Flexibility combined with morality can alleviate foreign affairs problems

The foreign affairs fur is flying. I'm not talking about the catfight between two strong-willed, expensively dressed Democratic pols married to California gazillionaires, with Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi trying to yank Jane Harman from heading the...

The foreign affairs fur is flying.

I'm not talking about the catfight between two strong-willed, expensively dressed Democratic pols married to California gazillionaires, with Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi trying to yank Jane Harman from heading the House Intelligence Committee.

I'm talking about the catfight between the idealists and the realists.

After an election that spurned ideology, and the triumphant return of the Bush 41 pragmatists James Baker and Robert Gates, the self-proclaimed idealists are reduced to hissing from the sidelines.

The Vulcans and neocons had grandiose plans to restore trumpets, morality and a spine to foreign policy, to establish America as a hyperpower with a duty to export democracy -- by force and on its own, if necessary. But now the grandiose experiment of Iraq is in a sulfurous shambles, and the Realpolitik crowd is back cleaning up.


In the Wall Street Journal, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute railed against the evils of "chardonnay diplomacy," recalling that in 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan's Middle East envoy, met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, hoping to restore relations out of a concern over growing Iranian influence. He didn't bother to mention Saddam's use of chemical weapons.

"Mr. Gates was the CIA's deputy director for intelligence at the time of Mr. Rumsfeld's infamous handshake, deputy director of central intelligence when Saddam gassed the Kurds, and deputy national security adviser when Saddam crushed the Shiite uprising," Rubin wrote. "Mr. Baker was as central."

Rummy, he said, "worked to right past wrongs." By contrast, the neocons fear, Gates and Baker are back winking at dictators. Already they're talking about cozying up to the evil leaders of Iran and Syria, and perhaps dreaming of more concessions to the Palestinians. (Israel and its supporters among Christian evangelicals are having conniptions.)

The idealists who loved Ronald Reagan's evocation of Thomas Paine -- "We have it in our power to begin the world over again" -- are right that Americans yearn for a moral foreign policy. It was sickening in 1989 to see Brent Scowcroft -- another realist back in fashion -- offering a cozy supper toast to Chinese leaders only six months after Tiananmen Square, and getting Poppy to lecture Ukrainians not to break the iron grip of Moscow.

It was sickening, after Bush pere sold the Persian Gulf War as a moral mission, to see the 41 team decide at the end not to intervene to stop Saddam from slaughtering thousands of innocent Shiites and Kurds who rose up as the president had asked.

It was sickening when the first Bush administration decided to do nothing about the genocidal Serbian war on Bosnia in 1992. As Secretary of State Baker frostily explained, "We do not have a dog in that fight." Justifying the administration's tough stance toward Israel, the Velvet Hammer made another notorious comment. "(Expletive) the Jews," he told a colleague privately. "They didn't vote for us anyway."

But while the idealists have a point, they also have a problem. Their moral war in Iraq was sold four years ago with two big lies: that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that the Iraqis were yearning for democracy. And it has continued in a fog of deception about imaginary progress. It is immoral to put troops' lives at risk because one is doctrinaire, to make people die for a failure of flexibility.

America's bungled occupation and naive assumptions unleashed sectarian bloodletting that could ultimately, as the New York Times' John Burns wrote, "match the mass killing that characterized Mr. Hussein's psychopathic years in power" and embolden authoritarian Arab leaders.


Bush junior cast himself as the Reagan heir. But as Reagan showed in Lebanon, when he pulled out troops after 241 servicemen were blown up, and in Reykjavik negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear arms, he was incredibly flexible -- an effective contrast with his inflexible rhetoric. He pursued openings and even radical diplomacy. If the Gipper was wood, the Decider is stone.

Voters rejected W's black-and-white, good-and-evil, incompetent foreign policy last week. The president got the message that some shades of gray were desirable and brought in the family fixer with the bright green ties, who is perfectly positioned to come up with a solution that will fly in Washington and flop in Baghdad.

As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught, morality without realism is naivete or worse, and realism without morality is cynicism or worse. Morality should open your eyes, not close them.

MAUREEN DOWD is a columnist for the New York Times.

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