[lit-ideas] The continuation of Realpolitik -- a counterfactual

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 20 May 2008 02:26:41 -0700

Irene,

Did I solicit input?  If I did it had to do with the matter of our moving away 
from Realpolitik after the fall of the Soviet Union.   Your comment, both 
comments, suggest you don’t know what Realpolitik is – even though you 
advocated that Bush engage in it with Ahmadinejad.  It means getting along with 
enemies, with people we have nothing in common with, with people we don’t like. 
 The very term explains why we armed Saddam.  We armed more than Saddam during 
the Cold War.  We used Realpolitik to keep as many nations on our side and 
opposed to the Soviet Union as possible.  They, the USSR, used it as well.  
After the Shah was ousted, Iran moved from our camp into the Soviet camp, and 
got weapons from the Soviet Union.   Kissinger didn’t invent Realpolitik.  He 
advocated that we use it to get along better with the Soviet Union. 

We considered the Ayatollah more of a threat than Saddam Hussein and so 
supported Saddam against Iran, but not overwhelmingly so.  We supported Iran a 
bit too because we didn’t want Saddam to utterly crush Iran.  That is one of 
the ways Realpolitik works; so you can see why I was annoyed at you.  Your 
response asked questions that were already answered if you understood how 
Realpolitik works.  

Not everyone was comfortable with Realpolitik.  Lots of people opposed it even 
while they were doing it, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, some people 
thought we didn’t need to do it any more – at least that’s my take on a sort of 
wallowing that we engaged in after the fall of the Soviet Union.  

You did, Irene, suggest that we (Bush) play footsy with Ahmadinejad.  You 
thought him a reasonable fellow and thought we could get along with him.  One 
needs to assume things like that to make deals with thugs as part of 
Realpolitik.  You also thought we should leave Saddam alone and not oust him, 
if I recall correctly.  He was engaging in mega-thuggery, but not too much for 
you.  That’s Realpolitik.  Realpolitik is the opposite of acting on principle.  
For example, we oppose thuggery here in the West; so we could say we will not 
support thugs in any manner, but some thugs have things we want like oil; so we 
make exceptions and deals.  That is Real-Politics as opposed to ideal politics. 
 

What I wanted to consider in my note – what I did consider – was the matter of 
whether we were best served by cutting off Realpolitik with Saddam as quickly 
as we did.   In case you aren’t familiar with Niall Ferguson, he likes to 
consider “counterfactuals,” that is, the consideration of how things might turn 
out if something different had happened.  One mustn’t go too far astray in a 
counterfactual, but it wouldn’t be to assume that we supported Saddam rather 
than opposed him.    Why did we oppose him during the Bush 1 administration?  
Principle!  It was against our principles to support thugs, or support them any 
longer, or support them any more than we had to.

But suppose someone in the Bush 1 administration effectively argued that it was 
in our best interest to support this Saddam thug because not supporting him 
would loose the Ayatollah’s little successors.   Could we make a deal with 
Saddam that would have kept him from going berserk?  The writer of the US News 
and World article didn’t think so, but did Saddam have principles that he 
wouldn’t be willing to compromise – if it meant an increase in Saddam’s power 
in the Middle east?   I don’t really think so.

But this matter of doing something that in retrospect makes practical sense, 
like assassinating Hitler in 1937, when viewed in terms of the real situation 
at the time ends up as an impossibility.  Yes, the world would have been better 
off if we’d assassinated Hitler in 1937, but doing that was against our 
principles.  Beyond that, we (the US & Britain) had idealistically disarmed 
ourselves to the extent that we weren’t capable of aggressive preemptive 
military action in 1937.

By the same token, cozying up to Saddam Hussein after the Iran/Iraq war was 
probably impossible for us.  We disliked dealing with thugs and this thug in 
particular.  But I’ll repeat the idea, the counterfactual:  What would the 
world be like today if we had supported Saddam Hussein rather than opposed him. 
 What if we let him have Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?  

Now, I hope no one is going to suggest that I am “advocating” that course of 
action, even retroactively.  The point of a counterfactual is to examine 
possibilities.  We have done that in regard to the assassination of Hitler in 
1937 and never got beyond the theory.  Yes, theoretically the world would have 
been better off, but no one has created policies whereby the next Hitler will 
be assassinated before he engages in his Gotterdammerung.   We seem to have no 
alternative to living through the next Hitler’s (whether Hitler with a capital 
Hit or a lower case hitler) actions, whatever they might be.  But what would 
our present world be like if Saddam, a stronger Saddam were in power in the 
Middle East?

Lawrence Helm
San Jacinto

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