Tuesday, November 14, 2006

My Reality Is Actual and Objective; Yours Is ... Not

The other day, I read a fascinating post by Gaius over at Blue Crab Boulevard on the subject of reality. According to Gaius there is an "actual, objective reality [that] exists in the world." In the specific context of international affairs, "actual, objective reality" means that war is the only realistic choice to resolve the problem of terrorism; negotiation and compromise are completely unrealistic, unworkable choices, because they contradict the neutral and objective reality of the reality in the world:

The fact is, that we have "realists" suddenly ascendant in Washington. The problem is that their reality bears no resemblance to actual, objective reality as it exists in the world. We cannot negotiate with the countries that are leading this conquest. That reality gives them a victory that will only lead to more and more demands.

It's difficult to know whether Gaius means "unreasonable demands," or whether he thinks that any demand, coming from a country the U.S. considers an enemy, is by definition unreasonable.

Either way, Gaius might be surprised to learn that there are others who also see an actual, objective reality in the Middle East right now, but draw very different conclusions as to how that actual, objective reality should inform U.S. foreign policy. Spiegel Online recently interviewed one such:

SPIEGEL: Almost five years ago Bush grouped Iraq, North Korea and Iran together in the now-notorious "Axis of Evil." Now the US is faced with considerable crises in all three countries. What to do?

Haass: We have allowed ourselves to get into three very difficult situations. As the United States has learned to its great cost in Iraq, military force is no panacea. Any option that would be heavily reliant on the Army is not a realistic option, because the only Army we have is busy right now.

SPIEGEL: But diplomacy is still an underused tool.

Haass: In the case of Iran and North Korea, I would be willing to have the United States engage in diplomacy directly with them, essentially offering them whatever mix of political and economic and security benefits in exchange for demanding a package of behavior changes. We need to get away from the idea that diplomatic interaction is a value judgment. History suggests that isolation reinforces hardliners.

SPIEGEL: But it seems as if the Bush administration is still debating whether regime change or diplomacy is the best way to deal with them.

Haass: For quite a few years, there was very little diplomacy, and the emphasis was on regime change which, in my view, was never going to happen. Now you are seeing a bit more diplomacy, but not as much as I would like there to be. I'm not sitting here confident that diplomacy will work, but I think it is worth trying, simply because the alternatives are not terribly attractive. Diplomacy may work; if not, we should demonstrate that we did everything possible to reach a fair and reasonable diplomatic outcome and we couldn't, not because of our policy, but because of theirs. The Bush administration will learn that that puts them in a better position to manage the domestic and international politics of escalation.

SPIEGEL: You just invited Iran's President Ahmadinejad for a discussion in New York. Did you get the impression that he is interested in any kind of deal?

Haass: There was very little, if anything, in that two-hour meeting that was reassuring about his interest in finding any common ground on reasonable terms with the United States. His tactic is to answer questions with questions. At one point, someone raised questions about Iran's internal situation, democracy and human rights, and within 30 seconds, he was talking about what he saw as the imperfections of American democracy. His argument was that Iran was more democratic because it had more candidates for president than the United States.

SPIEGEL: The Israeli ambassador criticized you heavily, saying this was worse then inviting Adolf Hitler for talks.

Haass: I disagree. Meeting with somebody like Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn't mean we approve or endorse him. It's nothing else than accepting that he is the President of Iran and in that position, he matters.
Haass: The old Middle East -- an era which I believe has only recently ended -- was one in which the United States enjoyed tremendous dominance and freedom of maneuver. Oil was available at fairly low prices, the region was largely at peace. I believe largely because of the American decision to go to war in Iraq and how it has been carried out, as well as the emphasis on promoting democracy and a lack of any serious energy policy, the Middle East has considerably grown worse. It's one of history's ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.

SPIEGEL: So what will become of the region?

Haass: Visions of a new Middle East that is peaceful, prosperous and democratic will not be realized. Much more likely is the emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself and the world. Iran will be a powerful state in the region, a classical imperial power. No viable peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is likely for the foreseeable future. Militias will emerge throughout the region, terrorism will grow in sophistication, tensions between Sunni and Shia will increase, causing problems in countries with divided societies, such as Bahrain, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Islam will fill the political and intellectual vacuum. Iraq at best will remain messy for years to come, with a weak central government, a divided society and sectarian violence. At worst, it will become a failed state racked by all-out civil war that will draw in its neighbors.

SPIEGEL: How long will this dangerous period last?

Haass: I don't know if this will last for five or 50 years, but it's going to be an incredibly difficult era. Together with managing a dynamic Asia it will be the primary challenge for US foreign policy.

SPIEGEL: But the Bush administration still seems hopeful, seeing in all this violence only the "birth pangs" of this wonderful New Middle East.

Haass: I hope that they are right. I would love to see them right and me wrong. But I'm afraid they are not.

SPIEGEL: Is Iraq still winnable for the United States?

Haass: We've reached a point in Iraq where we've got to get real. And this is not going to be a near-term success for American foreign policy. The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word "winnable." So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That's what you have to do sometimes when you're a global power.

Perhaps "actual, objective reality as it exists in the world" changes depending on what you can see from where you are standing in the world.

Or is that horribly morally relativistic?

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