Here’s Ezra attacking Anne-Marie Slaughter’s latest book:
Save for the introduction and the conclusion, each chapter is devoted to the explication and application of a particular American value. Liberty leads off, followed by democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith. “These values,” Slaughter writes, “are not abstract concepts.” Oh, but they are!
To convince the country that we need a foreign policy that serves those concepts is to cede the ground to those with the most compellingly idealistic narrative. Those concepts do not, themselves, suggest a foreign policy.
I’ll grant this. Both Kosovo and Iraq had idealistic causes behind them, and the results were wildly different. But this isn’t a criticism that’s specific to idealism; it works equally well as a critique of realism. Both Henry Kissinger and James Baker worked from realist impulses, and yet while one got Nixon to bomb Cambodia and Laos and in other ways further entrench itself in an unwinnable war, the other was a model of responsible, multilateral war-planning and handed the US its greatest military victory since World War II.
The larger point is that competence, not ideology, is the greatest determinant of a policy’s success. I mean competence not in terms of executing a policy, but also in determining which policies would best further one’s ideological goals. Kosovo and the first Gulf War were competent foreign policy decisions; ordering air strikes in Serbia and using a large international force to expell Saddam from Kuwait were policies which were very likely to succeed, and which successfully furthered the ideological goals of both Albright (ending the slaugher of the Kosovars) and Baker (furthering American interests in the Middle East). Comparatively, the Cambodian air strikes and the invasion of Iraq were bound to fail and did not further the ideological goals of Kissinger (serving the US national interest in Indochina) and Bush (spreading democracy in the Middle East). The problem isn’t with the use of ideals; the problem comes when one fails to actually serve them.
Perhaps Ezra has a point in his call later in the piece for a consequences-based foreign policy. But given as the success or failure of specific foreign policies is mostly a question of whether or not they furthered the ideological goals of the people proposing them, it seems counter-productive to banish idealism, a significant foreign policy ideology, from the table.