Now I’m a … neorealist!

Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer profiled me in his paper the other day, and he did a decent job of it. He chose to emphasize my reputation as a democratization skeptic. As my readers know, I’ve been consistent over the years in questioning the wisdom of promoting democracy, at a time when the chief beneficiaries of every political opening have been Islamist zealots with fascist tendencies who detest America.

Yesterday, Horowitz went for a reaction to Steven Simon, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former staffer on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. Simon said about me that “he and Giuliani are made for one another”—I hope that’s true—but then added this (and here I quote the report):

“Giuliani seems to believe that the only thing the other guy understands is a boot in the face, and so he has a boot in the face foreign policy,” said Simon. He said that Kramer, a self-proclaimed democratization cynic, represented a view not uncommon amongst Israeli foreign policy experts, in that he stressed views Simon characterized as “the height of neorealism on international relations.”

Essentially, Simon said the two men viewed too much democracy promotion as counterproductive to American security interests.

“You’re just going to wind up with Hezbollah or Hamas running these countries if that gets out of hand,” Simon said, characterizing Mr. Giuliani’s and Mr. Kramer’s thinking. “On balance the only strategically sensible course is to put all this democracy stuff on the back burner and focus on what’s really important. That’s certainly a departure from the Bush view.”

From the tone of it, you might think that Simon is an idealistic supporter of democratization—not at gunpoint, of course, but as a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy. Simon, you might conclude, takes democracy promotion seriously, not as “stuff” to be shoved “on the back burner.” And without promoting democracy, what’s left? “Boot in the face.”

Well, I’ve been an avid reader of Steve Simon for a long time, so I did a double-take when I read his reaction. Is this the same Steve Simon who said this to a Congressional committee last fall?

Pursuing democratization, even assuming it was in our power to bring it about, would almost certainly result in the accession of hostile governments in the region. Whether this would defang jihadism is open to question. In any case, the costs would be high.

Well, that hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of democracy promotion. But it gets better. In a Washington Post op-ed in June, Simon (and coauthor Ray Takeyh) dismissed “the appealing but naive belief that promoting democracy is a panacea for the Middle East’s ills.”

Washington faces a bleak choice: It can push its values or realize its interests. It cannot do both.

The problem with trying to build democracy in the Arab world is not solely that Islamic radical groups such as Hamas tend to win the elections; it’s also the absence of secular, liberal parties or politicians who support U.S. policies. It is Washington’s misfortune that it can achieve its objectives only by working with illiberal regimes such as the stagnant autocracy of Egypt or the complacent monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On the margins, some reforms could take place; Arab despots have an interest in cultivating a veneer of legitimacy, which is best served by including some more moderate elements of the opposition in government. But the notion that America’s foremost aim should be disrupting the existing Arab order in the name of democratic transformation must be discarded.

Yes, I’m a skeptic on democracy promotion, but I’m not sure I can compete with that passage.

And then there’s this business about my representing “the height of neorealism,” whatever that means (from the context, it doesn’t sound good). In the spring, Simon wrote an article about U.S.-Saudi relations, and this is how he ended it:

With the loss of fevered neocon dreams of taking the “Saudi” out of “Arabia,” and the return to realpolitik, the U.S.–Saudi relationship is a bit closer to where it should be. It is not, nor will it ever be, a “special relationship” grounded in shared values or common experience. Serious policy differences, especially over Israel and Iraq, are likely to persist. Political liberalization will remain important, though perhaps not decisive, when it comes to the longevity of House of Saud’s authority. As neoconservative rigidity has begun to give way to neorealism, a strong relationship with the kingdom is in America’s interest. And as Lord Palmerston said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.”

My Lord Palmerston! That sounds to me like a ringing endorsement not just of realpolitik, but even of “neorealism.” If anything, Simon seems to wish that the United States would radiate even more warm realpolitik toward the Saudis. (Am I surprised?)

Now I welcome it when a fervent believer in the promotion of democracy comes forward to contest me. Joshua Muravchik is a prime example: his thought is an example of the principled, consistent, and honest conviction of the best of the neoconservatives. I don’t agree with him, but I admire and respect him. The same goes for my colleague, Natan Sharansky, whom I’ve debated. But who is Steve Simon to hold himself up as a champion of idealistic principle in our Middle East policy? He’s as realist as they come—and to judge from his weak spot for the Saudis, a lot more so than I am.

If you read Rudy Giuliani’s article in Foreign Affairs, you’ll see a vision for the Middle East that calls for working closely with progress-seeking leaders from all walks of life, in a shared effort to deliver what the region most lacks: good governance, better security, and economic opportunity. Without these precursors, democracy is impossible. But from the start, a Giuliani administration would support courageous dissidents—a commitment stressed by Charles Hill, Giuliani’s chief foreign policy advisor, in an important interview. I met many of these dissidents at a conference in Prague last June. America has a moral obligation to protect them.

But if someone out there tries to kill Americans or terrorize innocents in order to set the Middle East aflame, he deserves the boot, and not just in the face. Sure, there are people who think otherwise, on the blame-America far left and among the congenitally naive. They favor appeasement. But is Steve Simon one of them? I don’t think so, which makes his reaction even less comprehensible. I guess it’s just all about politics and ambition: they do make people say the darndest things.

Corrrections: Jason Horowitz, in his original piece, correctly identified me as senior Middle East advisor to the Giuliani campaign. In his subsequent posting on Simon, he incorrectly identified me as senior Iraq advisor. Iraq is an issue with ramifications well beyond the Middle East, and there are many Americans with rich experience there. The campaign is looking to them for advice on Iraq.

In the original piece, Horowitz identified me as a “self-proclaimed democratization skeptic,” which is true. In the subsequent posting, he called me a “self-proclaimed democratization cynic,” which is not true. I’ve called myself a skeptic; I don’t call myself a cynic.