Return to Realism

The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course by Richard N. Haass (Public Affairs, 242 pages, $25.00)

Gulliver Unbound: America's Imperial Temptation and the War in Iraq by Stanley Hoffmann with Frederic Bozo (Rowman and Littlefield, 168 pages, $19.95)

Some books derive their significance not only from what they say but also from who says it. Such is the case with new book by Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department from 2001 to 2003, who now calmly but comprehensively trashes the strategy and record of the administration in which he served. Concerning the Iraq War, planned and executed while he was in office, Haass writes, “What matters in business as well as in foreign policy is the balance or relationship between costs and benefits. It is this assessment that leads to the judgment that the war against Iraq was unwarranted. The direct costs to the United States … were and are simply too high, given what was at stake.”

Those of us who opposed the war from the start, and for precisely these reasons, may perhaps be forgiven a degree of bitterness in seeing these words written three years later by a senior official who failed either to resign in protest against the war or, after leaving the State Department, to speak out against it as long as the bellicose mood in American public opinion still predominated.

However, better late than never, and it must be said that Haass' book sets out a highly intelligent and clear-sighted alternative foreign-policy strategy, which politicians thinking of running for president in 2008 would be well-advised to study closely. This is especially true just now, when public support for the war and the Bush administration are waning, yet Democrats are bereft of alternative visions for foreign policy, and too many of their intellectuals seem chiefly concerned to act as pale shadows of the neoconservatives.

And because Haass is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, his book may have an effect. For the council has long been a weather vane of consensual thinking in the U.S. establishment. If its president can produce a book as quietly radical as this one, it may be a sign that under the impact of the Iraq quagmire and what it says about American power and possibilities, majority thinking in that establishment is beginning to shift, not only on specific issues but in its overall attitude to the world.

Haass' overall vision is characterized by a form of tough-minded but also enlightened realism, in the tradition of George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau. The influence of Henry Kissinger is present, especially in Haass' desire for a “concert” of the major world powers, but plays a secondary role. As such, Haass' ideas are widely at variance with the democratic messianism of the neoconservatives, expressed by the administration in its program for democratizing the Middle East and in speeches such as George W. Bush's second inaugural. It is implicitly also critical of “Democrat hawks” as represented by The New Republic and the Coalition for a Progressive Internationalism.

In Haass' words, while spreading democracy should remain a U.S. goal, “it is, however, neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion a foreign policy doctrine. Too many pressing threats in which the lives of millions hang in the balance … will not be solved by the emergence of democracy. … When it comes to relations with Russia or China, other national-security interests must normally take precedence over concerns about how they choose to govern themselves.”

Like Fareed Zakaria and others, Haass is convinced -- quite rightly, in my opinion -- that to stress democracy as the first step in the social, economic, and political progress of a country is to put the cart before the horse in historical terms. This is all the more so, he points out, when the democratic strategy being preached emphasizes the outward form of elections rather than deeper processes of genuine democratic transformation.

This is also one of the principal objections of European politicians and officials to the Bush administration's “Greater Middle East Initiative,” at least as the administration initially conceived it. To create economically feeble, socially backward “democracies” seen by their populations as subservient to the United States would be to invite at best an endless series of the kind of upheavals that we have seen in Latin America. At worst, it would open the way for the kind of fate Weimar Germany suffered.

Haass' approach is centered instead on what he calls a “doctrine of integration,” which would “aim to create a cooperative relationship among the world's major powers -- a twenty-first century concert -- built on a common commitment to promoting certain principles and outcomes” and to bringing in “other countries, organizations, and peoples so that they come to enjoy the benefits of physical security, economic opportunity, and political freedom.”

Another way of describing this vision would be a kind of “capitalist peace,” binding together the leading states of the world in a semi-formal alliance to defend the existing political and economic order. Haass contrasts this approach with the unilateralism of the neoconservatives and much of the Bush administration. He makes clear that it is not enough for the United States to speak of itself as a leader. It must also attract genuine and useful followers, and that imperative requires respect for their interests and wishes.

Much of this is, in fact, Bill Clinton's vision of the world order, albeit expressed with a harder realist edge. Possibly for Republican reasons, Haass prefers to describe “integration” as the “natural successor” of the “containment” strategy of the Cold War, in which the United States also not only deterred Soviet expansionism but also sought to integrate an increasing number of states into a capitalist world order.

Whether the containment analogy really makes sense in the context of the struggle against Islamist terrorism and its causes is questionable, given the radical differences between this threat and those presented by the Soviet Union. Haass makes an immensely valuable point, however, in drawing attention to the policy of regime change embodied in Kennan's containment doctrine, and in bringing out the key difference between this and the neoconservative (and Democrat hawk) approach to regime change today.

As Haass points out, Kennan and his followers explicitly committed themselves to regime change in the Soviet Union. Part of Kennan's visionary “Long Telegram” declared that the United States could “increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” In the end, that is precisely what happened. Mellowing under Nikita Khrushchev and then Mikhail Gorbachev was followed by the system's collapse under the latter. But as Haass points out, this process took place -- and was envisaged by Kennan to take place -- over such a long period that “regime change” was indistinguishable from “regime evolution.” This is the approach Haass now advocates toward hostile states.

