WITH HIS JULY 4 OP-ED in the Washington Post, "A Realistic Path in Iraq," presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry lays claim to being the genuinely conservative foreign-policy voice in this fall's election. Arguing that, in Iraq and in the greater Middle East, the United States needs "a policy that finally includes a heavy dose of realism," Kerry sounds more like Henry Kissinger than the Massachusetts liberal of Republican party dreams.

There's undoubtedly a good deal of campaign strategy in this. The idea of attacking Bush from the right is just the sort of man-bites-dog angle that appeals equally to Beltway political junkies and journalists. In any event, it makes the 2004 election not just a referendum on Iraq per se, but on the principles that should guide the use of American power in the world. The contest is between Bush the revolutionary and Kerry the reactionary.

The "realism" of Kerry's July 4 column comes as no surprise to those who have followed the senator's campaign. For several months, Kerry has downplayed democracy in Iraq, insisting, "I have always said from day one . . . that the goal here is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that's a full democracy." The idea that the greater Middle East suffers from a freedom deficit has found little resonance with Kerry; speaking with the editors of the Washington Post, he explained that, if elected, he would emphasize political reform and human rights in Egypt and Saudi Arabia less than traditional U.S. interests such as "general stability in the Middle East."

Writing in the New Republic this spring, Franklin Foer made a persuasive case that Kerry learned his realism at an early age, from his father. Richard Kerry spent much of his professional life as a foreign service officer, and seems to have imbibed the antidemocratic habits of that trade. Richard Kerry's 1990 memoir, The Star-Spangled Mirror, complained about excessive American moralism in international affairs. The United States, wrote Kerry père, committed the "fatal error" of "propagating democracy" throughout the Cold War and failed "to see the parallel between our use of military power in distant parts of the world and the Soviet uses of military power outside the Soviet Union." The book concludes, reports Foer, in "a plea for a hardheaded, realist foreign policy that removes any pretense of U.S. moral authority."

Joshua Micah Marshall, in an article in the current Atlantic Monthly, likens Kerry's realist attitudes to those of George Bush senior and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. It's a comparison that Rand Beers, Kerry's top foreign policy adviser, and another Kerry aide, Dan Feldman, welcome.

Part of the allure of this ideology is that it's supposed to be the "mature" approach to national security policy: sober, coolly calculating, and adult. And indeed to social scientists of the realist persuasion, their understanding of international politics is less a matter of choice than a description of the world: All actors on the world stage are governed by a Leviathan-like logic propelling them to maximize their own power. All states, regardless of their internal politics (democracy, dictatorship, whatever), act in accordance with the dictates of power, and all seeming differences in international behavior can be explained in this way if fully investigated and correctly understood.

The gods of realism of the nineteenth century--Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck--were the masters of realpolitik and the balance of power, wherein process and purpose are often hard to distinguish. These were great statesmen, to be sure, but their talents were at the service of deeply conservative regimes increasingly more fearful of their own people than of their fellow kings and kaisers.

Translated through the works and careers of the "wise men" of the late 1940s and early 1950s, then of Henry Kissinger, these attitudes wormed their way into American strategy-making. Fittingly, Kerry's op-ed urged that we "look back at NATO and the Marshall Plan, the enduring creations of the Truman administration." Never mind that this analysis leaves out half the story--neglecting, for example, the Truman Doctrine, which unilaterally pledged American support to "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures"; the decision to fight in Korea; and NSC-68, which "militarized" the Cold War. Hans Morgenthau, dean of American realists, forcefully argued against each of these policies, and Dean Acheson routinely complained of Truman's annoying habit of seeing the Cold War in moral terms, of making bold speeches "clearer than truth."

The Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente with the Soviet Union remains perhaps the purest American example of the practice of realism. It sought simply to manage the relationship with the Soviet Union by "balancing" the Communists in Moscow with the Communists in Beijing. It was in these years that "moral equivalence" between East and West slipped into the mainstream of U.S. strategic thought, and so a critique advanced by left-wing dissenters during the Vietnam years was adopted by a right-wing administration in the White House. Not even Ronald Reagan could thoroughly uproot this entrenched ideology, for with the collapse of the Soviet empire, many realists pressed to maintain the balance of power--by restraining America.

