The vision thing

Editorial Notebook

November 11, 2006|By Will Englund

It's hard to believe it has only been two years since a Bush administration official was mocking "the reality-based community" to the writer Ron Suskind. Since then, there has been a lot of reality - most of it in Iraq, and none of it pretty - and this week it finally caught up with Washington. In comes Robert M. Gates, the president's nominee as defense secretary, to put the stamp of the Republican Party's realist wing on U.S. policy in Iraq.

It's a big retreat from idealism, or at least the idealism that marked the Bush administration's hopes to remake the Middle East. It's not, incidentally, the first swing of that pendulum in American history, and the people with the stars in their eyes haven't always been wrong. It's just that on the question of Iraq, they were.

Today, Veterans Day, it's worth pointing out that American soldiers who were sent to Iraq in pursuit of an ideal haven't been living and fighting in an ideal world; death and dismemberment are very much reality-based.

Mr. Gates is one of a group of advisers to the first President Bush who believe the United States should deal with the world as it exists and not be tempted by noble dreams or wishful thinking. They recoiled at the idea of invading Iraq in 2003 (or in 1991, at the end of Desert Storm). Being a realist in the Gates mold is about what's doable, by the way; it's not about right or wrong. Mr. Gates and other realists had a hand in the war of the American-backed contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which many felt was improper - but they didn't get the U.S. bogged down there, and nowhere near as many people died as in Iraq. The war ended with finality when the Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, was ousted in a free election. Now Mr. Ortega has come back, too, winning an election this week; it's a pretty safe bet Mr. Gates can live with that, because he has other fish to fry. He's a realist.

But here's another safe bet: Idealism will raise its head again, and if Americans are lucky, it will be at the right time and in the right place. The American urge to do good deeds never really goes away. World War I was launched by "realists" in Europe; it ended with Woodrow Wilson vowing to make the world safe for democracy and promoting an ideal of self-determination that still causes trouble in places like the Balkans. Nearly 5 million Americans were called to war in that cause, and 53,000 of them were killed. It was a desire to honor their service that led to the creation of today's holiday, which falls on the 88th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting.

Wilsonianism tends to get a bad press these days. But there are times when doing the right thing is, in fact, the smart thing; the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe following World War II is a shining example of that. So is the Peace Corps.

And every once in a while there is a moment that demands to be seized, and realism comes up lacking. When Mr. Gates was head of the National Security Council, his boss, President George H. W. Bush, went to Ukraine to give a speech. It was in early August 1991, and the president warned his audience that it would be foolish to consider breaking free from the Soviet Union. The American realists felt comfortable dealing with the Soviet leadership; as it turned out, they were among its very last defenders.

A few weeks later, the country cracked apart in a failed coup, and Ukraine placidly went its own way. That spectacular inability to realize that the end of European communism was at hand, and that the region's democrats were looking for inspiration and support, not restraint, led the columnist William Safire to dub Mr. Bush's address the "chicken Kiev" speech.

Africa, to pick a contemporary example, could do with a little less American indifference and a little more of what the elder Mr. Bush once disparaged as "the vision thing." But Iraq is not Africa, nor is it the Ukraine of 15 years ago. Getting out of Iraq doesn't require visionary zeal; this is a place that requires a healthy and long-overdue dose of sober realism. The idea is not to create a new reality, but to make the best of the one that's actually there.

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