Realist Despondency

November 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , )

I usually use this weblog to build a critique of universalism and idealism. I do so through articles but also on occasion with specific direct criticism at a given author. I chose this time to confront a preeminent Realist scholar. I do so because more and more I find his positions to be senseless and also because while a hardcore Realist, I admit that Political-Realism is not infallible and absolutes need to be avoided.

Stephen Walt is a self-proclaimed realist, he figures permanently on tWP’s ‘Realist Scholars’ list and I hold some respect for him. He seems however to have fallen under the influence of a foolish leftist narrative. A first indication was his partnering with John Mearsheimer in co-authoring ‘The Israel Lobby’. I shall not belay in a lengthy explanation for it suffices the reader to know that ‘The Israel Lobby’ puts forth the theory that the US foreign policy has been highjacked by pro-Israel Jews and evangelicals who hurt the American national interest by pursuing exclusively millennial objectives. As I have explained before, Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s simplistic economic reasoning leaves much to be desired.

Perhaps in order to defend his legacy, perhaps because he genuinely believes it, Walt has as of late consistently censured Israel’s foreign policy performance, and adapted his rhetoric of the American government to praise or criticise it depending respectively on its conciliatory or confrontational stance regarding Iran. Sadly, these imperatives have been recurrently proven as flawed and worse still, prejudiced.

Take his heavy criticism of Israel’s wars. Last May, Walt wrote ‘This latest escapade [the raid on the ‘Freedom Flotilla’] is as bone-headed as the 2006 war in Lebanon (which killed over a thousand Lebanese and caused billions of dollars worth of damage) or the 2008-2009 onslaught that killed some 1300 Gazans, many of them innocent children. None of these actions achieved its strategic objective‘. Yet, the West Bank now possesses the least Israel antagonising government in its history and there is virtually no terrorism emanating from that territory against the Jewish state. The wars that the world so promptly condemned in fora such as the UN – completely dominated by a true Islamic lobby, this one a verifiable sixty vote (1/3 of the UNGA) pressure group and not a conspiracy theory – have successfully deterred Hezbollah from further incursions into northern Israel and Hamas from untenable rocket firing in the south. This week, Ha’aretz reports Hamas’ Interior Minister Fathi Hamad confirming that most ‘policemen’ killed during the Gaza war were in fact Hamas militants which is in stark contrast with the much acclaimed Goldstone Report, and which brings the score of casualties of the war closer to IDF estimates.

Another Waltian assertion is that Israel is to blame for Turkey’s estrangement and strategic realignment. According to Walt ‘Unfortunately, Israel’s assault on Gaza back in December and January appalled many Turks and embarrassed the Turkish government. He goes on to say that Israel alienated the Turkish government by blitzing Gaza right when Ankara was gracefully mediating back-channel talks between Hamas and Israel. True as that may be, it is hard to imagine that Israel would have so easily dismissed and despised such an important ally as Turkey without so much as hinting that such an assault was either in the making or actually imminent. Supposing that it did, other intervenients in the Peace Process negotiations such as Russia or the Arab states, didn’t feel insulted by Israel, why should Turkey? There is also the hypocrisy factor: Turkey invaded and retained north Cyprus unilaterally, by surprise and in violation of all international norms, it holds no moral high ground to lecture others. As for the treatment of Palestinians, the Occupied Territories give Palestinians some of the highest ratings of human development of the Middle East and the level of violence and repression is much smaller now than it ever was. Turkey never had much to say about it anyway and its contributions for the UNRWA have to this day remained meagre at best. Finally, as Walt and the Turkish government put it, it almost seems that the entire Israelo-Turkish relations are being held back by a mere diplomatic row. If that is the case, why then is the Turkish government severing strategic ties with Israel?

