There's a breed of foreign policy wonk in Washington that takes itself even more seriously than your run-of-the-mill foreign policy expert (as a class, an incredibly pompous bunch). This is the "realist." Realists claim that they are stony-eyed analysts of realpolitik. These latter-day Metternichs and Machiavellis measure things in terms of "vital interests": blood and treasure, national security, power projection and so on. They don't concern themselves with the gossamer of idealism or emotion.
I've long argued that if you scratch beneath the surface of any realist you'll find an ideologue. Realists, just like everyone else, have priorities. This is more important than that, and that is more important than the completely useless other thing. What those things are changes from expert to expert, but everyone has some kind of formula on how to make that determination, even realists. The notion that policymakers should care more about the spread of U.S. widget sales than the spread of democracy is an ideological decision no matter which side you come down on.
But, the case is even easier to make when talking about pretend realists. Pretend realists are folks on both left and right who lose the argument about foreign policy, either in the Oval Office or at the ballot box. For this crowd, realism is merely a fancy-pants word used by the experts who lost the policy battle and want to claim the winners didn't weigh our vital interests correctly.
Consider the opposition to the Iraq war. I don't think I need to bother naming names and dredging up quotes when I say that many critics of the war argued that it wasn't in our vital national interests and, more to the point, that it was recklessly ideological and/or idealistic to try to impose our values on Iraq. Just this week, President Obama insisted on his overseas tour that Iraq was a "distraction" i.e. a departure from where America's interests reside.
That's all a fair argument, to be sure. But whatever happened to these people who said it was folly to impose our values on foreign cultures? For instance, a few weeks ago, Obama announced that the U.S. would sign on to the French-led effort to protect the rights of homosexuals around the world. Homosexuality is illegal in at least 85 countries, and in many Muslim countries it is punishable by death.
Now, as an unapologetic moralist in foreign policy, I have absolutely no objection to the intent here. The U.S. should condemn such persecution, full stop. It may be open to debate whether gays should marry, but no decent person can believe that homosexuals should be beheaded.
But you know what? If these one-time realists truly thought America was going to have a rough time imposing democracy at the point of a gun, they shouldn't have grand expectations that the Saudis are going to be convinced to leave gays alone at the point of a U.N. press release.
Liberals might respond that there's no harm in signing on to the effort, and that there's a big difference between going to war and backing a nonbinding U.N. resolution. Fair enough. But it's still a distraction by any serious realistic standard. (A true realist would say: "How does it affect us if the Yemenis behead a gay guy every now and then?") And, if these same liberals had their way, U.N. resolutions would have a lot more force to them.
Or take a look at Cuba. There's a fresh effort under way, particularly from the left wing of the Democratic Party, to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Just this week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus junketed to Cuba to celebrate the heroism of Fidel Castro.
The arguments in favor of lifting the embargo are routinely swaddled in talk of realism. The Cold War is over, it's time to throw away anti-Communist anachronisms. The only way to change Cuba for the better is to "engage it" with trade and tourism and exchange programs. The funny thing is, if you made the exact same arguments about South Africa in the 1980s, many of the same people would not merely call you an ideologue but a racist for not supporting sanctions. Indeed, today the anti-Israel sanctions movement is infested with people who claim we must lift the embargo on Cuba.
The truth is that it is impossible to keep our values out of foreign policy, and it would be dangerous to try. That doesn't mean we have to make the perfect the enemy of the good on every issue. You do what you can, where you can. Being realistic about means is the only way you can be serious about achieving idealistic ends.