotic nations may one day supply their terrorist proxies not only with money and operational guidance but also with that which gives the terrorists such power beyond their mere numbers: chemical and biological and even nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

This new, more realistic understanding of the terrorist threat thus compels us to modify our methods of defense against the enemy. Those two Cold War standbys, deterrence and containment, were effective methods of dealing with the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Against fanatic terrorists operating in networks throughout the world, they are effective methods no longer. They are vestiges of a past in which conflicts were between nation-states and their proxies who were themselves nation-states. America could contain Soviet expansion by supporting economically and militarily those nations threatened by Communist infiltration and subversion. America could also deter Soviet expansion by maintaining conventional and nuclear forces equal to and surpassing those of the Soviets.

However, one cannot contain individuals already operating in clandestine networks throughout the world and even within our own borders. Further, one cannot deter those who are willing fanatically to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their cause, especially when such sacrifice, in their worldview, guarantees safe passage to paradise. 

One can, though, cut them off from one of the main sources of their support, the autocratic nations that supply them with operational guidance and that offer them safe haven both before and after they perpetrate their mayhem. Iraq could not deliver its weapons of mass destruction by means of its army or air force or by means of that which gave both America and the Soviet Union their true deterrent power, ICBMs tipped with nuclear warheads. But Iraq could visit those weapons on America by means of a new and dangerously effective means of delivery: the terrorist. The foreign policy conclusion that follows from these new premises is clear. As Bush stated and as Podhoretz approvingly repeats:

If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long — [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

Indeed it will. If these evil and despotic governments refuse to squelch the activities of the terrorist organizations inside their borders, if they insist, quite the contrary, on harboring and nurturing them, then America is left with only one recourse: to change the government, and by military means, if necessary. Regime change thus becomes a principal “pillar” in the Long War against the new totalitarian threat of Islamic Fascism.

Regime change entails that other great “pillar” of the Bush Doctrine: preemption. We cannot wait for the terrorists to strike us first but must be willing preemptively to act against those nations that nurture and harbor the terrorist threat. Such preemption goes against the longstanding international assumption that nations, unless attacked, will respect one another’s sovereignty. But if terrorists have already infiltrated our borders, carrying with them weapons of horrifying destructiveness, then we are wholly within our rights to attack and dismantle those governments that are giving them support and guidance. Preemption and regime change are thus realistic responses to the new realities of war.

Facing the realities of what now confronted us, Bush had come to the conclusion that few if any of the old instrumentalities were capable of defeating this new breed of enemy, and that the strategies of the past were equally helpless before this enemy’s way of waging war. To move into the future meant to substitute preemption for deterrence, and to rely on American military might rather than the “soft power” represented by the UN and the other relics of World War III.

Obviously, America must have sufficient military strength and the will to use it in order successfully to carry through preemptive acts of regime change, acts that necessitate not only invasion to topple autocratic governments but also occupation to establish and secure new democratic ones.

Thus, for Podhoretz, a realistic foreign policy after 9/11 has three essential elements. First, it sees clearly the nature of the new threat facing us: terrorist organizations sponsored by freedom-hating and autocratic regimes. Second, it understands that the defense strategies of the Cold War, containment and deterrence, must be replaced by those of the new Long War, regime change and preemption. Third, in order to make those new strategies effective, it must dedicate itself to the maintenance both of our military strength and of our will to use it.

Serving as the foundation of this new realism, anchoring it and guaranteeing its stability, are the core American ideals of freedom and democracy. American foreign policy must always faithfully seek to promote the core American ideals of freedom and democracy throughout the world, prudently, of course, but with determination and will. And, finally, a new realism in foreign policy will affirm that the war we are now engaged in-a momentous and world-historical war-will be a long and difficult one but one which, if we do not disavow either our ideals or our new understanding of the enemy, we will ultimately win.

The many ways in which this new “realism” is seriously unrealistic I’ll discuss in future posts. Tomorrow, though, the man who will remain faithful to and carry forward the lessons of Norman Podhoretz: Rudy Giuliani.


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