More than any other person I understand that the election of AKP was more than a change of government, it was a change of regime and the AKP may not feel that it needs to take responsibility for years of CHP policies but in that case the change that took place happened on the Turkish side and the Gaza and flotilla incidents serve as nothing other than a scapegoat for the justification of a radical reversal of policy. This is where I am forced to part ways with Walt and other left-wing Realists. I am no neoconservative by any stretch of mind but the critique of Turkey on the part of the neocons is justified given Ankara’s realignment. It is not just Israel that Turkey is shunning, the Turks have also parted ways with the US and it is natural that ferocious advocates of democratic peace will disapprove of any regime that dismisses the most powerful democracy in the world and is hostile to the most liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Another area in which I cannot agree with Walt is Iran. I have written before that it is not the [theocratic] nature of Iran’s regime that prevents it from maintaining good relations with the US but rather the messianic attitude of its government. Walt however claims that Iran is a rational actor and that the sanctions will not work: ‘We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won’t work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime’s hold on power‘. Iran being financially and militarily weaker than the US and the GCC should be ‘courted’ by America and pressured via its poor human rights record into accepting American demands. But even if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent – which Walt declares it may perceive to need given American threats (forgetting that American threats are due to its secret programme and erratic foreign policy) – that would not constitute a problem since all that could be expected is a regional MAD. I acknowledge Iran to be opportunistic but Walt seems to equate this to rationality. Mr. Walt what was the Iranian national interest in the Balkans that led it to send Pasdaran and equipment to the Bosniaks? Or for that matter in Lebanon, a country that not even its neighbours border? This is not to say that if Iran were to acquire nukes, it’d feel tempted to actually use them. The problem lies instead in the Iranian government’s anti-americanism and religious universalism which blind it to common rules of power politics. This erratic foreign policy is the actual cause of its current problems as Hossein Askari writes today in The National Interest ‘(…) instead of adopting sound policies to encourage private-sector growth, the government has squandered these resources to buy support through wasteful subsidies, to enrich regime insiders, to pursue military programs and grandiose foreign-policy adventures, all of which it could ill afford‘ ; and unlike what Stephen Walt claims the sanctions are indeed biting ‘These fines were the key to making sanctions “bite,” as Iranian banks were virtually cut off from the international financial system. Iran’s cost of trade skyrocketed, in my estimation by some 20–25 percent, in turn squeezing Iran’s foreign currency reserves’; and The National Interest is not exactly a neocon bastion…

Dear Mr. Walt, I am a fan and think of myself as a true realist. As you I believe that America’s messianic foreign policy hurts its national interest and that the invasion of Iraq was a considerably misguided decision. But I must distance myself from your current Middle East views. I apologise but to observe the map of the Middle East and conclude that Israel is the messianic expansionist and Iran the rational actor is something too twisted for me to reconcile.


  1. M. Silva said,

    The WikiLeaks effect

    Prominent pundits of Mideast affairs have argued Israel alone was pushing for military attack on Iran, WikiLeaks debunked these theories.

    Talkbacks (7)
    In recent years, prominent pundits of Middle East affairs such as Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss, and Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, have argued that Israel alone was pushing for a military attack on Iran.

    It was the ubiquitous “Israel lobby” that would make sure the US continued to threaten Iran with military strikes, said Walt and Mearsheimer. It was clear to all that “for Saudi Arabia the worst thing that could happen would be… an Israeli attack on Iran,” Dreyfuss claimed just this month. Lynch, meanwhile, asserted that “while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.”

    Warmongering Israel, ran the thesis, was single-handedly endangering geopolitical stability by attempting to plunge the Middle East into a war with the US.

    All of these learned gentlemen also posited the premise of “linkage,” according to which all Middle East pathologies are a direct outcome of Israeli aggression and obstinacy. Only after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved, they have argued, can other issues, such as Iran’s belligerence, be addressed.

    Sunday’s revelations provided by WikiLeaks conclusively debunk these risible theories.

    From the flood of classified documents, it has become unequivocally clear that Israel is not alone in arguing that Iran, rather than perceived Israeli intransigence on the Palestinian issue, is the principal destabilizing element in the Middle East. We can read in black on white that a broad coalition of Arab countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf area, have been articulating to American leaders for some time, in private and intense conversations, their fear of Iran and, in some cases, the desperate need to take military action.

    The documents show that in 2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia implored Washington to “cut off the head of the snake [Iran]” while there was still time.

    The king of Bahrain, who provides the base for the American Fifth Fleet, told the Americans that the Iranian nuclear program “must be stopped,” according to another cable. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it,” he said.

    The United Arab Emirates’ defense chief, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, told US Gen. John Abizaid that America needed to take action against Iran “this year or next.”

