Most Americans tend to think of foreign policy in a relatively idealistic manner, seeing our country as a unique force for good in the world. Internationalist conservatives and internationalist liberals -- not radicals who also see the U.S. as unique, but uniquely misguided or even a malign or evil force in the world -- have a remarkably similar vision. We went into Iraq to bring democracy and a sound economy, the beginning of a newly hopeful nation, says one side. Iraq might have been a mistake, says the other side, but we're abandoning our ideals by not intervening in Darfur and ending the latest would-be genocide, which partisans of this view have no doubt is within our power if we just remember our inherent goodness.
Both sides see America as a unique force, or potential force, for good. There are "realists" in the foreign policy establishment who advocate understanding and accommodating reality in the world, setting only modest and achievable goals. But while they may have been dominant in the Nixon or Bush I administration, they are something of a minority among those who think fairly seriously about foreign policy. Jimmy Carter wanted foreign policy to be about human rights. George W. Bush wants it to be about spreading democracy.
The Bush administration is particularly adamant about refusing to negotiate or have diplomatic relations with countries it defines as "evil" or "rogue," apparently believing that even talking with them would contaminate our essential goodness. But the administration can act realistically on occasion. The headline of this story tells it all: "North Koreans Arm Ethiopians as U.S. Assents."
Officially, of course, the U.S. is dismayed at the idea of North Korea proliferationg weapons and earning money to prop up its failed economy doing so. But Ethiopia earlier this year invaded Somalia and kicked out the Taliban-like Islamist regime that was taking root there. Ethiopia has bought arms (conventional) from North Korea for a long time. If they help Ethiopia serve what we perceive to be American interests in the Horn of Africa, we're quite willing to look the other way. Earlier, in 2002, the U.S. allowed a North Korean shipment of arms to Yemen, which was then helping the U.S. hunt down al-Qaida members, even after Spain intercepted it.
This is a quintessentially realistic -- or hypocritical, if you prefer -- stance. If today's good guys (Ethiopia) need to deal with today's bad guys (North Korea) to accomplish their aims, fine. It's not quite Winston Churchill saying he would ally with the devil to defeat Hitler, as he did in defending the wartime alliance with Stalin. But it's not that different either.
Sometimes even the world's most powerful nation must accept the way things simply are in the rest of the world. Not necessarily a bad thing. Reality is pretty powerful and likely to assert itself in the face of unrealistic idealism, however sincere. In fact, honoring reality just might be the most sensible policy of all. But politicians don't seem capable of aadmitting this. We have to be good and moral, or at least delude ourselves into thinking that we are.