Since the summer of 2005, I've heard from senior Democratic national security insiders, at regular strategy meetings and in personal conversations, that President Bush was going to start pulling American troops out of Iraq before the November election - they were 100% certain of it. Now, I'm hearing from the same people that the pull out will definitely begin next year, since no 2008 Republican presidential contender want to deal with 100,000+ troops still deployed in Iraq.
Of course, these folks were dead wrong the first time around and it seems likely that they'll be wrong again. Yes, a rational reading of the political landscape would suggest that the President was going to begin a withdrawal before November and certainly before '08, but lets remember that President Bush can hardly be described as rational.
Yesterday, at the opening of a NATO summit in Latvia the President insisted that he's "not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete." On this particular issue (though not many others), I'm inclined to take him at his word.
For those who believe an American military presence in Iraq can do nothing but make the situation worse, this is certainly bad news. But for those of us who think that American troops can, at the very least, prevent things from descending into all out ethnic cleansing, hope hinges on whether this Administration's Iraq strategy can start working.
With "stay the course" Rumsfeld at the helm, the answer was obviously a big "no." But, with Robert Gates, I am hopefully optimistic. In Iraq, a shot of "realism" may be just what the doctor ordered.
Now, I am no fan of a Kissinger/Scowcroft-style conservative realist foreign policy. I think realist strategy, namely balance of power, has proven time and again that alone, it fails to achieve the long term national interest. Furthermore, the absence of values considerations in the making of foreign policy all too often leaves conservative realism - both its means and its ends - illiberal. (Note: I explicitly say "conservative realism," which I think is different than the "liberal realism" of Anatol Lieven and Steve Clemons, among others - I'll address this in a future post).
Nonetheless, it seems to me that a little bit of realist influence may be just what the Bush Administration needs to move forward in Iraq.
My problem with the Administration's version of neoconservative foreign policy is largely (and has always been) about means, not ends - which I think are in many (though certainly not all) ways similar to those of liberal internationalists (the promotion of democracy, development, liberalism, etc). The last five years have shown that neoconservative means are simply unrealistic, since they are based on false assumptions about human nature and the international system (ex. that
democracy would quickly spring up after the fall of Saddam; that the world
would line up behind a morally motivated America, that military force alone can secure American interests, etc).
The only way the Administration's foreign policy could succeed in the pursuit of its neoconservative-influenced ends is through the use of realistic - that is, non-neoconservative - policies. The Administration neocons are incapable of changing to a more realistic course, since it would require them to go against everything they know about how the world works (though you think they would see by now that what they "know" is wrong!). But maybe, just maybe, a realist - who shares few of the assumptions and beliefs of the neocons - could succeed.
Of course, the realists are no fan of neoconservative ends - in Iraq, this means democracy (or really anything better than simple "stability"). But assuming Bush continues to believe that he is the 21st century Truman - tasked by a higher power with remaking the Middle East - and he can channel Gates' (realist) energies towards this end, we may just make some progress. Granted history has yet to show that you can make a realist design and implement policies in pursuit of decidedly anti-realist ends. But if anyone can do it, I'm going to put my money on someone as stubborn and ideologically driven as Bush.
You will probably never get me to endorse conservative realism again, but here's to more realists in the Bush Administration - for once, they may be just what America needs.