When Is "Realism" Bad?

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James Kirchick thinks I'm missing the point by highlighting what I took to be his somewhat inconsistent views on when public opinion should be heeded and when it shouldn't:

But Scoblete is mixing unrelated points, akin to comparing watermelons (a staple of Kyrgyzstan) and pistachios (for which Iran is famous). In his view, you either follow the dictates of “global publics” — an approach to which Scoblete seems to subscribe — or ignore them in the pursuit of some wicked, unilateralist, neocon agenda.

A brief examination of the substantive issues being polled would be useful. With respect to Kyrgyzstan, the US policy of near limitless support for Bakiyev directly harmed American national interests. In the aftermath of his ouster, we are left with a country led by former opposition figures rightly wary of American intentions, because America did little as they were being persecuted by a kleptocratic regime. Never mind the immorality of propping up a loathsome autocrat; the five years of American support for Bakiyev will redound harshly against “hard” American interests like bashing rights.

As for Arab public opinion on the Iranian nuclear program, there is widespread consensus, across the political spectrum in America (and the rest of the free world), that Iran should not have one.

A few points. First, Kirchick is right that these issues should be examined and judged on their specific merits and not necessarily on the basis of any general principle. I'd also agree that on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, we shouldn't be overly solicitous of Arab views, but that's also because I suspect no one in the non-elite swath of the Arab world cares much about it one way or another and certainly not as much as their own lack of political liberty and economic opportunity at home.

But I wonder then why Kirchick insists (frequently) on criticizing "realism" (the word typically accompanied by derisive quotations) when it appears that he's comfortable with its various Faustian bargains when it comes to U.S. policy in the Arab world.

And I should clarify that I don't think U.S. policy should be crafted by the "dictates of global publics" but on the basis of national interest. And on those grounds, it's difficult to see why currying favor with the autocratic rulers of Kyrgyzstan to secure continued use of the Manas airbase constitutes a grave blow to U.S. interests (we haven't lost basing permission) while the practice of coddling Arab dictators and monarchs to maintain America's defense posture in the Middle East isn't. Maybe Kirchick believes that both practices are indefensible and should be scraped, although it's hard for me to see how you formulate any robust plan to deal with Iran's nuclear program that doesn't involve coddling Middle Eastern autocrats.

Either way, I'd say that until the disaffected citizens of Kyrgyzstan form a transnational terrorist organization dedicated to killing Americans on U.S. soil and driving them out of Kyrgyzstan, I'll maintain that the coddling of Arab dictators is doing more harm to American security interests than our (admittedly morally dubious) policy of coddling whatever autocrat currently lords over Bishkek.

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