    “Ahmadinejad is Hitler,” he declared in July 2009.

    For his part, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the Iranians “big fat liars.”

    ARAB LEADERS have preferred to keep their true position on Iran from the masses out of a desire to avoid a backlash of public opinion. One wonders, far more in hope than expectation, whether “moderate” Arab leaders will now be prepared to stop separating their private opinions on Iran from their public statements to their people, and in so doing set the groundwork for a coalition encompassing Israel against Iran. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday urged such Arab leaders to speak as honestly about the Iranian danger in public as they have done in private contacts with US diplomats.

    It is striking that Israel will feel itself little damaged by the WikiLeaks exposures, which show top officials saying much the same to the US in private as they say to their people in public. The gulf between Arab leaders’ private and public positions, by contrast, is now evident for all to see.

    What is also now clear is that some American foreign policy experts, who may have had significant influence on the Obama administration, were wrong to single out Likud-led Israel and the neocon “cabal” in America as the sole driving force behind the military option for Iran. And their insistence that a Palestinian state is prerequisite to mustering Arab support for sanctions or military action against Iran is definitively disproved – revealed as either a severe analytical error or part of a deliberate bid to prompt unwarranted US pressure on Israel.

    Whatever the wider repercussions of the WikiLeaks cable deluge, it has exposed the hypocrisy of those Arab leaders who publicly blame Israel for their woes while privately pleading for military measures to thwart their true enemy, Iran. And it has exposed the incompetence, too, or malice, of the analysts who took those Arab leaders’ public utterances at face value, and utilized them in a bid to ratchet up pressure on, and to besmirch, Israel.

  2. M. Silva said,

    So Mr. Walt,
    if the US proclaim themselves as the leaders of the free world, they’re irrational. But not Iran when it aims to be the leader of the Islamic world…

    Iran-India Relations Deteriorate after Ali Khamenei’s Statement on Kashmir; Article in Indian Magazine Says: ‘Iran is India’s New Bugbear, Repeatedly Raising the Contentious Kashmir Issue…’

    In November 2010, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a message to Hajj pilgrims in which he called upon Muslims worldwide to support the Kashmiri people in India’s Jammu & Kashmir state. The Muslim majority state of Jammu & Kashmir has witnessed Pakistan-backed, anti-India terrorist violence since the early 1990s, though there has been some decline in terror attacks in recent years. Khamenei’s message came at a time the Kashmiri youth have been protesting against human rights violations by Indian security forces.

    In his message, the Iranian leader noted that the need for solidarity with the Kashmiri people is “a great obligation” upon the Muslim ummah.[1]The annual Hajj message, which also called upon the Islamic world to support Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq, has led to a deterioration in Iran’s relations with India. Iran and India have traditionally been friends. However, Khamenei’s message of support to Kashmiris is now being seen in New Delhi as new diplomatic posturing by Iran, probably in response to India’s growing ties to the U.S., India moved quickly to express its displeasure over the Iranian leader’s statement. The Iranian charge d’affaires in New Delhi was by summoned by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) where the Indian government conveyed its “deep disappointment” over Khamenei’s comments on Kashmir.[2] According to a report in The Times of India daily, Y. K. Sinha, the Joint Secretary in the MEA, conveyed the Indian government’s sentiments to the Iranian charge d’affaires. An unidentified Indian official commented on India’s response, “We have conveyed to the Iranian authorities our deep disappointment and regret that they have chosen to disregard our sensitivities and chosen to question our territorial sovereignty.”[3]

    Recently, a report in Outlook, a leading Indian weekly magazine, examined the deteriorating relations between New Delhi and Tehran, and attempts by the two traditional friends to create some balance in their standpoints on major international issues.
    Following are excerpts from the article:[4]

