While more prominent among the American public as a sentiment and among thought leaders as a theory in the years since the Iraq War went bad, realism continues to sputter and pale in comparison to the daily grind of the Washington foreign policy machine. The realist camp lacks a unified and organized battle plan that it and the country desperately need.
Why is it so critical that realists start winning more regularly at this current time? Every election cycle, politicians and pundits state that America is at a crossroads. More often than not, that is just political rhetoric. However, when it comes to foreign policy, America truly is at a crossroads. It can choose a realist and more restrained foreign policy that protects the nation and its most cherished asset – freedom. It is freedom that made us into the great power that we are today, not a fleet or an army. As the founding fathers knew all too well, perpetual conflict is the enemy of freedom. The second choice is for America to continue on the current path, a path of constant conflict and activism leading to conflict. As the last ten years have clearly shown, this path will only make the United States weaker, less secure, and imperil our freedom. The challenge is that the backers of the current path, while having lost some recent battles, are still in charge and America is potentially only one big foreign policy mistake away from major damage, the kind of damage that would permanently weaken America and all that it holds dear. (The dream for much of the current foreign policy establishment would be a repeat of Iraq, but with Iran and that would absolutely qualify as the kind of event that would produce major and potentially fatal damage to America as we know it. That is why I often refer to the dynamics of that particular example in the text below.)
From some of the President’s closest advisors, to Donald Trump, to Bernie Sanders, and to some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors, there is a realization that current establishment US foreign policy is an uncontrollable mass with a mind of its own and few of the American voters’ interests at heart. The one thing the American taxpayer can count on is that current policy will be aggressive and subsequently, it will be costly. However, there is little to show for the expenditure. If anything, many of the establishment experts who led us into Iraq, Libya, and Syria and would love to do the same with Iran, have arguably made the US less safe, along with weakening the freedoms their actions claim to defend.
So why, even with these seemingly obvious and massive failures do the same experts and think tanks keep coming back time and time again to craft and guide US foreign policy? Normally under such failing circumstances, one would go bankrupt or never be hired again, but in government, the grand coalition of Liberal Internationalists and Neoconservatives that guide foreign policy keep winning again and again. They are great at getting a seat at the table of influence and terrible at actually governing and representing the interests of the American public and of freedom at large.
And why is it that the realist camp, far more in line with the current mood of the American people as well as the principles that this country was founded upon, cannot seem to effectively influence and affect outcomes in the same way that the establishment can?
The divergence in the success of the Liberal Internationalist – Neoconservative camp (let’s call it LIN for short) vs. the shortcoming of the realist camp can be explained with three concrete points:
1) Unity and Organization
LIN significantly outperforms the realists on the preceding three points. Let us go further into detail.
Unity and Organization: One of the primary reasons that the LIN establishment is so successful at getting its message out and making its vision a reality is because it is united and organized.
It is extensively networked. The LIN community works in unison through a myriad number of think tanks, working groups, and donor hosted events and forums. Many of the top leaders from these groups often find their way into high government, media, and even business positions. The channels also work the other way. This creates an environment where any foreign policy views outside the socially acceptable parameters, are rendered unacceptable. People who hold outsider views are considered to be, “outside the mainstream,” and, “kind of a loose cannon,” or, “don’t understand that we live in a complex world.” Part of this is a natural and unintentional result of having views different from the accepted norm and part of this is intentional intimidation.
The unity and organization that the LIN foreign policy community possesses also allows for continuous message reinforcement. A policy group self – labeled as, “expert,” will come up with a given policy message that will be given credence as an acceptable view on a Sunday morning talk show, often featuring, “experts,” from other similar policy groups. This type of message reinforcement starts with policy groups, think thanks, and PAC’s and then filters into media, Congress, civil government service, and even into elite business circles; creating a powerful messaging machine. Additionally, many LIN foreign policy organizations offer extensive training and education opportunities, thus ensuring that the next wave of policy makers, journalists, business leaders, civil servants, military leaders, and even students are groomed to carry the message forward.
A great strength of the LIN foreign policy community is that it is united regardless of other political opinions that might divide it. For example, Alan Dershowitz is in lock step with Dick Cheney and Christians United for Israel, even though Alan Dershowitz is a liberal who teaches at Harvard, Dick Cheney is Republican, and Christians United for Israel are social conservatives who have absolutely nothing else in common with Dershowitz’s economics and social opinions. Doesn’t matter. When it comes to foreign policy all three work together in perfect unison to get the message out and make their vision a reality. Additionally, all three can reach widely different demographics with the same message.
In contrast, realists are not nearly as united. Are progressive liberals who are wary of an overly aggressive foreign policy aware that there are powerful elements on the right also looking for a more realist foreign policy alternative? Are libertarian and realist leaning conservative groups willing to see how they can work with an influential group like J – Street, whose members probably have little in common with them in domestic politics, but are often quite close in foreign policy, even though they articulate their views differently? Are these groups, representing diverse sections of society, meeting and organizing together to understand how to speak with one effective voice? There is not much evidence to suggest it, and if a more realist foreign policy is to become a reality, it needs to happen.
