Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Practical Matter of Realism

Rich Lowry responds to my earlier post:

This Big Tent post Jonah mentioned seems just to assume away any conflict between our interests and ideals—i.e., anything we do to promote our interests is ultimately idealistic because we're a nation of ideals. That's one way to look at it. But as a practical matter, U.S. policymakers have to choose between our ideals and our other interests—counter-terrorism, stability, etc.—all the time.

At the most basic level, we have a hierarchy of needs when it comes to the war on terror. It tracks pretty well with this statement by Walter Lippmann: “I do know that there is no greater necessity for men who live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but in any event, governed.”

We should want: First, nations and territories to be governed. Otherwise you get the hell of Somalia and Iraq circa 2006, and chaotic spaces ripe for terrorist exploitation. Second, governments to be hostile to terrorism. Egypt, for instance, fails by most standards of governance, except this very important one. Third, nations and territories to be governed well, so they respect the rights of their people and provide a benevolent outlet for their energies. Ideally, we want all three, but the first two are the most urgent.
I think there is less disagreement here than it might appear, because we are talking about levels of engagement. Lowry is correct--at the most basic level, the everyday level, we have a hierarchy of needs for the war on terror. He identifies those needs fairly well.

But what I am saying is that all of those needs, in whatever order, have been and must continue to be guided by our ideals/interests. And we must be explicit about it. Yes, we want territories and nations to be governed, because in the long term solid governance is closer than chaos or anarchy to our ideals/interests. Likewise, we want governments to be hostile to terrorism--actually, I would say hostile to the type or radical Islamism that fuels terrorism--because we see radical Islamism as a greater near term threat to our ideals/interests than most authoritarian regimes, which we also oppose in the long term.

Realism is an unfortunate but necessary tactic. It must not become an end unto itself, or we become exactly what our critics have always falsely accused us of being.

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