Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Realpolitik and Idealism in Foreign Policy

Written by johnleemk on 8:36:53 pm Mar 6, 2007.

In reply to "Cutting and Running From Iraq", Say Lee writes:

"They have the moral obligation to at least clean up the mess they created, or give Iraq a chance of cleaning up the mess." Aptly put.

It's this moral highground exmplified by Edmund Burke's quote:

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

that has driven US into the Middle East quagmire, other geo-political imperatives (e.g. a stable oil supply line) notwithstanding.

Perhaps we should pause for a moment and consider how events would have panned out if US were to disengage themselves from the very beginning, say 1978/79?

It's indeed appropriate to consider the impact the US has had on the quagmire it is in now through its foreign policy from the mid- to late-20th century.

During the Cold War, a fear of communism was pretty much the sole factor driving American foreign policy. At the same time, realpolitik forced the US into propping up anti-democratic regimes simply for the sake of creating bulwarks against communism.

It is for this reason that the authoritarian Shah of Iran was given American support, despite his disdain for democracy. This led to his downfall at the hands of the Muslim clerics, and we all know what came of that. Iran is presently one of the largest thorns in America's side.

A similar thing happened in Iraq. To prevent a left-wing party from taking power, the Americans backed the right-wing Baath Party, and thus Saddam Hussein, regardless of the potential fallout (and I don't need to explain how this has panned out).

Again, with Afghanistan, it was the same thing. The Americans backed the mujahidin against the Russians, and thus gave their future enemies plentiful supplies of weaponry, and hardened them with battle experience. It also gave Muslim fundamentalism a vital boost — Muslims from all over the world, including Osama bin Laden, were recruited to join the fight in Afghanistan, and thus radical Islam spread from there.

What if the Americans had taken a less paranoid approach towards communism and socialism? How would things have worked out then? Not being a historian, let alone a counterfactual/alternative historian, I can't say.

Making some uninformed speculation, though, it seems things would be quite better had the US sat on its thumbs and dawdled. Still, one wonders what a communist Middle East would look like — and whether we might instead be experiencing a threat of global terror from radical lefties instead of radical Muslims.

Whatever the case, we know how things have worked out. Getting burned by the realpolitik approach caused Republican foreign policy to sway towards the side of neoconservatism, and emphasised idealism over pragmatism.

This idealism led the Americans to go to war in Iraq, and this idealism has felled them there. It seems that the Americans can do no right when it comes to foreign policy, can they?

Speaking again as a not-too-informed observer, it seems to me that they erred by banking too hard one way or another. In the 20th century, the Americans backed dictatorships that supported capitalism over communism — an obviously not too bright idea.

Today, the Americans are trying to back democracies, but are facing huge backlash as a result. Here's a hint: focus on the grassroots.

In the 20th century, the Americans stifled grassroots attempts to effect reform and change in other countries if these grassroots were left-leaning in ideology. Today, they are trying to encourage democracy, but are taking a top-down instead of bottom-up approach.

The Americans should work to encourage democracy to sprout up where it is already showing signs of possibly taking root, such as in Lebanon or Palestine, instead of trying to foster an artificial democracy where none is to be found, such as in Iraq. This would combine the best of both realpolitik and idealism.

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