Ceding Idealism to the GOP

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

About six months after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, went to Beijing and met with China's "paramount leader," Deng Xiaoping. Scowcroft said he communicated the president's unhappiness over the massacre, to which Deng essentially said, Mind your own business. "And I said, 'You're right. It is none of our business,' " Scowcroft tells Jeffrey Goldberg in the current New Yorker. This raises an obvious question: How many have to die before it is our business?

That question is at the heart of the dilemma now facing American foreign policy. Scowcroft is a famous realist. Not for him any grand, noble causes. He is parsimonious with American lives and treasure, and he vocally opposed George W. Bush's intention to go to war in Iraq. He found out this was a different Bush with a different foreign policy. The younger Bush's was infused with moralism.

It's clear now that Bush's foreign policy, at least as it applies to Iraq, has gone awry. With nearly 2,000 military deaths, no end in sight, civil war looming and Iraq becoming a beacon for terrorists from elsewhere in the Muslim world with -- well, the list of calamities can go on and on -- it's now apparent that Bush should have at least wondered why Scowcroft was so opposed to the war. After all, Scowcroft is no pacifist; he not only favored the 1991 Persian Gulf War but was instrumental in getting his boss to fight it.

Scowcroft's remarks about his mission to China make him sound cold and unfeeling, which is not the case at all. But his brand of realism is not the stuff of TV speeches from the Oval Office and pronouncements about good and evil. It is a dry, tasteless meal for the soul, no matter what its intellectual or practical virtues, and it sorely lacks the Kennedyesque call to service ("Ask not . . . ") or even, to go back some decades, Franklin D. Roosevelt's summons to a generation of Americans who had, he told them, a "rendezvous with destiny."

Both JFK and FDR were Democrats, of course, and the party has always been associated with internationalism. Somehow, though, that moralism -- that urge to do good abroad -- has drifted over to the GOP. It is Republicans, particularly neocons, who talk the language of moralism in foreign policy and who, weapons of mass destruction aside, wanted to take out Saddam Hussein because he was a beast. It mattered to them that he killed and tortured his own people. It says something about the Democratic left that it cheered Michael Moore's infantile "Fahrenheit 9/11" even though the film made no mention of Hussein's depredations, not even his gassing of Kurdish villages.

It is probably no accident that so many Middle East hands supported the war. They had seen enough to be appalled and to think, probably incorrectly, that ridding the region of Hussein would be beneficial. The supposed afterthought about democracy -- the apparent fallback position once weapons of mass destruction were proved not to exist -- was in fact the priority for many neocons. As Paul Wolfowitz admitted to Vanity Fair in 2003, weapons of mass destruction were just one reason to go into Iraq. Democracy and human rights were not only others but possibly more important.

In 1984, to my consternation, I heard the New Deal theme song "Happy Days Are Here Again" played at the Republican National Convention in Dallas. That swiping of a political icon -- Ronald Reagan had earlier borrowed FDR's "rendezvous" phrase for his speech praising Barry Goldwater -- has been followed by a more serious one: the theft of altruism. It is now Republicans, at least neocons, who often speak most forcefully about right and wrong in the world. Just as Scowcroft is doing, it is the Democrats who often speak the cold language of realism that sometimes seems downright uncaring.

Bush's soggy religiosity clearly should not be the basis of a foreign policy. But neither should a cold refusal to recognize the role that morality can play. The trick for the Democrats is to strike a balance, to honor their party's tradition of internationalism and appeal to the American desire to whack the bad guys. America -- as it ultimately did in Bosnia -- can still do some good in the world. That's realism, too.


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