The New York Times Book Review | October 7, 2011
Years ago Irving Kristol, the prime mover of American neoconservatism, said to me, in typical aphoristic style: “The orthodox are always right.” What he meant, I think, is that the enduring truths of traditionalism may at times be hard to grasp, but they endure for a reason. In foreign policy, it is realists who are, in Kristol’s sense, always right.
Despite getting terrible press and having more or less no explicit defenders on the American political scene today (prediction: not one Republican presidential candidate will embrace the term “realist”), realism remains the indispensable foreign-policy doctrine — or, really, attitude, since it is not doctrinaire. Without it, nothing else works. Yet Kristol’s younger neoconservative successors, baby boomers who proved susceptible to their generation’s narcissistic radicalism, have driven the approach that succeeded so well for Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush from its traditional home on the American right. Like some unrestful soul, it wanders in search of a new corpus. Alan Wolfe’s intelligent and often brave new book, “Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It,” is the latest sign that realism is finding fresh support on the left, or at least on the center-left.
Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College and the author, most recently, of “The Future of Liberalism,” may be annoyed to be called a realist. In “Political Evil,” he dismisses classic realism as the amoral pursuit of national power. Ick. What liberal could admire that?
A better way to think of realism, however, is as a theory about where peace comes from. American hawks and neocons believe that peace comes from robust projection of national power; doves, that it comes from multilateral cooperation and international law. Realists see American power and multilateral cooperation as important, but they think peace comes primarily from something else: equilibrium. Power, they believe, has its own complex hydraulics. Like the fluid it is, it finds its own level. A stable equilibrium is not to be taken for granted, and perfectionists who try to rearrange one will rarely get the results they intend. You don’t need to admire power, but you must always, however grudgingly, respect and understand it.
Another word for what I call the hydraulics of power is: politics. Cue “Political Evil.”
The word “evil” is foreign to realism, which looks with suspicion upon moralizing rhetoric. But the more important word in Wolfe’s title is “political.” Individual wickedness and criminality are deplorable, Wolfe argues, but political evil is many orders of magnitude more dangerous: “Organized into a movement or state and motivated by a cause that gives them passion and purpose, practitioners of political evil are capable of carrying out violence on levels that far surpass those realizable by any lone individual.”
Fortunately, horrible as it is, political evil responds to political imperatives. “Politics is, and always will be, the best means of dealing with it,” Wolfe writes. “When confronted with political evil, we are better off responding to the ‘political’ rather than to the ‘evil.’ ” Coping with political evil, then, requires thinking like a politician, not a missionary or a soldier or a lawyer; it requires a savvy assessment of the facts on the ground and a willingness to deal with them — quite literally, since unsavory deals are in the very nature of politics.
Viewing large-scale evil through the lens of political realism requires ideologues to get off their soapboxes and retire cherished shibboleths. For example: Bury Hitler; then bury the shovel. Hitler’s imperialistic totalitarianism flowed from a confluence of politics and technology that was unique to his time and will never be repeated. “No leader on the world stage today could ever create a political system as brutal and as expansionist as those that were fashioned by Hitler, Stalin and their henchmen,” Wolfe writes. “The military, economic, political and cultural conditions of the contemporary world would not permit it. Appeasement cannot happen again because there is nothing like totalitarianism left to appease.” The next time some neocon, demanding whatever military intervention neocons are demanding that day, invokes Hitler or Munich or appeasement, lock up your silver.
The left will like Wolfe’s critical and, to my mind, unsympathetic and unsophisticated treatment of George W. Bush’s war on terror and Israel’s war in Gaza, but it will not like so much where he goes with it. Yes, he says, Bush’s waterboarding and Israel’s blockade amounted to abhorrent torture and illicit collective punishment; but the answer is not to drag either Bush or the Israelis before a war-crimes tribunal. For all its flaws, national politics, not international law, is the best way to hold miscreants to account: “Liberal democracies have their own means of holding leaders accountable. They are called elections.” Progressives who dream of seeing Dick Cheney in the dock will gnash their teeth at the notion that politics is the solution, not the problem, but Wolfe is right: “The citizens of any particular country must be assigned the primary responsibility for judging their own leaders. The potential for abuse is simply too great when judges wander across national borders.”
And a word to both neocons and humanitarians: enough with the hysteria about genocide. Genocide is “the great political evil of our era,” but it is rare. Crying “Genocide!” to dramatize every sort of mass violence dulls the world’s moral imagination instead of arousing its conscience, and often ensures that intervention will take inappropriate and counterproductive forms. Humanitarians’ campaign to repackage a civil war in Darfur as a genocide prolonged the violence and made it harder to win the government’s cooperation in delivering aid. “The Case Against Dramatizing Genocide,” as one of Wolfe’s chapters is audaciously named, will not go down well with the human-rights crowd, but it needed to be said.
Oh, and ethnic cleansing. Yes, it is bad. No, it is not as bad as genocide. And it is often driven by legitimate aspirations to nationhood and self-determination, not necessarily by pathological hatred. To make this distinction is not to excuse ethnic cleansing, only to understand it: after all, America has some ugly ethnic cleansing in its own past (ask a Cherokee). Rushing to judge one side as monster and the other as victim, as in the former Yugoslavia, often just inflames the situation; better to be a dispassionate broker and try to ameliorate the underlying conflict.
Throughout, Wolfe’s overarching theme is as unpopular as it is important: doing politics, or doing it well, means giving the Devil his due. It means compromising on matters of principle when the alternatives are worse, and substituting reality checks for morality plays. It means remembering that bills of indictment and denunciations of appeasement and other forms of grandstanding often do more harm than good.
In his concluding pages, Wolfe takes pains to distance himself from the “cynical” realism of “Kissinger and his epigones,” but he goes on to say “ethical realism can work.” If it helps liberals to avoid the R-word while accepting the worldview, fine. Whatever you label Wolfe’s argument in “Political Evil,” it is timely, valuable and refreshingly adult. And, let us hope, it is a sign (Amitai Etzioni’s bracing 2007 book “Security First” is another) that the American left is developing wisdom and a governing sensibility, even as the right gives itself over to juvenile radicalism.