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Realism's Shining Morality: The Post-Election Trajectory of U.S. Foreign Policy

By Ellsworth, Robert F.; Simes, Dimitri K. | The National Interest, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Realism's Shining Morality: The Post-Election Trajectory of U.S. Foreign Policy


Ellsworth, Robert F., Simes, Dimitri K., The National Interest


WE ARE PLEASED that President George W. Bush achieved an impressive victory over Senator John Kerry--but we do not believe that the president received a clear mandate for conducting foreign policy. Indeed, it was unfortunate that there was no real foreign policy debate during the campaign--and this at a time when the United States must make fateful choices.

The president, understandably, was unwilling to acknowledge serious errors of judgment in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Yet Senator Kerry failed to offer a credible alternative. His attacks on administration policy, especially vis-a-vis Iraq, were more nitpicking than a serious evaluation of what went wrong and what lessons the United States should learn.

President Bush built a strong record on the defining issue of our time--fighting terrorism. He destroyed Al-Qaeda's base in Afghanistan, removing the Taliban from power. And regarding Iraq, there were only two feasible options. One was to offer Saddam a quid pro quo settlement--allowing him and his murderous regime to stay in power in return for verifiably giving up weapons of mass destruction and abandoning his regional pretensions. There was little constituency in the United States for such a course of action. The second was regime change. Senator Kerry himself had voted in 1998 for this option. The Clinton team (many of whom also served as advisors to the Kerry camp) opted for half-measures--conducting regular air strikes against Saddam, attempting (with declining success) to maintain strangulating sanctions, and plotting covert action. It was clear that these were not achieving their objective--while giving Saddam every incentive to strike back at the United States. So resolving the situation once and for all by ending the Saddam regime seemed to be a more prudent solution. One need not be a neoconservative to reach such a conclusion.

But how foreign policy is conducted also matters, and here it is vitally important that President Bush, in his second term, avoid wrong choices that may bring catastrophic consequences. The second Bush Administration will have to deal with two fundamental dilemmas: first, how to reconcile the war against terror with a commitment to make the world safe for democracy; and second, how to assure that unchallenged U.S. military supremacy is used to enhance America's ability to shape the world rather than provoke global opposition to the United States, making us more isolated and accordingly less secure. The neoconservative vision for conducting American foreign policy is fraught with risks. And continuing to follow the prescriptions of the neoconservative faction in the Republican party may damage President Bush's legacy, imperil the country's fiscal stability and complicate America's ability to exercise global leadership.

IT HAS BECOME article of faith for the increasingly influential alliance of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives that the United States, as the world's democratic hegemonic power, is both entitled and even morally bound to use whatever tools are necessary to save the world from brutality and oppression and to promote democratization around the globe. Up to a point, the War on Terror and encouraging democracy worldwide are mutually reinforcing. President Bush is quite right that democracy, particularly if we are talking about democracy in a stable society coupled with a rule of law and with adequate protection of minority rights, is not only morally preferable to authoritarian rule, but also is the best prescription against the emergence of deeply alienated radical groups prone to terrorism. The "democracy project" also appeals to the highest aspirations of the American people. After all, the Cold War was never driven solely by the need to contain Soviet power, but by the moral conviction that defending freedom in the United States and in the world in general was something worth fighting and dying for--even, in the Berlin Crisis, risking nuclear war itself.

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