The Corner

Realists and Iraq

People seem to assume that foreign-policy “realists” naturally support a bug-out from Iraq — but, as I argue here, doesn’t the “realist” view of foreign policy actually incline its holders to support efforts toward all-out victory? After all, realists want us to define everything in terms of a narrow American national interest. At this point, given all the other scenarios, it seems that the only thing that would benefit the American national interest in the long run is victory.

In fact, the current Iraq situation is a test for the realists. Are they aggressive pursuers of the national interest, or are they instead people who have had a profound sense that America can’t really get anything right and just needs to cut the best deals it can? The realists are not liberals. They are conservatives in a very profound sense, and one of the things that makes them conservative is a mistrust of the American body politic — a great skepticism about the capacity of America to sustain any policy for any period of time, to handle reverses and setbacks, and the like. That’s why they crave long-term stability outside the United States from reliable strongmen — it’s in large part because we’re fickle and need protection from our own mercurial politics.

But that view, which certainly has merit in light of the results last Tuesday, doesn’t necessarily reflect an aggressive pursuit of the national interest. They may not like the fact that we went to war, or the reasons for it, but they’re “realists” and theoretically they try to deal with the world as it is. The situation we now face is one in which any option but something that looks very much like victory will be seen as a major American defeat, with consequences that will last decades. I suspect that James Baker and Robert Gates, who are unsentimental men, are aware of this fact.