Realpolitik Redux: Can a Political Vision That Eschews Idealism and Ethics Be Right for America? (Margin Notes)

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IF THE FIRST CASUALTY OF WAR IS TRUTH, THE SECOND surely is hope. A decade after Bush the elder called for a New World Order and beardy postmoderns were discussing the "end of history," watching U.S. political leadership rush the reconstruction of a new Cold War makes a sad spectacle indeed. Modern international relations might have followed a different path than the one now leading into the rocky hillsides of the Hindu Kush. Instead, we've escaped back to the future with the renaissance of "political realism" in America.

Like a moldering pair of bell-bottoms retrieved from a decrepit hamper, realpolitik is suddenly back in fashion and once again turning its sturdy, unapologetic mien upon a recalcitrant world. It is depressing to see with what evident relief our political leadership embraces the old world order, delighted to discover their CIA manuals won't have to be updated anytime soon. We are again ready to make "tough" decisions about other people's lives while reining in problematic civil liberties at home.

With the Taliban on the run, U.S. operatives are already at work in the fields of the sword with our latest allies in Afghanistan--the so-called Northern Alliance. Unfortunately, we may understand as little about these men and their ambitions today as we did back in the 1980s of the people who would eventually rise up as the Taliban. During those years, realpolitik dictated that anyone who could make trouble for the Soviets could deal with America. U.S. operatives paid for mujahideen weapons, military training--even schooling in Pakistani academies of Islamic radicalism.

Watching Bush the younger sign on with the Northern Alliance to rid Afghanistan of the dread Taliban inspires an awful deja vu (and inevitable comparisons to a certain lady who swallowed a fly). We have been down this road before. Previous Kissingerian forays into realpolitik have placed the U.S. into some of history's ugliest footnotes: support for the intemperate Shah of Iran; the bombing of civilians in Vietnam and ultimate destabilization of Southeast Asia; kidnap, murder, assassination, and coup in Chile; the liquidation of hundreds of thousands of "leftists" in Indonesia; a coup in Guatemala that led to four decades of mayhem and butchery; legally dubious escapades in Nicaragua; complicity in the slaughter of uncountable Catholic laypeople, clergy, and religious in El Salvador; support of Saddam Hussein as a balance against Iran, followed by a war against an overly ambitious Hussein, culminating in the shameful abandonment of Kurds and Shiites foolish enough to join a U. …