    “Iran is India’s new bugbear, repeatedly raising the contentious Kashmir issue in recent months, much to the embarrassment, even anger, of New Delhi. Last week, Indian diplomats winced as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his sermon on the eve of Eid Al-Adha, spoke of Kashmir in the same breath as the struggles in Palestine and Afghanistan, and gave a clarion call to the Muslim ummah to counter the insidious designs of the American-Zionist cabal.
    “Implicit in Khamenei’s sermon was the message that India was part of the diabolical plan, hatched by America and Israel, to colonize Islamic countries and suppress Muslims.
    “Khamenei’s tilt against India had to be taken seriously, for, beginning July, his Eid-ul-Fitr sermon was the third occasion Iran had chosen to mention Kashmir. Khamenei himself did it first on July 21, and then, on September 18, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson criticized Indian security forces for firing on Kashmiris protesting against the alleged burning of the Koran in the U.S. For a country to mention Kashmir thrice in five months is akin to showing a red rag to India.
    “No wonder, [the Indian External Affairs Ministry]… summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires in Delhi and issued a demarche. India also abstained during voting on the United Nations resolution condemning alleged human rights violations in Iran. This marked a departure from New Delhi’s policy of voting against the UN resolution since 2003.”

    “Beyond all the sudden cut and thrust, diplomats struggled to understand Iran’s decision to adopt the Kashmir cause as its own. Partly, say diplomats [in New Delhi], Iran has embraced Kashmir as part of its larger endeavor to emerge as the leader of the Muslim world. Until 10 years ago, this leadership mantle belonged to Saudi Arabia, which would periodically cite Kashmir in the course of championing various Muslim causes and struggles worldwide.
    “The perils of leading the ummah, or community, became obvious to Riyadh during the 9/11 attacks – most of those who flew their planes into the World Trade Center towers were Saudi nationals. An ashamed and stung Riyadh now preferred to build its image as a liberal Islamic nation, softening its earlier strident tones and refraining from embracing every cause appearing in the Muslim firmament.
    “In the space the Saudis vacated, Shi’ite Iran stepped in. America’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, the ruling party’s brutal suppression of opposition protests disputing last year’s election results, and President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s periodic bouts of belligerence bolstered Tehran’s credentials as it tried to emerge as the leader of the Muslim world.
    “Inevitably, Kashmir began to creep into the rhetoric of Iranian leaders. Says Raziuddin Aquil, who teaches history in Delhi University, ‘Iran now wants to fill up the space vacated by the Saudis as champion of Muslim struggles. The Saudis have been aligning more and more with the U.S. and as a result have also lost credibility among Muslims, many of whom continue to see the Americans as the main enemy.’ With only Al-Qaeda and the Taliban professing to play [the role of] dissenter, Iran’s quest for pan-Islamic leadership acquires legitimacy each time it highlights struggles Muslim communities are waging in different countries. It can’t make an exception of Kashmir.”

    “Others feel the growing proximity between India and the U.S. has prompted Iran’s recent remarks on Kashmir. They say Iran is reacting to U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech to Indian Parliament, where he sought New Delhi’s help in restoring democracy and freedom in Iran and Myanmar. Former [Indian] Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh told Outlook, ‘It has to do with Obama’s visit as Iran feels we are leaning too much towards the U.S. There is a definite shift in the stand of the two countries.’
    “Few deny a creeping mutual distancing on issues critical to each other. For instance, Tehran seems to have come a long way from the mid-1990s, when it refused to back a Pakistan-initiated resolution at the UN on alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. Interestingly, many Western countries, including the U.S., had backed the Pakistani move. Iran played a crucial role then to ensure the resolution was defeated.
    “Over the years, Tehran had consistently opposed attempts to equate the movement in Kashmir with the struggle, say, in Palestine, and publicly articulated the need to resolve the issue through negotiations between India and Pakistan.
    “India, on its part, began to inch closer to the U.S. from 2000, but ensured it did not sour relations with Iran. It invited then-President Mohammed Khatami to be the chief guest during the Republic Day celebrations in 2003 [while also hosting Iranian leader Ariel Sharon in New Delhi the same year], and India and Iran also forged a strategic partnership in this decade.”

