A Recipe for Military Disaster: Mixing Idealism and Realism


Apr 30, 2011

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on April 30, 2011.

Letter to the Editor

The April 8 Sunday Opinion piece by Henry A. Kissinger and James A Baker III, "The grounds for U.S. intervention," sought to reconcile "idealism" and "realism" as criteria for U.S. military intervention in Libya and elsewhere. Yoking these principles risks avoiding the real question: How do we strike a balance between our ideals and the probable effects of our actions on our national interests?

Some interests are vital, others important, still others merely convenient. Our ideals are permanent; our interests may converge with them over a long enough time frame. But in many cases, idealism and realism conflict, as evidenced by U.S. military interventions over the past four decades. Some humanitarian and strategic interventions were successes, others disasters. People, let alone leaders, of other countries may not share our values, underlining John Quincy Adams's admonition that "Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of democracy."

In dealing with parts of the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and the subcontinent that are truly vital to U.S. interests, our ideals are but part of our interests. Events in Libya illustrate what is likely to happen when military intervention ignores cautions, reinforcing the conclusion that when idealism trumps interests, the results are unlikely to be happy.

Harold Brown, U.S. defense secretary from 1977 to 1981, is trustee emeritus at the Rand Corp. and a trustee at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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