Given the recent uproar over this article defending the Iranian election results,* I think it’s important to distinguish between those of us who see a realistic, restrained foreign policy as the best way to promote both human dignity and American interests abroad and people who view the United States’ posture through a strictly amoral lens, with no thought to the interests and aspirations of foreign peoples.
So yes, I deplore the assertion that “[T]he Iranian government responded to the post-June 12 protests in a manner consistent with its own constitutional procedures.” Any measures responsible for killing nearly 250 people over the past 10 days cannot be justified by vague allusions to constitutional protocol. Like Freddie, I think we can acknowledge the profound gulf between our perspectives and the views of the Iranian protesters while sympathizing with their efforts and admiring their courage.
When I think of “realism,” I think of an analytical tool that encourages restraint, acknowledges other states’ legitimate interests, and generally recognizes the value of engagement while rejecting false moral equivalence. Its current usage, however, implies an amoral perspective that is only concerned with maximizing American interests. Non-interventionists and other skeptics of an expansive American role abroad have, in my view, been unfairly tarred with this brush. In fact, I think it’s more appropriate to attach the term (and all that it implies) to interventionists like National Review’s Andy McCarthy – someone who forthrightly acknowledges his lack of concern for the aspirations of Iranian demonstrators – or John Derbyshire, who coined the phrase “to hell with them hawks” to describe his fondness for no-strings-attached punitive military expeditions.
These commentators are “realists” in the sense that they believe in maximizing American interests and are generally unconcerned the interests and aspirations of foreign countries. They share a certain skepticism of expansive overseas commitments with non-interventionists, but this skepticism does not extend to any broader disenchantment with American military power. They also seem to reject international engagement or diplomacy of any kind, something that is entirely foreign to non-interventionists who favor peaceful economic and diplomatic cooperation with countries like Iran.
I’m not sure which side deserves the term “realist,” but those of us who favor peaceful engagement with oppressive regimes in the hopes of reducing regional tensions, fostering greater cooperation, and eventually inducing political change don’t deserve to be put in the same camp as narrow-minded advocates of American military power.
*As to the substance of the article, the authors may well be right about the election results. That certainly doesn’t justify the regime’s brutal response to peaceful protests, however.