Most of George Bush’s foreign policy mistakes have been caused by what may be termed excessive foreign policy idealism. Though Bush is rightly criticized for his incompetence and failure to learn from events, no amount of competence would have saved him from the pathetic, ongoing insurgency in Iraq. This outcome was a natural consequence of the situation that he put himself in due to foreign policy idealism: our ambitious plans to change Iraq’s people and culture, the lack of an Iraqi center of power or leader to which we could appeal, and the inherent friction of a proud, ancient people in the face of foreign occupation.
Bush misjudged where we should intervene (Iraq, Ukraine’s elections, Kosovo Independence), how long we should stay (forever), and what kind of results we could expect (flowers) because of this idealism. In the world of Bush and the neoconservatives, we should concern ourselves not merely with security or commerce, but high ideals like democracy and human rights among both our allies and our enemies. The lack of concern for such things has undergirded our historical alliance with folks like Saudi monarchs and Indonesian dictators. The idealists respond that these regimes fuel terrorism amongst their resentful and downtrodden people. So, we must democratize places like this by force, including Iraq, as a matter of englightened self-interest.
McCain believes all of this in spades. Pat Buchanan describes what we can expect in a President McCain:
Like Condi Rice, who regularly disparages the policies of every president from FDR to Bill Clinton, McCain enjoys parading the higher morality of his devotion to democracy-uber-alles.
“For decades in the Middle East we had a strategy of relying upon autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family. … We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these outdated autocrats is the safest bet.”
Speaking of self-delusion, does McCain believe the “democrats” lately elected in Pakistan will be tougher on al-Qaida and the Taliban than Pervez Musharraf, who has twice escaped assassination for having sided with us?
Does McCain think this new crowd in Islamabad will be more pro-American than the general, when the people who voted them in are among the most anti-American in the Islamic world?
From Richard Nixon to George Bush I, we expelled Moscow from Egypt, won the Cold War, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and created a worldwide alliance, including Hafez al-Assad of Syria, that drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.
What has the Bush-McCain democracy crusade produced, save electoral victories for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas? And if we dump the sultan of Oman, President Mubarak, and the king of Saudi Arabia, who does McCain think will replace them?
The “idealists” are the most war-mongering bunch around. Their idealism has no respect for the diversity of political arrangements in the world, nor the benefits of tolerating injustice compared to initiating the horrors of war. Idealists are behind such varied campaigns as Kosovo, Iraq, and Vietnam, as well as the current call to intervene in Sudan. Without a sustained focus on America’s abiding interest in peace and the avoidance of trouble, the idealism of a Clinton or a Bush or a McCain will always get us into wars. The “no war for oil” folks have it all wrong. That at least would make some crude sense. The neoconservative ideaslists are seeking not power or lucre, but the satisfaction of standing up for a noble cause. For them, every threat is Hitler, every decision Munich, every threat of world historical importance. This same idealism does not give a leader the analytical tools to realize our predicaments and extricate ourselves.
Idealists always paint vivid images of the future, a world characterized by law and right. Our present difficulties are always treated casually, necessary and bearable suffering that will be vindicated by the verdict of history. Such “this worldly” optimism is reminiscent of the Hegelian-Marxist view of history, where any given state of society is only a step on the way to the Communist paradise.
But sometimes it’s not December 1944. Sometimes the stakes are not existential. And in these cases, hard-headedness is needed to go with softer-heartedness, in McCain’s case the admirable concern for others and a high sense of duty and persistence. There is a time to throw in the towel, and that time has arrived in Iraq.