    “The shift in India’s stand came in September 2005 – for the first time it voted with the U.S. and other Western countries in the International Atomic Energy Agency on a resolution against Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes but many others think otherwise. Critics pummelled New Delhi, saying its vote sought to appease the Americans, with whom India was negotiating for a nuclear deal, that India had compromised on an independent foreign policy.
    “No doubt, the vote strained India’s relations with Iran, but New Delhi opted for a course correction. It said Iran had a legitimate right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, but it should also fulfill its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. Says a senior MEA official, ‘Our reasonable stand is well respected the world over.’
    “Despite hiccups in the past few years, the two countries are together engaged in joint projects that will enhance their trade and give them access to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran also happens to be a major source for India’s energy needs; India is Iran’s third largest energy market. This is why [former Indian Foreign Ministry] Natwar Singh cautions, ‘Iran is an important country for India. Though we should keep a close watch on the developments there, we should not overreact.’
    “South Block [i.e. the MEA] also wants to play a balancing role between Iran and the West. But India can scarcely cast itself for this as long as it fails to win Iran’s trust on the nuclear issue. Nor will India look at Tehran sympathetically as long as it continues to harp on Kashmir. Obviously, should India succeed in restoring peace to Kashmir, there won’t be any troubled waters for Iran to fish in.”

    [1] Jahan News (Iran), November 21, 2010.
    [2] (India), November 19, 2010.
    [3] (India), November 19, 2010.
    [4] Outlook (India), December 6, 2010. The text of the article has been lightly edited for clarity.

  3. M. Silva said,

  4. Archangels in America – America’s Realists’ Crisis of Conscience « The Westphalian Post said,

    […] East as counter-productive, using Washington’s Israelophile policies as case in point for a wider critique of burdensome military commitments all through the […]

  5. M. Silva said,

    Calling Yourself A “Realist” Doesn’t Mean You Are One

    Steven Walt writes at Foreign Policy, a part of the Washington Post–Slate- Big Money–Roots-Foreign Policy media conglomerate. Sometimes Walt has interesting and thoughtful things to say; his byline tells us he is “A realist in an ideological age.” So while we can tell what Walt thinks of himself, the Johari window model tells us there’s a quadrant of the persona which is seen by others but which is not self-recognized; it’s more commonly called a blind spot. And the bad news is Walt has been spending too much quality time in that particular quadrant.

    The evidence is Walt’s blog post Fear, Incorporated: Who’s paying for all that Islamophobic paranoia?

    One of the distinctive features of American democracy is the permeability of our political institutions. It’s an incredibly wide-open system, given First Amendment freedoms, the flood of money that corrupts the electoral process, and a wide array of media organizations and political journals that can be used to disseminate and amplify various views, even when they have no basis in fact.

    This situation allows small groups of people to have a profound impact on public attitudes and policy discourse, provided that they are well-organized, well-funded, and stay on message. And if you don’t believe me, then take a look at the Center for American Progress’s new report [on Islamophobia]…

    I did take a look at the report and by the time you get to the document’s page 5, you’ll see its mere political hackery/sophistry; a bald-faced attempt to discredit the “usual suspects” who don’t agree with the good-and-wise Walt endorsed point of view. So, as it is, Walt the realist really hearts the Center for American Progress’ report. The CAP’s motto is “Progressive ideas for a strong, just, and free America.” I suppose that’s what passes for non-ideological but if you oppose the CAP and its ideas, do you (by their definition) favor a weak, unjust, and enslaved America?

    The CAP is, of course, a liberal think tank. And what does the new CAP report (breathlessly described by the resident realist/non-ideologue as “a remarkable piece of investigative work”) offer? That the ideologues/non-realists/usual suspects are creating “Islamophobia.” Walt’s blog conclusion, perhaps based on the CAP press release, is this:

    …what we are really facing is a well-funded right-wing collaboration to scare the American people with a bogeyman of their own creation, largely to justify more ill-advised policies in the Middle East.

    Well-funded compared to…what? To the Des Moines symphony? To ViaCom (Viacom, Paramount Pictures, MTV Films, Nickelodeon Movies, Comedy Central, BET, Spike, TV Land, Nick@Nite, Nickelodeon, TeenNick, Nick Jr., MTV, VH1, MTV2, CMT, et al)? To Disney (Disney, ESPN, ABC, Pixar, Marvel, et al)? To General Electric (NBC, MSNBC, NBCUniversal, The Weather Channel, et al)? To the Center for American Progress and their sponsors? To the schools where Walt is employed and their sponsors/donors? Could the corrupting “flood of money” from a “wide array of media organizations and political journals” come from any of the above?

    Somehow, methinks the dude protests too much.

    Walt, kettle; kettle, Walt.

    Read more about the Center for American Progress here.

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