Saturday, May 05, 2007

On Realism... and Eisenhower

National Journal's Jonathan Rauch. Interesting Read...

The classic modern reptilian manifesto is a bewitchingly Machiavellian article published in Foreign Affairs in 1999 by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Perhaps because of his European accent (he is Transylvanian-born) and his penchant for caustic pronouncements (he observed recently that the Transportation Security Administration can find a bomb only "if you attach it to a pair of nail clippers"), Luttwak has something of a Strangelovian reputation in foreign-policy circles, though no one disputes his brilliance. Characteristically, he titled his article "Give War a Chance."

War, he argued, is a great evil, but it has one indispensable virtue: It brings peace. Too often, well-meaning diplomats or peacekeepers interpose themselves in conflicts that should be left to burn themselves out. Alas, cease-fires and peacekeepers "artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace," he wrote. "The final result is to prevent the emergence of a coherent outcome, which requires an imbalance of strength sufficient to end the fighting." In other words, war ends in a stable peace only when one side loses, and understands it has lost. "If the United Nations helped the strong defeat the weak faster and more decisively," Luttwak wrote mischievously, "it would actually enhance the peacemaking potential of war."

In a complicated and unpredictable world, realists, or at least intelligent realists, do not pretend to have prefabricated answers. They can and do disagree about where equilibrium lies and how -- sometimes even whether -- to get there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vexing case in point. One realist school regards America's attachment to Israel as sentimental and thus counterproductive; better to scale back the special relationship, treating Israel with more objectivity by leaning further toward the Arabs. Another school believes that, to the contrary, the United States should firmly support Israel until Palestinian militants understand that they can never win; until then, peacemaking is premature and only encourages Arab rejectionism. Yet others believe that the United States has little real-world choice but to muddle on with diplomatic efforts to calm the situation. (Luttwak is in this last camp.)

Realism is not rigidly anti-interventionist or passive; by definition, it is not rigidly anything. Nor does it ignore human rights, although it balances them against other priorities. Nor does it mindlessly defend the status quo in the name of stability, although it never takes stability for granted. Nor does it forswear using U.S. influence to alter prevailing power balances, although it does insist on a healthy respect for the world's contrariness. And few realists are quite as Machiavellian as Luttwak.

What realism does hold is that pushing against a natural equilibrium is a high-cost, high-risk proposition -- sustainable for a while, but exhausting and likely to prove futile, or worse. For realists, when Vice President Cheney reportedly said, "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it," he got the answer wrong. If we hope to succeed, we manage evil. We minimize, mitigate, and manipulate evil. But efforts to pre-emptively eliminate evil are prone to end in overreaction and destabilization, with consequences that are often worse than the original problem.

Eisenhower understood these risks. He dismissed the idea of a preventive attack on China, "pointing out that it would be a long time before China could threaten the United States," writes the historian Frederick W. Marks III, "by which time the configuration of world power might well have shifted." Eisenhower's staff secretary and closest aide, Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, once said of his boss, "He was an expert in finding reasons for not doing things."

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