Thus, Senator Kerry, in voting against the first Gulf War, explained that he feared the conflict would augur a "new world order" in which the United States would shoulder disproportionate responsibility. "Can it really be said that we are building a new world order when it is almost exclusively the United States who will be fighting in the desert, not alone but almost, displaying pride and impatience and implementing what essentially amounts to a Pax Americana?"

FOR THE PAST DECADE, this fear of American power has defined political realists of both parties. Steeped in an understanding of international politics that held balancing as the highest virtue, this analysis warned against "hyperpower" and jumped excitedly at the slightest sign of its decline--whether absolute or relative. Our hegemony was itself marginally more tolerable during the Clinton years, when the president and his lieutenants were content to lecture the world on theories of "assertive multilateralism," and threats against the U.S. homeland appeared less pressing. (Notably, however, after President Clinton in his second inaugural address described the United States as "the indispensable nation," Senator Kerry reportedly recoiled, asking an aide: "Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?")

Initially, of course, George W. Bush seemed the very model of a modern, post-Cold War realist. During his campaign, his foreign policy advisers--the so-called Vulcans--adopted the same disdain for the puerile vanities of a moralistic foreign policy as many conservative critics of President Clinton. But since 9/11, the realists think the president has lost his perspective. As Lawrence Kaplan has observed, the insurgency in Iraq has ushered in a "springtime for realism," complete with a Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. Founding member Gary Hart sniffs: "The extravagance, not to say the arrogance of this epic undertaking [of transforming the greater Middle East] is sufficiently breathtaking in its hubris to make Woodrow Wilson blush."

Alas, in a one-superpower world, it's hard to be a humble hegemon. But the problem is not just that realism fails as an assessment of the actual balance of power--the United States enjoys an unprecedented preponderance of strength, a fact that will not soon change, regardless of what happens in either Iraq or the White House. The root of the problem is that "realism" of this sort is deeply at odds with both American political principles and American national interests.

There is a reason that Richard Kerry felt himself a "dissident" from the "intensely moral outlook" of the Cold War. In the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union, it was Americans' faith in the universality of liberty, capitalism, and self-determination that sustained our commitments to like-minded allies around the world and weakened our enemies, ultimately converting them to our principles. But just as realism disdained that broader war of ideas, today it disparages the intensely moralistic outlook of President Bush and the "forward strategy of freedom" he has articulated in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Perhaps, for many on the left, this is simply the expression of an intense loathing for President Bush. Still, it is notable that the Kerry camp--presumably more clear-eyed about such matters--is attacking less the often-bumbling means by which the administration has tried to bring democracy to Iraq, than the wisdom of the effort itself. Rand Beers, Kerry's top foreign policy adviser, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "We have been concerned for some time that Bush's position about having some kind of democratic state [in Iraq] was too heroic."

To be sure, there is a huge risk of hubris in attempting to foster democratization across the greater Middle East--a danger that the Bush administration has not appreciated as keenly as it should. Yet the status quo is intolerable, and there are worse offenses than excessive ambition in trying to change it. And just when did the American left begin to sneer at heroic efforts to improve the world?

The deeper problem for realists, of course, is that American interests and American principles are inextricably bound together in Iraq. Iraqis' tolerance of foreign troops has always dangled on the thread of the belief that the United States will help empower the Iraqi people, not consign them to life under yet another strongman. In particular, the support of the majority Shia has been contingent on U.S. guarantees of democratic elections. Should we retreat from these assurances, it will destroy the very stability that the realists claim to prize.

If the terms "liberal" and "conservative" still had any meaning in American foreign policy, George Bush would happily style himself the true liberal--the radical, even--in the upcoming election and paint Kerry as the conservative, the reactionary. Indeed, it's hard to conceive of anything more repugnant to American principles--or blind to American interests--than "conserving" the current political order in the Middle East.

It is one thing to argue that strategy and statecraft demand that we pick our fights carefully, with a due regard for the sacrifices Americans will be asked to make in blood and treasure. It is another altogether to say that prudence demands that we pick our principles so as to avoid sacrifice. Always shameful, such a position is also, in a post-9/11 world, profoundly unrealistic.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow, and Vance Serchuk a research associate, in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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