[lit-ideas] Re: The death of American Realpolitik

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 19 May 2008 21:42:24 -0700

“Do you ever wonder Lawrence why they didn't know Saddam . . ” yadda, yadda, 


What Lawrence wonders is why Irene continues to reply to notes she doesn’t read 
all the way through.  I read what she wrote below, ostensibly in response, and 
had to guess whether 1) she’s an idiot, 2) she is utterly ignorant about the 
nature of Realpolitik, or 3) she hasn’t bothered to read my whole note.  Let me 
assure her I seriously considered all three alternatives.  As she will see from 
the lead sentence to this paragraph, I’ve drawn the generous conclusion.



Lawrence Helm

San Jacinto


From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx] On 
Behalf Of Andy
Sent: Monday, May 19, 2008 6:50 PM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: The death of American Realpolitik


It's interesting that you don't care that we're endangering the world.  If U.S. 
News & World Report is printing it, it's pretty big news, don't you think?  
Don't you think too that if the most precious places are endangered, what's to 
be said about all the rest of the world?  But most people are oblivious to 
what's going on with the world.  Then we marvel how the Easter Islanders could 
cut down their last tree.  Nobody noticed that's how.  It's interesting too 
that they cut the trees down for religious/political reasons.  It's the 11th 
Hour, remember?  And even later than that.  Never mind, I'm ranting.  Nobody 
cares.  We'd better move on to cheerier things, like Saddam.


Do you ever wonder Lawrence why they didn't know Saddam was so dangerous when 
they were equipping him in the Iran/Iraq war and standing by when he did his 
dirty work?  Or what they were thinking when they armed and supported OBL 
against the Russians in Afghanistan?  Politics make strange bedfellows and just 
like in every failed marriage it's always 100% the other guy's fault.  I think 
it's called mission myopia, isn't it?


--- On Tue, 5/20/08, Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

From: Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: [lit-ideas] The death of American Realpolitik
To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 12:16 AM

Irene might be interested in the current issue of the U.S. News & World Report. 
 The lead story is “Endangered Places, How Humans are threatening the existence 
of the world’s most precious destinations.”  I was more interested in something 
else.  This is the “75th Anniversary Issue,” and they picture one of the issues 
from almost every year.  1952, for example has a picture of Joseph McCarthy and 
gives the title of the lead story as “What’s McCarthyism?”    1968 has a 
picture of a smiling Richard Nixon and the title, “What Nixon Will do as 


But the issue I was most interested in was June 4, 1990.  It pictured a 
glowering Saddam Hussein and showed the lead story to be “The Most Dangerous 
Man in the World.”  We are provided with an outline, or perhaps the meat of the 
story:  “Like most good stories, this one started with a hunch.  Lief, who 
speaks fluent Arabic, had followed Saddam’s eight-year war with Iran and was 
alarmed by his continuing military buildup and aggressive troop deployments 
along the Kuwaiti border.  She also took his escalating rhetoric against 
Kuwait, Israel, and others quite seriously.  ‘The context was this was a guy 
who had a very warped understanding of the outside world and his own judgment,’ 
says John Walcott, who was U.S. News’s foreign editor.  ‘You could tell he was 
heading for trouble.’


“Separately, some of the magazine’s reporters were tracking a pattern of Iraqi 
weapons purchases, many with the involvement of western governments and 
companies.  Over nearly a decade Iraq had systematically been gathering 
technology and ingredients needed for chemical, biological, and nuclear 
weapons.  ‘Everywhere we turned, it appeared that some of the most dangerous 
material being procured illegally around the world, and in some cases inside 
the United states, was being shipped to Iraq,’  recalls Peter Cary, who was 
covering the Pentagon.  ‘All roads were leading in the same direction – to 


“Even many in the U.S. government had failed to piece together the full extent 
of the threat – perhaps, in part, because of their occasional complicity.  When 
Brian Duffy, then the magazine’s intelligence reporter informed a top U.S. 
intelligence official that U.S. News was about to label Saddam Hussein ‘the 
world’s most dangerous man,’ the official simply said, ‘Oh, Saddam’s not going 
to like that.’”




