The White House today issued its latest edition of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America—a biennial treatise mandated by Congress—and, reading it over, one can't help but wonder if the authors are going through the bromidic motions or if they mean what they write. If it's the former, cliché and contradiction are in order. If it's the latter, and I suspect that's the case (there's too much impassioned rhetoric for it to have been drafted in someone's sleep), then it marks the latest—and, in some ways, most unnerving—sign that our government is run by delusionary utopians, daydream believers who are marching us into, at worst, disaster and, at best, a boggy muddle.
The essence of the strategy, a flowery distillation of President George W. Bush's own speeches on the subject, is stated up front:
It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. In the world today, the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them. The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.
It would be nice if democracy swept the planet. It would also be nice if people everywhere were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and friendly. The operable question is: What do we do until the age of Aquarius?
Certainly, the promotion of democracy should be a goal of American foreign policy. But to make it the centerpiece invites trouble; hypocrisy, betrayal, disappointment, and delusion are inevitable. As for "statecraft" (literally, the art of conducting the affairs of state), that has always been—for any nation-state—about navigating the shoals of an often-dangerous world; you can try, while you're at it, to reshape the contours of the continents; but, at least as a starting point, you have to survive and thrive in the world as it is.
The authors of this document, some of whom studied international relations in college and graduate school, know this frustrating reality. Sometimes they come close to acknowledging it. For instance, in Chapter 4, which deals with regional conflicts, the authors write,
The most effective long-term measure for conflict prevention and resolution is the promotion of democracy. … In the short-term, however, a timely offer by free nations of "good offices" or outside assistance can sometimes prevent conflicts or help resolve conflict once started.
This is precisely the point of tension that the authors elsewhere evade: How do you reconcile long-term goals and ideals with short-term necessities and interests? To put it in this specific context: What if preventing or resolving some conflict involves negotiating with—or even helping—a flagrantly undemocratic regime?
President Bush and those around him know the answer to this question. Hence his hand-holding stroll through the Crawford Ranch bluebonnets with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Hence his soul-to-soul chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his respectful discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and various other tyrants and monarchs. A nation's interests are not monolithic; they collide not only with its ideals but also with other interests. Bush needs the Saudis for access to oil, Putin for pressure on Iran's plans to enrich uranium, the Chinese for their massive dollar-bailout, Musharraf for aid (even if wavering) on counterterrorism. You can argue about which way to go on these choices, but inarguably there are choices, and a document on national-security strategy is shallow to the point of irrelevance if it doesn't recognize and confront them explicitly.
Look, for another example, at today's big news: the Bush administration's agreement to hold direct talks on the stability of Iraq with the leaders of Iran. In the White House national-security document, Iran's government is denounced (correctly) as tyrannical, deceptive, dangerous, and (in a bit of hype) the state from which "[w]e may face no greater challenge." Yet, in the real world, the same White House recognizes that we share interests—and might explore opportunities for mutual advantage—with even the most distasteful regimes. (Bush also opened talks with Iran, quietly and on a low level, shortly after 9/11, as both countries had an interest in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan; Iran cut off the talks after Bush tagged it as part of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.)