By contrast, if the Cold War extremists had had their way and tried to bring down the Soviet system by force, the world would have likely been drowned in fire and blood, and the United States and the capitalist system would have perished in the ruins alongside the communists. Although conservative Republicans often claim credit for winning the Cold War, they have forgotten one of its main lessons.

When it comes to some of the details of what the United States would need to do to bring about the kind of “concert” of major powers that he desires, Haass' recommendations are eminently sensible and sometimes, by the standards of the American establishment, mildly courageous. Thus he urges the United States to respect legitimate Russian interests in the former Soviet Union and Russian worries about Russian territorial integrity, and not to station U.S. troops in the former Soviet Union. In the same spirit, he strongly opposes moves to “isolate” China. “The United States is not in a position to prevent the rise of other powers,” he writes. “ … The issue for American foreign policy should not be whether China becomes strong, but rather how China uses its growing strength.”

Concerning energy and the environment, Haass' views, while according perfectly with mainstream, even conservative, sentiment in Europe, are radically contrary to those of the administration in which he served. Besides the damage to U.S. security and the economy from high levels of energy consumption, he writes, “the use of oil, natural gas and coal exacerbates global warming; one can debate the extent of climate change, but one cannot seriously debate that climate change is taking place and that its consequences will on balance be decidedly adverse for most Americans.”

Most striking of all is Haass' statement that the U.S. demand for Palestinian democracy has become an obstacle to seizing the present opportunity to push for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, involving real support for the creation of a Palestinian state. Haass also condemns the Bush administration for publicly accepting key Israeli conditions for a final peace settlement while saying nothing of Palestinian ones. And Haass argues that the conflict and the U.S. role in supporting Israel are a “principal source” of both Muslim and European hostility to the United States, implicitly dismissing the Israeli lobby's line that hostility toward both Israel and policies in support of it arises from a current of anti-Semitism that no concessions could relieve.

All this is quite radical stuff by establishment standards, and worthy of profound consideration by that establishment. Unfortunately, as with the rest of that establishment, Haass fails to call for the corollary of his recommendations, which is real U.S. pressure on Israel to extract the concessions needed to bring about a genuine settlement or to convince Europeans and Muslims of America's sincere commitment to peace. Nonetheless, his words are very welcome.

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No one could accuse Stanley Hoffmann, a fierce critic of U.S. imperial and messianic tendencies since the '60s, of pulling his punches on Israel or any other subject. He has always been one of the most acute observers of American nationalism. Americans, he said during the Vietnam War, “mixed once more a nationalism which didn't recognize itself as such and good intentions that nobody but freedom haters could put in doubt.”

His latest book takes the form of a dialogue with Frederic Bozo, a leading French academic. A grimly amusing feature of the work is the fact that while Hoffmann delivers a witheringly accurate critique of the hubris and folly of the Bush administration, Bozo offers an only slightly less scathing condemnation of French diplomacy -- also not without cause.

For while Hoffmann is generally dead on target in his condemnation of the Bush administration, the conceptual idiocy of the “war on terror,” and the wider chauvinism, ignorance, and Francophobia of the U.S. establishment and media, Bozo also makes some good points concerning French arrogance and self-delusion, unfortunately summed up in the figure of the new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, whose obsession with Napoleon would be sinister if it weren't silly.

Most of their debate concerns the Franco-American relationship. Rather too much of it, in my view, is devoted to discussing the details of the diplomatic process between France and the United States leading up to the Iraq War. Since the book first appeared in French in 2003, the essential question has now been answered by the leak of the “Downing Street Memo” -- and who was in a better position to know than the British? -- indicating that dominant forces in the Bush administration had already decided on war in the summer of 2002. The memo amply supports Hoffmann's arguments and renders much of Bozo's line otiose.

Too much concentration on past process also distracts attention from the much more important fact that, as Hoffmann points out, the French and other European opponents of the war have since been proved right by events. Iraq before the invasion turns out not to have been the threat that the Bush administration alleged. Iraq after the invasion has become a bloody quagmire. An effective government has yet to be established. Iran has certainly not been made more moderate, as the latest elections have shown. And it was the death of Yasir Arafat, not the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that created a new opportunity for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As is understandable for a European whose family fled from Hitler and who worked in France before moving to the United States, Hoffmann is especially depressed by the moral tone of American public discourse in recent years:

Contrary to what happened in the past, what particularly shocked me in the crisis of 2003 was the extraordinarily contemptuous attitude of Americans [toward Europeans]: the White House, of course, but also the media, who were equally humiliating. This atmosphere was extremely difficult to live with. The argument was: “you are weak, therefore you are obliged to follow us because we Americans are always right, and when we decide that our national interest is at stake you cannot oppose us; and if you do not follow us, it is because you are not truly our ally.”

Unfortunately, the result of the French and Dutch referenda, held after this book appeared, tend to confirm the American view of European weakness. It is all too clear that a majority of the French population does not share the European vision of the French ruling elites, at least not to the extent of making any sacrifices or abandoning more sovereignty to achieve European political unity.

As a result, Hoffmann's vision of a Europe that would act not as a rival to the United States but as a positive counterbalance to American extremism looks unlikely to be fulfilled -- unless the Bush administration sets out on another war. For better or worse, the international ball remains very much in America's court. In deciding how to play it, we must hope that Americans listen to the wise men of our time, like Haass and Hoffmann, rather than to the cowboys who have decided policy in recent years.

Anatol Lieven, the author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, is joining the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., as a senior research fellow.