Pragmatic Idealism


Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; drones flying over Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen Pakistan, special ops assassins in 70 countries; aid to Israel, Turkey, Columbia, Pakistan  and over 700 bases around the world.  All these actions are a result of policies conceived in the U.S. foreign policy and defense communities based on specific objectives and created on the basis of foreign policy axioms which have guided it at least since World War II.  These axioms, which are euphemistically defined as an applied practical approach to foreign policy decisions based on whether policy solves the problem rather than on what is legal, ethical or moral, are rarely discussed in public discourse.

These axioms are the key to understanding an American foreign policy that regularly violates international law such as the Geneva Conventions, Convention on Torture, Genocide Convention, the Inhumane Weapons Convention and the UN Charter and to questioning the rationalizations and normalizations of these violations.

This pragmatic approach is grounded in a long history of intellectual deliberations emanating from the works of William James, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau and Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr.  According to William James: “Ideals are an imaginative understanding of that which is desirable in that which is possible”.  Similarly, Niebuhr wrote that “The task of world organization must be attempted from the standpoint of historical realism.  The conclusion could be justified by the simple fact that no historical process has ever, even remotely, conformed to the pattern which the idealists have mapped out for it.”  In other words, foreign policy must temper idealistic sentiments with pragmatic or realistic considerations.  One implication of a politically realistic philosophy is the dismissal of human rights and international law as absolutes which shouldn’t necessarily interfere with foreign policy decisions whose objectives are to protect American interests.

James Baker, Chief of Staff in the Reagan George H. W. Bush’s administrations and Under Secretary of Commerce under President Ford succinctly elucidated the philosophy of political realism in 2007 when he stated that: “The principles that guide American foreign policy during the coming years will determine how successful the United States will be as it addresses the complex global challenges that confront us.  A foreign policy simply rooted in values without a reasonable rationale of concrete interests will not succeed.”

There is an expansive dichotomy between the essence of the ideas espoused by these men and the actual application of their principles in practice by foreign-policy decision-makers.  According to the philosophy of “political realism”, values including human rights and international law must be sacrificed to “concrete interests” in the name of “political realism”.

One critical flaw in this philosophy is that human rights and international law are indivisible and compromising them in the interests of some ostensibly higher cause renders them meaningless.

Another critical flaw is characterized by the so-called “concrete interest” which in almost all cases is an action to serve exclusively American interests by violating human rights or international law.  “Military humanism” was nothing more than a euphemism rationalizing actions that were, in fact, war crimes, such as the bombing of Serbia.

For example, President Carter stated in an address to Notre Dame in 1977 that: “I believe that we have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values and that was [the] power and influence which we have for humane purposes.”

On the other hand, Carter supported brutal dictators such as the generals in Argentina and Brazil, Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu in the Congo, and Somoza in Nicaragua whom he protected from the Sandinistas and General Suharto in Indonesia whom he rearmed when more weapons were needed to slaughter more East Timorese.

Where were the ideals in his support of General Suharto who was committing genocide in East Timor?  The pragmatic arguments centered on the abundance of oil off the southern coast of East Timor and the deep water passages in Timorese waters that were suitable for travel by American nuclear-armed submarines.

By supplying weapons to General Suharto who was committing genocide against the Timorese, Carter was complicit in that genocide.  Complicity in Article III of the Convention can include supplying arms, advice, training, intelligence or any direct military support.

Supporting the aforementioned brutal, corrupt dictators served no “concrete interest” other than to maintain American-friendly governments in power.  In many cases such as Mobutu and Pinochet, democratically-elected governments were overthrown in the name of pragmatic idealism.

President Clinton described the bombing of Serbia as a humanitarian intervention and propagated a number of myths to create the illusion of bombing a country in the service of lofty objectives.  For example, the myth about the Bosnian prisoner behind barbed wire in a concentration camp, photographed by British journalists, was completely fabricated but rallied public opinion behind the humanitarian cause.

Targets in Serbia, notwithstanding the propaganda, included towns, schools, hospitals, factories manufacturing non-military products, utilities needed by the Serbian people to survive and shockingly, rescue workers who were attending to the wounded.

President Obama revealed his foreign policy philosophy when he won the same Nobel Prize as Henry Kissinger and in his speech disclosed that: “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason”.  His words could have been written by Reinhold Niebuhr whom Obama proudly admits is his favorite philosopher.

Obviously, for President Obama, concrete interests embrace assassinations by special-ops forces, assassinations by drones, torture and sending more troops to Afghanistan to ensure the death of more Americans and Afghanis.

To understand the permanent framework in which foreign and defense policy operate requires a familiarity with the philosophy of “pragmatic idealism” that offers the luxury of rationalization and the reduction of cognitive dissonance.

DAVID MODEL teaches at Seneca College in Ontario. He is the author of State of Darkness: US Complicity in Genocide Since 1945, Lying for Empire: How to Commit War Crimes with a Straight Face, People Before Profits: Reversing the Corporate Agenda, and Corporate Rule: Understanding and Challenging the New World Order. He has just completed his fifth book Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death. He can be reached at: David.Model@senecac.on.ca

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