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REVIEW & OUTLOOK

Kerry's Iraq 'Stability'
The Democrat morphs into Brent Scowcroft.

Thursday, April 22, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

As the election debate over Iraq unfolds, we're struck by the role reversal of the two major parties on one of the central questions of U.S. foreign policy. To wit: Is it in America's interest to aggressively promote freedom around the world, or is it generally better to satisfy ourselves with "stability" and the status quo?

Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry appeared to take the latter position last week, when he declared that "the goal here . . . is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that's a full democracy. I can't tell you what it's going to be, but a stable Iraq. And that stability can take several different forms."

Some critics noted the remark was a retreat from comments last year, in which Mr. Kerry had argued that settling for anything less than Iraqi democracy would be a form of "cutting and running." But Mr. Kerry's latest position is in line with what we've also been hearing from his would-be Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and other leading Democrats. The Kerry camp, in short, seems to be adopting a Middle East policy in line with the realpolitik school of foreign affairs that puts a premium on global "stability."

In historic terms, this is a remarkable reversal. Once upon a time Democrats were the great promoters of morality and idealism in foreign policy. During the Cold War, those Democrats included Harry Truman and John Kennedy, the latter most famously in the aspirations of his inauguration speech to "pay any price" and "bear any burden" in the cause of liberty.

"Realism" in foreign policy, meanwhile, has typically been associated with Republicans, most recently with the first President Bush and his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft. This school of thought attempts to run a foreign policy based on "national interest," narrowly defined. Moral causes are not their thing, while dictatorships are fine if they don't threaten us.

So regarding the Middle East, for decades U.S. foreign policy supported Arab dictators on grounds that they at least prevented the turmoil of something worse. Unlike Westerners, Arabs were said to be unprepared for genuine self-government and in any case it was too risky for the U.S. to promote it. So we got comfortable with the likes of the Saudi royal family and have funneled billions of dollars of aid to Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.

The current President Bush's foreign policy has been motivated by a recognition that this has been a phony and dangerous status quo. Far from creating stability, Mideast dictatorships gave birth to today's terrorism. Al Qaeda was created by Saudis and Egyptians, while Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria became terrorism's leading state sponsors. This illusion of Mideast "stability" arrived on our doorstep with a vengeance on September 11.

It is important to realize that these Mideast "realists" are now the leading op-ed critics of Mr. Bush's Iraqi policy and his bid to "transform" the Middle East. Mr. Scowcroft has been silent since the war, no doubt out of loyalty to the Bush family, but vocal critics include the diplomat and Saudi apologist Chas Freeman, and the former Marine General and U.S. envoy to the Arabs Anthony Zinni.

Inside the U.S. government, the critics include much of the CIA and most of the State Department, including the current Secretary of State. All of these were, in one way or another, the architects of the Mideast status quo before 9/11. Their legacy of "stability" is the policy that Mr. Kerry and his foreign policy retinue are now endorsing toward Iraq.

We'd be the first to admit that idealism run amok can be dangerous, and that often the U.S. must deal with nations as they are. But it also seems to us that 9/11 exposed the Faustian bargain at the heart of Mideast "realism." To President Bush's credit, he has overturned that bargain and is attempting to drag the Arab world into the 21st century.

As we are now seeing in Iraq, this task isn't easy. In the short run, certainly, it would be far easier to turn Iraq over to the U.N. and declare "victory," or to agree with the Europeans to cut a deal allowing Iran's mullahs to develop nuclear weapons. But the Bush policy offers the hope of beginning to drain the terror swamp at its Mideast source, and of making the U.S. more secure in the long run.

An added benefit is that such a policy is more consistent with American traditions and principles, as Democratic Presidents used to remind us.

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