It’s nice to see that Paul Wolfowitz hasn’t been intimidated into silence by his many critics. He just published an article in “Foreign Policy,” entitled, “Think Again: Realism,” that addresses fundamental issues of worldview as they relate to foreign policy.
I do not agree with Wolfowitz on many things, and thought before and after the event that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong. However, he is a highly intelligent and experienced man, and his opinions are worth noting. Looking at the comments following his article, one finds the usual attempts, so typical of our time, to vilify him rather than simply refute his arguments. The Amity-Enmity Complex prevails. Wolfowitz cannot merely be wrong. Rather, as one who has assaulted the ideological dogmas that define the intellectual territory of an opposing “in-group,” he must be evil. Given the nature of our species, this type of reaction is predictable. It is also self-defeating because it excludes rational dialogue. Given our intellectual limitations, it is not to be expected that any of us will be capable of perfect accuracy in dealing with issues as complex as those associated with foreign policy. In other words, the best of us will make mistakes. If Wolfowitz was wrong about Iraq, it was not because he is evil, but because he is human, and, therefore, not capable of infallibly accurate analysis of highly complex situations. We would still be in the Stone Age if we had never listened to anyone who had occasionally been wrong. We become wise by learning from our mistakes.
Pundits Stephen M. Walt, David J. Rothkopf, Daniel W. Drezner, and Steve Clemons have written responses to the Wolfowitz article that are also interesting reads. I particularly liked the following from Rothkopf’s reply:
Reading Wolfowitz’s piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that “political science” may be the humdinger of all oxymorons … even if calling “realists” realists and “neoconservatives” neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their “lies, damned lies, and statistics” and clearly, political scientists have their “lies, damned lies, and labels.”
It’s not just “neocons” and “realists” of course who are mislabeled or falsely advertising themselves. There is nothing “conservative” about the reckless fiscal policies of “conservative” champions like Reagan or Bush, nothing “progressive” about the New Deal nostalgia of many on the left, nothing “pro-life” about abortion opponents who also use a misreading of the Second Amendment to allow them stock up on assault weapons, nothing “liberal” about folks who think the answer to everything is greater government control of people’s lives. Say what you may about the underlying beliefs, the labels are meaningless.
As Rothkopf points out, labels such as “realism,” “idealism,” “constructivism,” etc., are best understood as a form of intellectual posturing, and have little if any actual information content. We are programmed to take advantage of the mental efficiencies of categorization. However, once the labels assigned to identify the categories become meaningless other than as boundary markers between ideological dogmas, they have outlived their usefulness. Take, for example, Walts use of the label “realism” in the piece that precedes Rothkopf’s:
I’d try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him too, because that tragedy demonstrates the virtues of realism and the follies of Wolfowitz’s own worldview.
Actually, the outcome in Iraq demonstrates no such thing, nor is it rational to claim that it could. One cannot even speak of a single, unified outcome. For example, as far as the Kurds are concerned, the outcome was hardly a tragedy. They might claim it was a vindication of Wolfowitz’ “idealism,” and not the opposite. Certainly, as far as the Kuwaitis are concerned, the elimination of Saddam Hussein was hardly “tragic.” Even if there were universal agreement that the outcome actually was a tragedy, it would not demonstrate the superiority of one general worldview over another, as Walt suggests. To refute such a claim, Wolfowitz could easily point to a plethora of other outcomes, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, that similarly “prove” the superiority of his worldview. One can certainly claim that some of outcomes of our intervention in Iraq were not those expected by the supporters of that intervention on either the left or the right. One can also plausibly maintain that these outcomes were not in our national interest. However, there is no rational basis for the further claim that these limited outcomes can possibly demonstrate the validity or lack thereof of an entire worldview.
I personally lean much more in the direction of Walt’s “realism” than Wolfowitz’ “idealism.” In particular, I strongly agree with his comment, “… that military force is a blunt and costly instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to foresee, and that states should go to war only when vital interests are at stake.” However, there is an odd disconnect between the language Walt uses against Wolfowitz in his article and the “soft-pedaled” policies he claims to support internationally. For example, the architects of the war were not wrong, they were “dead wrong.” Wolfowitz only “bothers” to mention two realists, and he can’t be “bothered” to be better informed on realist doctrine. Wolfowitz was an able practitioner of “threat inflation” and “deception” while in office, and so on. Given the left’s documented attempts to distort what Wolfowitz actually did say, it would seem advisable for Walt and the rest of his detracters to refrain from accusations that he deliberately attempted to deceive unless they have proof thereof that they have not laid on the table to date. Absent such evidence, one is forced to conclude that Wald is himself a liar. His emotionally laden and pejorative language is better understood as an attempt to seize the moral high ground in a shouting match between ideological factions than to achieve a consensus concerning the type of foreign policy best suited to achieving common goals.