Some of the “complicity” referred to undoubtedly pertained to the playing off 
of Saddam against the Ayatollah during the Iraq/Iran war.  Realpolitik was in 
full bloom during that period.  But the flower withered and almost died after 
the fall of the Soviet Union.    During the Cold War we “did whatever was in 
our best interest” which often meant cozying up to some pretty unsavory 
dictators like Saddam.   The man in the street may not have approved of 
Realpolitik as a permanent principle, but he understood it when it was applied 
to the Soviet Union.  We were in a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet 
Union, or so we believed, so if we needed to pretend to like some brutal 
dictators to keep them from going over to the Dark Side, then we’d better do 
it.   Iran had gone over to the dark side (was getting arms from the Soviet 
Union) and so we supported Saddam, but the Soviet Union fell in 1989, and in 
the same year the Ayatollah died.  Yeah, lots of people thought the Ayatollah 
was “the Most dangerous man in the World,” but by 1990 he was dead.


Which meant that we didn’t really need to do Realpolitik any longer – at least 
we didn’t think we did.   Saddam left a very bad taste in our mouths and 
whatever leverage he had over us, Realpolitik-wise, died when the Ayatollah 
did..  But as the writer said, Saddam “had a very warped understanding of the 
outside world and his own judgment.”  


I picked up Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, Explaining World War I, the other 
day to see if I could read a few more pages and couldn’t.  But I recalled that 
Ferguson loved to play with “counterfactuals.”  What would the world be like 
today if we had let this June 4, 1990 “most dangerous man in the world,” have 
his Kuwait and his head?  His ambition was to create an Arab Ummah that would 
be the equal of the U.S., Europe, or China..  What would the world be like if 
we’d let him do it – even encouraged it?  Yeah, he was a brutal dictator, but 
we’d been dealing with those in the Soviet Union for years.  Yeah he killed a 
bunch of his own people, but so have the Chinese.  Irene likes to insist that 
Ahmadinejad is really a reasonable rational person, why couldn’t we insist the 
same thing about Saddam?  I’m not being ironic here, I’m really considering the 


As soon as I wrote that, I realized I wouldn’t be believed.  Certain people 
will insist on believing I’m being ironic even while saying I’m not, but if 
we’d allowed Saddam to go ahead and do his thing, we wouldn’t be worrying quite 
so much about Iran today.   In fact, Saddam probably wouldn’t have been as long 
suffering and patient as the UN & US have been about Iran’s nuclear build up.  
He would have already knocked their nuclear facilities out.  


And what would we have to worry about from him directly?   Irene would be 
telling us that he is really a reasonable and rationale person and wouldn’t 
actually bomb anyone, and maybe he wouldn’t actually do that because we could 
then threaten to bomb Baghdad as soon as he bombed Israel.  Would that be 
enough for Israel?  Maybe.


One of the pretexts for Osama bin Laden was American soldiers in the Islamic 
Holy Land, but the only reason those soldiers were there was that Saudi Arabia 
was afraid they were the next domino Saddam was interested in knocking over, 
and that was probably true, but so what?  As long as we’re doing a 
counterfactual, let’s let Saddam have Saudi Arabia as well.  Now he has 
enormous wealth and we have to deal with him forever, or until the oil runs 
out, but Saddam wants a lot of things and has to sell his oil.  Maybe that 
would work out.


Maybe if there had been no First Gulf War, and Bush hadn’t mistakenly counted 
on his popularity after giving Saddam his comeuppance, he would have realized 
“it’s the economy, stupid,” and done what was necessary to get elected to a 
second term.  


Is what we have now better than what we would have had if we’d allowed Saddam 
to dominate the Arab World?  I don’t know.


Lawrence Helm

San Jacinto

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