Messaging: It is not just the lack of a unified and organized voice in the realist camp that hurts their ability to deliver their message effectively, but also how that message is delivered. In comparison with LIN, it is weak. Realists appear more genteel. They do not confront the aggressive LIN messaging machine; one that seeks to marginalize opposing views with insinuations that not toeing the establishment line is tantamount to being less American and less rational. It is never explicitly said, but the insinuations are always there.
And that is one of the successes of LIN. They have done an excellent job of ingratiating themselves with the more visibly patriotic side of America, even though there are certainly a number of people in this demographic who would likely disagree with and be suspicious of LIN if the realist opposition better explained and presented itself as being truly, “Pro – America.” (Indeed, that suspicion has contributed to Donald Trump and Bernie Sander’s appeal, but it may not be a great idea to default to populism to fix what ails the country, whether in foreign policy or other matters) Realists should not be afraid to cast themselves as, “Pro – America,” because it will ultimately it will be much easier to defend their position than it will be for the current establishment foreign policy community. The key is to use that rhetoric and symbolism in a way that is tough and inspires respect, but without giving into emotional tirades. Americans respect that.
Action: Realists on both sides of the aisle have held discussions, forums, and have written letters and books. Now it is time to engage in much more concrete and aggressive action, the kind that is all – encompassing and the kind that leads to constant pounding on a Congressmen’s office door. They have to feel the pressure and get the rewards, much the same way that they feel the pressure and get the rewards from the LIN establishment. Here are some direct steps that can be taken.
Get the Donors Involved: LIN’s arguably greatest strength is their organized financial and related lobbying power. They are able to bring millions to bear for and against candidates who will support their agendas or not. The realist opposition is not as aggressive and united and thus not as capable in its ability to direct resources to affect political outcomes.
This has to change. Donors have to get involved. The challenge is that it is simply harder for realists.
LIN donors are far more involved in trying to affect foreign policy because they are more interested in having the US be involved in specific places throughout the world, while realists tend not to have specific foreign policy agendas other than the basic protection of the US and its interests. In a rational environment one would not imagine that he or she would have to be very active in ensuring that the US government provides a default foreign policy position as that. The problem is that LIN actively uses US foreign policy to engage in actions that are not the basic protection of the US and its interests and in fact, harm that basic goal. The case has to be made to the donor class that the harm that the LIN establishment inflicts upon the interests of the US is one of the greatest threats facing the country. Without negating LIN establishment policy, the US cannot fulfill its basic duty of protection or the freedom that made it so dynamic and competitive in the first place.
The, “in crowd,” among the press, politicians, and donors,” is dominated by the LIN foreign policy line of thought to varying degrees. The opposition is associated and painted as a bit kooky and juvenile; college kids smoking pot in their dorm rooms. Big donors and C- Suite level execs do not want these types of associations. They want to appear to be responsible and part of serious conversations. This means that a united and effective opposition will have to get away from, “conspiracy minded,” organizers. Suits and ties required, get a haircut, etc. No crazy statements about CIA funded drug dealers working with oil companies. It is not that realists generally think like this, but the greater realist tent, usually far to the left or far to the right has historically been susceptible to a certain amount of tin foil hat politics. The good news is that the opposition holds the winning argument for big donors: current LIN foreign policy and constant conflict are bad for business and bad for debt.
Take the Hill: When was the last time anyone heard about an army of lobbyists descending upon the hill to push for realist foreign policy? Not often, but you have frequently heard of it with LIN. They are always there and when it comes to pivotal moments the LIN lobbyists are in place and in force, ready to deploy and let Congress know how important their point of view is to American security.
Unlike LIN, realists can effectively marshal large numbers of voters to back them because public sentiment is more likely to be on their side. For that to happen though, the foreign policy debate will have to be brought out into the open for all to see, which is exactly what the LIN establishment does not want. The more Americans are in the dark, the better for LIN. The more light is shed, the better the outcome for realists.
Educate: In order to offer an alternative to the LIN foreign policy message, the narrative has to change. Regime change, air strikes, and sanctions cannot always equal American power and freedom. It should seldom be that. People have to know that there is major difference between ISIS and Iran and Al – Qaeda and Hezbollah. It is exactly the details and nuances that the establishment likes to keep muddled. (This is why much of LIN pushes for the term, “radical Islam.” It is all – encompassing and insures the need for permanent US military action.)
This means getting as much of the public and the media on board as possible: education on college campuses, outreach by think tanks, outreach by major political personalities, donor hosted events and forums, etc. It also means pushing to get the right people in the right positions, whether in government or in the non – profit/lobbying sector. It means reaching out to sympathetic media personalities and writers. They are out there, but they do not have a unified front to work with. It is important that opposition to LIN foreign policy not be seen solely as a progressive or a kooky libertarian position, but rather also as a pro America, pro – defense, and pro – business objective and belief. This is part of the unity and organization – good education and message reinforcement flow because of it.
