Right diagnosis, wrong remedy

Jacob Heilbrunn is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer and author of a forthcoming book on the history of neoconservatism.

Collections of newspaper essays, let alone op-eds, are usually dreary affairs. What was dashed off for a provocative read over breakfast becomes, more often than not, a prolonged exercise in tedium by the time it is immured between hard covers.

William Pfaff's "Fear, Anger and Failure" is a notable exception. A longtime columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Pfaff has lived for decades in Paris, where he has followed the turbulent relationship between Europe and the United States. In this compilation of essays about the Bush administration and neoconservative influence since Sept. 11, he offers a look at U.S. foreign policy that is comprehensive, illuminating -- and ultimately mistaken.

Unlike some of the more boisterous pundits who championed the liberation of Iraq only to sidle away as it looked like an increasingly iffy proposition, Pfaff, as these writings make clear, has always been skeptical of the administration's case for the war on terror, beginning with Afghanistan. He underestimates the ease with which the U.S. military could topple the Taliban, but he warns that if the local population sees Osama bin Laden "as the victim of foreign intruders, and collaborates in resisting that intrusion, Western soldiers are unlikely to track him down. He probably could hold out indefinitely, and perhaps eventually disappear."

Nothing troubles Pfaff more than the breakdown in transatlantic relations and what he sees as the neoconservatives' ham-handed attempt to divide Europe. He defends German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who decried President Bush's plans for war during his reelection campaign in fall 2002: "Washington drove the Germans ... into the arms of the French." He would like to see a united Europe, led by France and Germany, which might offer more than token resistance to U.S. aims.

For Pfaff, few words are more contemptible than "neoconservative." To him, it represents all that has been and remains wrong with U.S. foreign policy: the impulse to crusade abroad on behalf of freedom, no matter how insalubrious the prospects for liberal democracy. "Advocates of American empire are usually seduced by the notion that Washington's imperial authority would be accepted as positive, and that the empire would therefore be consensual," he writes. The current morass in Iraq is precisely what Pfaff and other adversaries of neoconservatism predicted. Certainly, Bush's declaration in a November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy that "the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution" seems like a pious hope rather than firm reality. Indeed, Bush administration officials, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, have retreated from talk of creating democracy and instead embrace the idea of a stable Iraqi regime, and Iraqi leaders gave themselves the power to impose martial law after the June 28 transfer of power. Unfortunately, Pfaff's disdain for neoconservatives is so palpable that he never offers much beyond a caricature.

Pfaff's criticisms may be acidulous, but his remedy is less than persuasive. He makes much of the realist tradition in U.S. foreign policy, whose champions include columnist Walter Lippmann, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and diplomat-historian George F. Kennan. That tradition shuns overt moralism, shrinks from such terms as "good" and "evil" and maintains that true statesmen should, as far as possible, define their nation's interests quite narrowly. Kennan may have been the author of the anti-communist containment doctrine, but he soon disowned it. He has warned against a Manichean conception of international affairs, beginning with the truculent stance of former secretary of State John Foster Dulles down to George W. Bush & Co.

The results of realist thinking, however, have not always been happy. One secretary of State who adhered strictly to this conception of foreign affairs was Henry Kissinger. He venerated great power politics and scorned human rights concerns. The first Bush administration displayed a similar proclivity for realist tenets in refusing to intervene in the Balkans to stop the depredations of Slobodan Milosevic's marauding Serbs and allowing Saddam Hussein, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, to slaughter the Kurds and Shiites.

Pfaff, however, believes that utopianism "permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike." He is as much an enemy of traditional democratic universalism as of crusading conservatism. He chastises former President Clinton for intervening abroad and calls upon the nation's leaders to abandon the delusion that the country can serve as a model for the world. Essentially, he would have the United States behave like a chastened power that acknowledges the limits of its military capabilities and tries to muddle through, while a revitalized Europe checks any incipient U.S. megalomania.

If the United States were a declining power, Pfaff's prescriptions might make sense. But it isn't, and they don't. France can't field an aircraft carrier. Germany faces a crushing welfare burden as its population ages. The United States may have tested the limits of its power in Iraq, but it suffers from few of Europe's ailments.

Pfaff would like a united Europe, led by France, to regain great power status. You might say that Pfaff, whose reflections carry a distinct whiff of hauteur, has gone native. The State Department has a sensible policy of rotating its foreign service officers every few years to avoid precisely this danger. A stateside stint might do him good. After all these decades in Paris, his reflections are the product of an era of faded glory. And the notion that Europe can, or will, act as a check on the United States is a pipe dream.

Nor would Democrat John Kerry or a second-term Bush administration be well advised to adopt realist tenets. It is not clear that realism is always realistic. The United States faces threats from abroad that it can't afford to ignore. What's more, promoting human rights has not only been a worthy goal in itself; it also has helped create more stable governments in the Philippines and elsewhere. To substitute a new set of illusions about foreign affairs would compound the difficulties confronting the United States. Pfaff has perceptively chronicled the follies on the road to Iraq only to counsel a dangerous amoralism in their stead. *

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