The Naive Idealism of the ISG “Realists”

December 11, 2006

Upon further study, what strikes me most about the Iraq Study Group report (ISGR) is its profound naivete. The group could better identify its operative philosophy as “unrealism,” rather than realism.

The modern form of foreign policy “realism” emerged, according to “The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World,” in reaction to “idealism,” an “approach which held that countries were united in an underlying harmony of interest — a view shattered by the outbreak of World War II.” But there’s more:

“Rather than study the world as it might be, Realists maintained that a science of international politics must study the world as it was — an insistence that resulted in the Realists’ self-acclaimed appellation.”

I suppose the Baker-Hamilton “realists” might accuse President Bush of idealism for believing in the potential contagiousness of democracy. Indeed, it might be wishful thinking to believe a democratic Iraq would lead to a democratization of the Middle East, especially given the theocratic nature of Islam.

But you don’t have to be a Kool-Aid drinker of this theory to recognize that the Iraqis did in fact flock to the polls at great risk to themselves to participate in their new democratic government. Nor do you have to be a blind fool to recognize that a highly imperfect democratic system in Iraq, especially one at least currently friendly to the United States, is vastly superior to what existed before and what might exist if we leave too soon. In other words, you can support the democratization of Iraq without being a foreign policy idealist and without even being unrealistic.

But how about the self-acclaimed realism of the ISGR? After reviewing it, couldn’t we say to the ISG, “Rather than study the world as it might be … you must study the world as it is”?

The lynchpin of the ISGR is its recommendation for a “New Diplomatic Offensive.” That pivotal recommendation — No. 1 on a list of 79 — appears to rely on several highly dubious assumptions.

One — as many have noted — is that Iran and Syria perceive a stable Iraq to be in their respective national interests. Another is that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue would disincentivize Islamic terrorists and their sponsoring states from pursuing global jihad. Another is that all global conflicts can be resolved diplomatically.

Could Hitler’s or the Soviet’s thirsts for world domination have been resolved diplomatically? Shouldn’t we recognize that certain regimes, ideologies and radical theologies have no interest in diplomacy other than as a diversion to lull their enemies into concessions or a false sense of security?

Indeed how realistic is the ISGR when it doesn’t even address contingency plans? What if the various nations don’t respond like pawns as the ISGR projects on its global chessboard?

For example, the ISGR recommends forming an “Iraq International Support Group” among nations that are presumed to have an interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq — sort of a synthesis between Rodney Kingism (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) and Alcoholics Anonymous. What if these nations refuse to comply? Or, if they do, will it then be necessary for the uniformly reviled state of Israel to form its global version of Al-Anon?

The ISGR also says the beneficent support group would not seek to impose obligations or undertakings on the government of Iraq. So not only is the omniscient ISGR going to form the group; it is going to speak for it in advance and guarantee that it won’t seek to impose its will on Iraq. Oh, really? What if the new Iraq doesn’t behave?

Let’s just test this assurance with the words of the ISGR itself. The ISGR says Iraq’s neighbors “favor a unified Iraq that is strong enough to maintain its territorial integrity, but not so powerful as to threaten its neighbors.” What if Iraq insists on becoming more powerful? What then?

Plus, is it just me, or are these realists displaying their naivete here again, assuming a nation can be strong enough to maintain its territorial integrity without also having sufficient power to threaten its neighbors? That’s a fine line that even these diplomatic geniuses of Realpolitik can’t achieve.

Wouldn’t it be more realistic, sane and in the best interests of the United States for our foreign policy to be conducted from the perspective that evil exists in the world and that it must be confronted, rather than wished away or mollified? Wouldn’t that be a more responsible approach, given the lessons of history that are readily available to all but the willfully ignorant?

But if nothing else, the deeply flawed ISGR should awaken us to the “reality” that Bush’s war opponents have never had a viable plan, which is why they steadfastly refused to offer one.