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Letter from the Editor: Winter 2009

We are all realists now. Or so the revised wisdom has it. This new understanding, far from remaining only the property of pundits, finds blunt expression in the disdain that some of Barack Obama’s key foreign policy advisors have expressed for the “Wilsonian” coloration of recent U.S. foreign policy. Tough guys, they would like everyone to know, don’t do democracy. The point is well taken. But these are not tough guys.

They are the walking embodiments, at least to go by their own advertising, of a humane and enlightened liberalism. They are, in other words, the same people who not so long ago could be relied on to counsel the export, even the imposition, of democracy. So why do they all sound like Brent Scowcroft? According to the high-minded explanation, the war in Iraq has unearthed an old contradiction at the heart of American liberalism. This pits the ideal that no people ought to be governed without their consent against the ideal that discourages impinging on the autonomy of others. Because of Iraq, the latter notion is enjoying a vogue today, and with it the charge that democracy promotion derives from a lethal mixture of naiveté and chauvinism.

But high-minded explanations mainly account for the high-minded, which is to say they have limited explanatory power in Washington—a place where, as Leon Wieseltier once put it, a foreign policy opinion means my party’s opposition to your party’s intervention. The Republican Party’s intervention was Iraq, where George Bush’s commitment to promoting democracy began and where, as Alan Wolfe nicely chronicles in these pages, the commitment of many liberals ended. Never mind that the Bush team’s recipe for a democratic Iraq (freedom is untidy) amounted to little more than a cartoon version of democratization. Never mind, too, that many critics of democracy promotion have conscripted Iraq into a reductive logic: The Iraq War disproves everything it touches.

Historians call this sort of argument a fallacy of false extrapolation. It is likely to have serious and lasting effects. A policy can be measured by its successes, and it can be measured by its failures. When it comes to the U.S. record in promoting democratic change, the first surely outweighs the second. The world may not change easily, but because of this record it has changed. Is it really necessary to point out that, with America now muted, it could easily change back?

— Lawrence F. Kaplan

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