The Realist tradition in International Relations long ago won the big battle by getting the best name. By calling itself Realism, the realist tradition makes all other approaches to IR seem idealistic, based in dreams but not realities. Anything but grounded in hard, cold calculations of how things really are. But the joy of realism is how often its acolytes indulge in fantasy. Ah, but only if we could have the good old days of the cold war, for instance.*
* Insert gratuitous cite of Mearsheimer’s piece in International Security.
Who do realists look to as their latter-day Bismarck? Henry Kissinger, of course, who was a Realist thinker at Harvard before serving as National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State. So, it is far from an accident that Gideon Rose cites the Kissinger/Nixon exemplar when suggesting to Obama a way out of Afghanistan. Leave by lying. The best way to preserve national power and enhance national security would be to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, as frittering away more resources on an unwinnable war is anathema to a realist, just as it was when the drain was South Vietnam. But just picking up and leaving quickly hurts the reputation, so try to leave in a way that provides a decent interval between exist and the collapse of one’s ally. And lie about it.
Rose acknowledges that this is hard, due to domestic politics, but more or less wishes away such constraints. More problematically, he does not recall the consequences of the Kissinger/Nixon strategy, especially when you”lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind.” That would be bombing Cambodia and Laos and invading the former (not to mention the War Powers Act). Rose cites drones as being better than the “ham-fisted” approach. Sure. But what happened to Cambodia after the US left? Just a smidge of genocide. Ok, perhaps the most catastrophic episode of genocide in per capita terms–one quarter of Cambodia’s population if I remember correctly.
So, the big question is really not so much what happens to Afghanistan after we leave if we do not leave well, but what happens to Pakistan? A nuclear-armed Pakistan, with a most broken set of civil-military dynamics, on-going insurgencies, deep poverty, extreme corruption, an irredentist campaign targeting its larger and nuclear-armed neighbor. Hmmm. I guess it is better to be a Realist** and ignore this ugly bit of reality.
** Some of my friends and students confuse me for a Realist since I do tend to think that power has a great deal with shaping outcomes. I just don’t think power or security influence the choices leaders and states make as much as Realists aver.