Realism in foreign affairs is unrealistic

In a recent WaPo column, Karen Attiah points out that turning a blind eye to a Saudi Arabian leader murdering a journalist and President Biden showing them support was geopolitical realism: “At least that’s how they explained why President Biden just had to go to Riyadh in July and give MBS both a personal meeting and that fist bump seen round the world. It would be worth it, because of U.S. energy and security needs, right?

“Wrong, as it turned out. Saudi Arabia has repaid all that by hitting the United States where it hurts — at the gas pump. Last week, the Saudi-led OPEC Plus nations cut oil production. This will not only lead to higher prices at the pump but also help provide fellow oil-producer Russia with the financial reserves it needs to wage its war with Ukraine” And as Attiah points out, this is far from the only issue we’ve had with the nation over the years. Some House Democrats are concerned it could get worse.

Think of this as an Undead Foreign Policy Cliche. All my adult life, when critics question the United States’ alliances with oppressive dictatorships, the standard response is “realism.” You can’t do business just with good democracies. America is entitled to look out for its own interests, even if that requires moral compromise. Though most of the media coverage and political discourse on this issue also holds that we aren’t like other countries. We’re the shining beacon of democracy, the leaders of the free world. We are the good guys, even when we do morally questionable things. Don’t doubt the goodness of America.

In the last century, this was rationalized as the need to fight communism and win the Cold War. After 9/11 it was the necessity of fighting terrorists. The 9/11 attack didn’t change everything, it simply reframed it a little.

As Attiah points out, realism hasn’t produced the gains for the United States it was supposed to. We supported the Shah of Iran which provoked a revolution, followed by more bad realistic calls. We supported Manuel Noriega as dictator of Panama, then went to war against him. We supported Saddam Hussein as our ally against Iran, then went to war against Iraq twice: once on behalf of Kuwait, the second time for WMDs that didn’t exist.

Bush II’s vice president Dick Cheney had a “one percent doctrine” that was supposedly hard edged realpolitik: if there’s even a one percent chance some other nation poses a threat to the U.S., we’re justified in taking them out. Some realism: trillions of dollars and thousands of lives wasted in an unnecessary war. Of course, European history shows how unrealistic that doctrine was: if European nations had decided to eliminate all possible threats, the continent would be lifeless.

I do agree the United States has a right to protect its own interests. That doesn’t justify screwing over other companies and their people. We installed the Shah as leader of Iran simply because some of our leaders thought the country elected a leader who was too liberal. We overthrew the government of Guatemala for the good of American business. We overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and installed a vicious dictator because Nixon was pissy. Ronald Reagan backed an El Salvadorian dictatorship that used death squads against innocent people.

Part of the problem is, once we designate some dictator as Our Dictator, we stop being realistic. He’s our ally, our trusted friend, and we treat him like we were an insecure girl on prom night: if we don’t let our date do whatever he wants, he’ll dump us! We’ll die a virgin! So instead of nudging them towards democracy (one of the standard rationales why working with tyrants is a Good Thing) we wind up supporting them in evil.

And we do it regardless of who’s in the White House.

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