Through the Looking Glass

Author
Brendan Conway
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal
The Journal of International Security Affairs
Volume
15
Issue Number
0
Publication Date
Fall 2008
Institution
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
Abstract
“Realist.” Today, in the wake of the Iraq war, that foreign policy terminology is once again very much in vogue. Even the Bush administration, notorious for trending strongly toward the ideological, has gravitated toward the realist mind-set in foreign affairs in recent months. Thus Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken pains to write, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, of “a uniquely American realism.” The White House, meanwhile, has opted for nuclear negotiations with Iran and North Korea, two of the three countries identified by President Bush, in his more idealistic days, as members of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
Topic
Foreign Policy, War
Political Geography
America
J. PETER SCOBLIC, U.S. Versus Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security (New York: Viking, 2008), 350 pp. “Realist.” Today, in the wake of the Iraq war, that foreign policy terminology is once again very much in vogue. Even the Bush administration, notorious for trending strongly toward the ideological, has gravitated toward the realist mind-set in foreign affairs in recent months. Thus Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken pains to write, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, of “a uniquely American realism.” The White House, meanwhile, has opted for nuclear negotiations with Iran and North Korea, two of the three countries identified by President Bush, in his more idealistic days, as members of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” As J. Peter Scoblic's U.S. Versus Them demonstrates, the Realist renaissance is also under way on the foreign policy Left. A detailed history of the last six decades of U.S. foreign-policy debates, U.S. Versus Them focuses on the rise of political conservatives, with special emphasis on nuclear arms control. Questions of “realism” are never far from the surface. They lurk even in the author's very definition of conservatism: “In foreign policy,” he writes in a key early passage, “'conservative' describes a distinct attitude in which the world is conceived in terms of 'us versus them' or 'good versus evil… [it] is often an explicitly religious vision[.]'” “Religious,” of course, is a description about as far from the realism of Henry Kissinger or von Metternich as could ever be possible. As this quote suggests, U.S. Versus Them is not merely history; it is also polemic, and Mr. Scoblic, an arms control specialist who serves as executive editor of The New Republic, lays a mostly condemnatory judgment. Indeed, the book is best read as an attempt to wrest what remains of “realism” from conservatives—and even, at times, to characterize them as warlike or simplistic. It attempts to make what used to be called “liberal internationalism” seem more like “realism,” and conservatism or neoconservatism seem like its opposite numbers. This does not prevent Mr. Scoblic from writing a history that is, at a minimum, useful to those on the right seeking a refracted view of themselves. It covers the major figures of the movement at length, from the early days of Frank Meyer and Bill Buckley up through Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, through the rise of “Scoop Jackson” Democrats, the onset of the Reagan years and now the so-called conservative “apotheosis” of the Bush administration. There is also room along the way to discuss dissenters such as Pat Buchanan, as well as figures who straddled the line between the insurgent right and the Washington establishment—people such as Paul Nitze, James Schlesinger and George H. W. Bush. Conservative foreign policy, per Mr. Scoblic, is “Manichaean” in ways that blind the right from a consideration of the true interests of the United States. It frequently prevents negotiation when talks with North Korea or Iran would be desirable, arouses suspicion of foreigners and international institutions when openness would be warranted, and unduly favors military action in cases where diplomacy is called for, the author contends. If all this sounds uncannily like John Kerry's critique of George W. Bush's foreign policy in the 2004 elections, that is because it is. But credit Mr. Scoblic with admirable knowledge in support of his position, as well as a willingness to talk to his intellectual adversaries. John Bolton, the bête noir of American liberalism on foreign policy, is one interviewee featured in U.S. Versus Them. If Mr. Scoblic finds a basic truth about conservative foreign policy in recent American history, it is the essentially adversarial nature of the conservative viewpoint. What he calls a “Manichaean” foreign and defense policy others might term rightly, well, defensive. This is not an exclusively “conservative” trait, but few self-described conservative voices lack it. This position views diplomacy, international agreements, and international institutions not as ends toward harmonious cooperation, or even as ends in and of themselves, but essentially as extensions of statecraft. It assumes that other states treat them similarly, and to pretend otherwise is foolhardy. This has been as true of Ron Paul as it is of Mr. Bolton. There have been exceptions, but for the most part the observation stands that nearly all conservatives have viewed matters this way. In the balance, however, U.S. Versus Them ends up offering far too easy and convenient a dichotomy between “conservatives” and everyone else. Call it the “partisan theory of American foreign policy,” in which one's favored persuasion or party appears time and again in an uncannily favorable light. At points, the book makes it sound as though self-described conservatives are responsible for most every catastrophe of American foreign policy since World War II. One wonders what role, if any, The New Republic's own tortured foreign-policy views play here. TNR famously supported the Iraq invasion before changing its mind shortly after the war began in what might readily be termed an identity crisis. At a moment when Republican-dominated Washington should have made 2001 and onward the salad days for liberal magazines, TNR struggled and watched its circulation decline by nearly half from 2000 to 2007, despite its storied history. In 2007, it was sold to the Canadian communications firm CanWest. Clearly, the magazine is in sore need of inspiration for its troops these days. Whatever the answer, U.S. Versus Them has succeeded at minimum in demonstrating that we are all “realists” now. Or, more accurately, that we all seek to be more “realist” than our opposites. Can a foreign-policy analyst view the world through an “Us versus Them” lens, but also be more or less rational? This writer certainly thinks so, but Mr. Scoblic goes to great lengths to answer in the negative. Brendan Conway, a former member of the editorial board of The Washington Times and assistant managing editor of The National Interest, is a writer in New York.