Challenge Untruths and Misinformation: The LIN establishment are the self – anointed and media reinforced gurus of foreign policy, yet much of what they decree and report is visibly untrue to even the most casual observer. Simply reading mainstream news sources in other countries routinely prove that LIN lives in their own fantasy world. The whole country saw how wrong they were with Iraq and Libya and it is quite obvious to many Americans today that deposing the Assad regime or any other regime could easily lead to something much more dangerous, but not so for LIN experts. LIN simply follows the credo that if you repeat a lie enough, from upon high enough, people will believe it. Untruths and misinformation have to be challenged every time they are pushed forward, lest those statements become accepted truths.
Challenge Intimidation: Aside from having the advantage of being the accepted establishment and the ability to encourage conformity, LIN does not hesitate to use intimidation, derision, and marginalization of opposing views when the natural instinct to conform is not enough. Terms like, “weak on national security, coddling dictators,” etc. are reflexively used without any challenge as to what they really mean when describing a given policy. People seeking a more realist foreign policy cannot hesitate to openly denounce such attempts at intimidation. Not only must such attempts be called out, but a forceful explanation of why the current LIN view is wrong must be given. Emphasize the facts because the realists have them in their camp.
Star Power: Get big names to sign on and support what is being done to counter LIN foreign policy. This means former members of Congress, current members of Congress, former prominent members of the defense, diplomatic, and intelligence establishment. They are out there and they are disaffected, but today they are drowned out by the efficient organization of the LIN establishment. Give these big name opponents some teeth.
Bring in the Troops:The LIN establishment shamelessly uses the troops as props to support their policies, even though their policies have cost the lives of thousands of American troops and maimed tens of thousands more, and the sad truth is that it was not worth it. A majority of Americans agree and the evidence bears out their views. Additionally, active duty troops and veterans are likely to be in opposition to spilling blood for reasons other than the defense of America: In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, Ron Paul received more campaign donations among active duty troops and veterans than any other candidate. Guess who was number 2? President Barack Obama. Let that sink in because it is not what LIN supported media outlets would have the public believe. (and when it comes to media outlets – it is almost all of them) All the other candidates that unquestionably supported LIN policies were behind Paul and Obama.
Realist policy is Pro –Israel: just not pro – Likud. When all else fails, some members of the LIN establishment fall back on the defense that any idea not up to their standard of intervention and aggression is not Pro – Israel. This is particularly true of the, “N,” part of LIN – the Neoconservatives. This is also patently false and often a cheap attempt at intimidation. First, large numbers of American Jews support a more realist and peaceful foreign policy, in large part because they are interested in Israel’s preservation and security. That includes some fairly powerful lobbying groups. J- Street in particular might be largely responsible for one of the greatest realist foreign policy advances in recent memory: the nuclear deal with Iran. Additionally, there are several prominent current and former members of the defense establishment in Israel who strongly disagree with the Likhud/Neoconservative view on what constitutes a threat and the need for the use of force in the Middle East. Dissatisfaction with establishment policies is beginning to show itself in both countries. Right now would be a good time to take advantage of that. Realists should seek to understand how they can work in a constructive manner with realists in the Pro – Israel camp here in the US and in Israel. After all, the two countries are strong allies and they are both quite cognizant of each other when it comes to foreign policy cues.
Knowing that there is a problem is only half the battle. More challenging is changing the establishment LIN paradigm. It is entrenched and organized to make itself the only acceptable foreign policy available. Yet, it does not serve American interests. It harms them.
Some readers, especially those within the current LIN foreign policy establishment, would be quick to say that President Obama’s tenure has been decidedly anti – establishment, but that would be overstating the case. President Obama has undoubtedly tried to steer the US away from some of its foreign policy orthodoxy and dogma. However, he has often done it from a point of leadership weakness, thereby giving observers the impression of a somewhat rudderless stance. Many initiatives look half – hearted. Even though his heart and mind have been in the right place at times, his decisions often lack forcefulness and direction. Additionally, even he still feels pressure from the establishment. Why go in to Libya or get involved in Syria after removing troops from Iraq? It does not make sense. Libya and Syria almost appear to be appeasement of LIN for what he did in Iraq and with Iran; a symbolic show of perceived toughness to satisfy the machine, yet the consequences of his decisions were sadly predictable: America is in a worse position security wise today than it was before those decisions.
What is important is that if change is to come to the Washington foreign policy establishment it cannot be confused with isolationism or even worse, bigotry. The LIN establishment would like nothing more, and indeed already does its best to portray anything other than their own views as isolationist and possibly even bigoted. Some of the guttural populism of this current election season has made their case easier. Populism and mob mentality is not realism, but rather cheap emotional reaction. It will not serve the cause of the realists or the United States well.
Finally, one politician cannot change the foreign policy establishment into something that better serves the American people. The machine itself has to be re – programmed. That starts by matching the intensity of LIN with unity, messaging, and tangible action.