Get Real

Among conservative commentators, and in certain quasi-liberal circles, there's been lots of tut-tutting in recent weeks about John Kerry's foreign-policy instincts. What has these concerned citizen-pundits nervously stroking their chins is the suspicion that Kerry is a “realist” who has no particular interest in promoting democracy and human rights abroad. It may well be that the Democratic nominee is channeling Brent Scowcroft, but the evidence to date is pretty flimsy. Moreover, implicit in the grumbling about Kerry is the idea that George W. Bush's foreign policy has been suffused with noble intent. That simply isn't the case. Bush is no idealist; he just plays one on TV, and his blundering statecraft has, in fact, dealt a grievous blow to the idealist agenda.

Kerry is accused of having a Metternichian disposition because of one or two comments he has made in interviews; one or two comments made by Rand Beers, a Kerry adviser; and the views of his late father, Richard Kerry, a career diplomat who was deeply skeptical of efforts to spread American values abroad. Now, it is certainly possible that Kerry is hardwired for hard-heartedness in the realm of foreign policy, and he and Beers have both said some things that call into question the senator's commitment to pushing political reform abroad, especially in the Middle East (and it is liberalization of the Arab world that is at the core of the realism-versus-idealism debate).

However, a few chromosomes and a few off-the-cuff remarks hardly amount to a closed case, and judging by some of the other foreign-policy gurus who've had the candidate's ear -- Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Joe Biden, and Richard Holbrooke, committed liberal internationalists all, each of whom recognize the need for reform in the Middle East -- it is a little early to write Kerry off as Henry Kissinger redux. What critics conveniently overlook is that Kerry supported U.S. intervention in the Balkans, something über-realists like Scowcroft strenuously opposed, and has blasted the Bush administration over its tepid response to humanitarian crises in Haiti, Liberia, and the Sudan.

What critics also ignore is that Kerry is running for president at a time when the United States is bogged down in an increasingly hopeless conflict that has cost nearly 1,000 American soldiers their lives and left the country shaken and chastened. The usual knock on Kerry is that he is an opportunist who straddles issues and never says what he really thinks. Might it be that the wily Kerry has intuited that voters, disillusioned by Iraq, are in no mood at the moment to hear about America's special burden? Most of the people around Kerry know that an ambitious foreign policy is now a matter of national security, and chances are Kerry knows it, too, but also recognizes that promising an aggressive engagement with the world is not in his best interest -- not if he hopes to win, anyway.

But for argument's sake, let's assume Kerry is not convinced that political reform in the Arab world is vital to our national interest. Does it matter? The terrorism problem is here to stay, and if candidate Kerry believes that there is no need for the United States to try to cure the Middle East of its pathologies, President Kerry would likely be persuaded otherwise after an atrocity or two on his watch. Four years ago, another presidential aspirant ran around the country peddling what amounted to a new isolationism. Events had a way of changing Bush's outlook, and if Kerry is truly the crabbed realist that his critics believe him to be, events will surely have him reading from a different script, too.

Rather than fretting about Kerry, the Kerry agonistes should instead be wringing their hands about what Bush has done to the cause of liberal internationalism -- a cause he has not actually embraced, of course, Beltway wisdom to the contrary. As Matthew Yglesias and others have rightly noted, Bush waxes lyrical about democracy and human rights, but his actions have generally been a lot less uplifting than his sentiments. Like his promise to be a reformer with results and a uniter, not a divider, Bush's claim to foreign-policy idealism is mostly just a rhetorical pose. He's the teleprompter Wilsonian.

Iraq was certainly not an humanitarian intervention; we toppled Saddam Hussein to prevent him from giving the nukes he didn't have to the al-Qaeda allies he didn't have, who in turn were going to use the nonexistent weapons to vaporize U.S. cities. Liberating the Iraqi people was a secondary justification for the war that became the primary justification only after weapons of mass destruction couldn't be found. In general, the second Bush administration has been no better than the first when it comes to promoting freedom abroad -- worse even, when you take into account its trade policies, which have been tragically mean-spirited and shortsighted. Jailed dissidents in China? Censorship in Russia? Hardly a word from this White House.

Indeed, through its ineptitude, arrogance, and mendacity, the Bush administration has made the task of promoting American values abroad infinitely harder than it already was. The American public, soured by the Iraq experience, is hardly inclined to see GIs dispatched overseas to end another ethnic slaughter or to help bring order to another failed state. Bush has also done enormous harm to American credibility. In much of the world, especially that part of the world most in need of democratization, the Middle East, Washington's word is now mud, and overt U.S. support for political reform is considered the kiss of death. Where Kerry comes down on the idealism-versus-realism divide is almost beside the point. Whatever lofty ambitions he might bring to the Oval Office, he'll be spending most of his time trying to undo the damage wrought by Bush.

Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent.