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The Iraq War and America's Tradition of Foreign Policy Idealism: Three Recent Books Illuminate the Subject


Monday, Mar. 28, 2005
Alan Curtis, Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America's Promise At Home and Abroad (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2004)

Jussi M. Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (Oxford Univ. Press 2004)

Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (Yale Univ. Press 2004)

Not since Vietnam has foreign policy been at the center of political debate in America in the way that it is now. For two years, the U.S. has been divided by passionate arguments about whether the Iraq war was morally justifiable or politically wise. Meanwhile, the unsettled aftermath of the U.S. occupation ensures that these debates are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Strikingly, the debate over Iraq - and about President Bush's international policies in general - has scrambled some traditional (albeit simplistic) assumptions about ideology and foreign policy. Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, moral idealism in foreign policy has generally been seen as a Democratic position. But it is a Republican president who now purports to espouse an idealistic approach to world affairs, seeking to establish a new international order on the basis of ending tyranny and advancing freedom. In pushing the expansion of democracy, Bush said in his recent inaugural speech, "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

By contrast, the Democratic candidate in last year's presidential election, Senator John Kerry, emphasized primarily the costly and counterproductive nature of the war in Iraq, describing it as an unnecessary distraction from the more important objective of defeating Al Qaeda. In contrast to Bush, Kerry took a position closer to the foreign policy tradition of realism - an outlook which aims at the promotion of national security, wealth, and power through conventional diplomatic means. Realists, who distrust talk of a world order based on values like democracy or self-determination, have more often been associated with the Republican political tradition.

Of course, many people opposed the war in Iraq precisely because they thought it was immoral - thus adopting an idealist anti-war view. But at a minimum, the national debate over Bush's global policies illustrates how contested the notions of national interest and morality in foreign policy have become.

Can President Bush, with his doctrine of regime change, really claim to be heir to the long American tradition of moral idealism in foreign policy? And can the Democrats find a way to oppose him that rises above strategic realism, to incorporate a moral vision of their own?

In their different ways, the three books I will review here all provide openings to consider these important questions.

Hanhimaki on Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, who was responsible for the foreign policy of the Nixon and Ford administrations as national security adviser and secretary of state, is generally regarded as the arch-practitioner of realpolitik in American diplomatic history. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy, by the Finnish academic Jussi Hanhimaki, provides a thorough and judicious account of Kissinger's record.

Kissinger's view of world affairs was clearly set out in the foreign policy report to the U.S. Congress that he drafted for the recently-inaugurated President Nixon in February 1969. The document said that America would regard its Communist adversaries "as nations pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our interests as we see them." The report added that the structure of peace would come "from a realistic accommodation of conflicting interests."

In other words, Kissinger hoped to shift the tenor of America's relations with Russia and China from an ideologically-motivated hostility to an approach that more closely resembled the nineteenth-century European balance of power. Kissinger believed that the United States should treat its Cold War enemies not as ideological adversaries, but rather as rival powers, alternately collaborating with them and playing them off against each other to maximize America's strategic advantage. Hence, using his favorite method of back-channel diplomacy, Kissinger pushed forward détente with the Soviet Union, and reopened relations with China that had been frozen since the revolution twenty-two years earlier.

Hanhimaki explores Kissinger's handling of American foreign policy through a detailed narrative that is based, in large part, on many files that have only recently been opened. The book confirms that Kissinger was a highly skilled and assiduous negotiator - for instance, in his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the 1973 October (or Yom Kippur) War. But it also makes clear the limitations - moral and strategic - inherent in Kissinger's realpolitik.

The moral case against Kissinger is familiar, based upon the secret bombing of Cambodia, his backing of Pakistan during the crisis over East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, his part in the campaign to undermine Salvador Allende in Chile, and his tacit endorsement of Indonesian President Mohamed Suharto's invasion of East Timor in 1975. Hanhimaki doesn't seek to minimize the human cost of these policies, but neither does he portray them as abnormally wicked in the context of the times.

His real concern is to point out the strategic failures of Kissinger's foreign policy- and it is here that his book is at its most persuasive. By viewing every regional conflict in the context of great-power rivalry, Kissinger failed to acknowledge their local and regional causes. The result generally was that his elaborately constructed schemes had little staying power, and often left a legacy that harmed America's longer-term interests.

In Vietnam, for example, Kissinger's combination of "peace through strength" (meaning a series of aggressive bombing raids while negotiations continued) and back-channel negotiations with the Soviet Union and China did produce a peace settlement in 1973 - but it was never likely to last. Two years later, the South Vietnamese were overrun by North Vietnam, and the U.S.-backed Cambodian government of Lon Nol had also fallen to the brutal Khmer Rouge.

Similarly, in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 and the Angolan civil war that began in 1975, Kissinger threw American weight behind discreditable leaders who would end up on the losing side.

Hanhimaki concludes that Kissinger's central failing was that - for all his claims to be rethinking the ground rules of American foreign policy - he did not succeed in challenging the basic Cold War orthodoxy that saw everything through the lens of a single global struggle: "His policies relied on preconceived notions, not particularly innovative for their time, about the overarching significance of American credibility and the Soviet-American relationship."

By the end of Kissinger's time in charge of U.S. foreign policy, even his vaunted relationships with the Soviet Union and China were faltering. At home, détente was coming under attack from politicians like Democratic senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who wanted to tie economic relations with the Soviet Union to improvements in their human rights record. (It is an historical irony that many of the neoconservatives associated with the policies of George W. Bush worked with Jackson around this time and were deeply influenced by his critique of the amoral realism of Kissinger's foreign policy.) Meanwhile, the relationship with China had reached an impasse over the issue of Taiwan.

Kissinger's high-handed and secretive style - he once described himself as the Lone Ranger of U.S. foreign policy - meant that he built up little domestic support for his policies. Although opinion polls showed that he himself retained a high level of public approval throughout his career in public life, Kissinger felt little need to base his actions on values that were widely shared among the American public.

No wonder, then, that in the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter was able to defeat President Ford in part through his promises of a more moral foreign policy. "A foreign policy based on secrecy has had to be closely guarded and amoral," Carter charged during the campaign.

Walzer on War

The same year Carter took office, the political theorist and social critic Michael Walzer published his influential book Just and Unjust Wars. The book was an intellectual response to the war in Vietnam, and its achievement was to jump-start a revival of the tradition of just war theory as a moral standard for assessing the use of military force in modern times.

Since then, Walzer has continued to write on the relationship between war and morality. His new book, Arguing About War, is a collection of his recent essays on the subject. The volume divides into a set of theoretical chapters exploring various aspects of the morality of armed conflict, and a series of practical essays in which Walzer applies "just war" thinking to recent real-world conflicts.

War is, of course, the most violent and destructive face of foreign policy - the one that has the most far-reaching consequences for human life - and it is also the time when national security is most urgently at stake. The question of morality in warfare therefore represents the debate about the role of values in foreign policy in its most consequential and difficult form.

Among the most interesting aspects of Walzer's book are his reflections on how the situation today differs from that of the Vietnam era, when his first book on the subject was written. In one essay, entitled "The Triumph of Just War Theory," he presents a generally optimistic account of how moral standards are incorporated into contemporary war-fighting.

After Vietnam, Walzer writes, both military officers and statesmen realized that the way a war was fought could be a decisive factor in whether it was successful: the United States lost in Vietnam in large part because civilians in Vietnam were alienated by the brutal way the conflict was conducted.

Summing up these lessons, Walzer argues that "there are now reasons of state for fighting justly. One might almost say that justice has become a military necessity."

This essay was written in 2002, and today Walzer might acknowledge that his confidence in the triumph of just war theory was premature. There is no doubt that the U.S. armed forces make a much greater effort now to avoid harming civilians than in the Vietnam era; for instance, possible targets are reviewed by military lawyers to make sure that they comply with the requirements of the laws of war.

But there is another area of war-fighting where recent American conduct has in fact been worse in recent conflicts than it was in Vietnam. This is, of course, in the treatment of prisoners.

The U.S. Army recently announced that 27 detainees had been killed in U.S. custody since August 2002. Many hundreds of people have been held as "unlawful combatants" in Guantanamo for as long as three years, without the protection of prisoner of war status or any meaningful due process rights. By contrast, in Vietnam, the U.S. Army treated prisoners well and gave prisoner of war status to guerrilla fighters who had a weaker claim to it, under a narrow reading of the law, than do Taliban captives from Afghanistan today.

A key difference, of course, is that large numbers of Americans were being held as captives by the North Vietnamese in Vietnam. Concern over how they were being treated provided a powerful incentive for the U.S. Army to observe decent standards itself.

Another difference that Walzer sees between the Vietnam era and today lies in the aftermath of war. Traditionally, "just war" thinking has concentrated on the circumstances in which it is right to go to war (jus ad bellum), and the way you should fight once war has started (jus in bello). But Walzer argues convincingly that contemporary wars require a much greater attention to post-war justice, dealing with issues like occupation and democratization.

In his section on recent conflicts, Walzer collects a series of impressive essays on Iraq. He argues that the war in Iraq was not a just war, because it was launched before it was necessary: "Though disarming Iraq is a legitimate goal, morally and politically, it is a goal that we could almost certainly have achieved with measures short of full-scale war."

Walzer also argues persuasively that overthrowing tyranny cannot be a legitimate justification for invading another country, unless it is necessary to prevent an ongoing campaign of massacre or ethnic cleansing.

Essays on "Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense"

The question of Iraq also hangs over the third of the books reviewed in this article, a collection of essays entitled Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense. This is a wide-ranging selection of articles, all written from a broadly progressive viewpoint, and designed to set out an alternative vision to the policies of the Bush administration. The essays in the book vary greatly in quality, but there are a few thoughtful and persuasive chapters on foreign policy.

Perhaps the best is an essay by Jessica Tuchman Matthews about "the challenge of managing dominance." Matthews argues pragmatically that the Bush administration's triumphalism is short-sighted, because America's current dominance is unlikely to last. She says that, instead, we should "approach this historical moment with a keen sense of the limits that we confront." We should place less faith in what can be achieved through force of arms, particularly given the obvious difficulties of building a decent post-war society in Iraq, and place more emphasis on diplomacy and democracy assistance.

Matthews says the Democrats have flubbed the challenge of coming up with a decent national security policy of their own. She outlines what the elements of such a policy might be: reliance on alliances rather than short-term coalitions; building strong international institutions to deal with new global challenges; and a better balance in spending between diplomacy and force.

In her conclusion, Matthews addresses head-on the claim that President Bush's aggressive democracy promotion is a contemporary updating of the policies of Woodrow Wilson, the archetypal moral idealist in foreign policy. Although Wilson believed in the promotion of democracy, Matthews points out, he also believed that America should be embedded "in international organizations and rules to which we were not an exception, but an integral part." The Bush administration, by contrast, believes America should stand alone above the international community and be unconstrained.

Reading these three books together gives the clear impression that the relationship between values and national interest in foreign policy is more complex than it is often made out to be.

For instance, many people who abhor the cynical way that Kissinger looked at conflicts in Angola, Cambodia or East Pakistan might nevertheless be sympathetic to his claims that détente produced appreciable benefits like the Helsinki agreements of 1975. The same people might also be profoundly opposed to the war in Iraq - a conflict that was promoted by officials who cut their teeth attacking Kissinger for his "value-free" approach to the Soviet Union in the 1970's.

In foreign policy debates - at least in democratic societies - there is never going to be one position that is agreed by all parties to be the "moral" one and another that is agreed to best represent the "national interest." Instead, there are likely to be an interlocking series of arguments in which both parties claim the mantle of justice and strategic value for their favored course of action. And in a democracy, it is the voters who will ultimately decide which group has made the better overall case.

Anthony Dworkin is editor of the Crimes of War website ( an online journal covering international law and armed conflict.

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