Small Wars Journal

Realism, Idealism, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Islamic World

Tue, 02/01/2011 - 6:19pm
Realism, Idealism, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Islamic World

Why Democratic Realpolitik is Essential

by Dr. Robert J. Bunker

Download the full article: Realism, Idealism, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Islamic World

Enough comment and critical debate has been generated by the essay Why We Should Support Democratic Revolution in the Islamic World to warrant further elaboration on the themes it contains and why support of the despotic status quo in the Islamic World is not only morally unacceptable but, more importantly for many of the Small Wars Journal readership, no longer rational from the perspective of realpolitik and purely selfish U.S. interests at home and abroad. The latter concern shall be addressed first since those who are presently students of insurgency and foreign policy tend to focus on realism— how things really are— over idealism—how things can or should be. The elements of national power and morality should be complimentary to one another in U.S. foreign policy but for many reasons, including our increasing loss of political and economic dominance, the balance has overwhelmingly shifted to the primacy of retaining power, ultimately coercive military capability, coupled with that of promoting corporate profit and the American standard of living.

The prevailing foreign policy lesson learned over the last half-century is that a friendly despot in control is worth far more than a potential democratic leader (representative of a free and open society) waiting to arise because of the high political risks involved. The potentials for a belligerent Ayatollah (representative of a hostile theocracy) replacing an allied Shah are simply too great to accept. This is representative of the basic cost-benefit foreign policy calculation that now dominates. We have been conditioned to participate in a long running zero-sum game. In this game, the U.S. people and its government benefit as do our autocratic client states, including the foreign despots, and elites and cronies who surround them. The fact that we damn the peoples who live under these friendly despotic regimes to a form of governance devoid of our basic freedoms and political rights is viewed as an acceptable form of collateral damage. Many would say these peoples—such as the Egyptians— are better off under such 'fatherly and benign rulers' as Hosni Mubarak. Far better him and his cronies than the monster hiding in the closet—the Muslim Brotherhood— who would not only make life worse for the common Egyptian but would immediately renounce peace with Israel and would also put the U.S. in its gunsights. From a status quo U.S. foreign policy perspective, things have pretty much been figured out—U.S. interests are best served by this method of cost-benefit analysis.

Download the full article: Realism, Idealism, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Islamic World

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal. He has over 200 publications including Non-State Threats and Future Wars (editor); Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency (editor); Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers (editor); and Narcos Over the Border (editor). He can be reached at

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   


Dennis M had some good points about how an election might turn out and the stabilizing influence of the military. But now claimed pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds are clashing. He announced he won't run again. You would believe reasonable dissenters would accept the need for stability until those elections.

IMHO, much is related to the median age and unemployment of the country. Unemployed youth have the time to protest and the idealism to believe that simply ousting Mubarak will put them to work when the opposite is true. Last night they mentioned that Egypt's economy had doubled in the past ten years. If protesters won't accept experienced Mubarak substitutes, it's unlikely economic expansion will continue.

Starbuck points out the that Bunker's analysis is suspect and not always factual. To add to his list, Dr. Bunker implies the recent increase in budget deficit is due to wars and foreign aid when the bulk of recent deficit spending since 2008 involved bail-out, stimulus, and domestic spending. Does he believe that deficit will decrease if unemployment stays high due to $150 oil prices and more conflict in the Middle East?

Bunker cavalierly implies that tens of millions lost to war in the last century are equally plausible this century. He ignores that MAD and strategic choice of allies has deterred most major war and implies a hands-off attitude will succeed and cost less.

Sitting on our hands and allowing organized extremists and rogue nations to have it their way is a recipe for renewed genocide conventionally and WMD employment that would dwarf the 9/11 losses in a single incident.

Bob's World

Wed, 02/02/2011 - 7:31am

Well I think this is pretty close to right. The balance of the Cold War dynamic kept a lid on big wars, but it also led to both sides inflicting their will over a wide range of populaces to secure that stability.

Today, (and for the past 15-20 years) those populaces are pushing back. It is the solid foundation upon which AQ's terror network is built upon. Take away the foundation (which is Ironic, as AQ is "the base") and AQ finds out that it is not the base at all. It is merely a leadership cell that has been willing to buck the man to grant the true base of the populace a little hope for a better future.

As events are showing in Tunisia and Egypt and a handful of other states, the populace really is not all that interested in the brand of crazy that AQ is selling either. They want liberty, self-determination, and some "the war on terrorism" in our general direction.

A little less "control" and a lot more open-minded, principled support will take us a long way in the direction that we need to be in. Will large wars return to the planet as other powers begin to rise and compete? It is almost a certainty. But that in no way justifies efforts to hold populaces and governments static. Besides, as Dr. Bunker points out, its not a sustainable model, and we can't afford it.

A few issues with the article.

1.) The latter few years of the 20th Century (and the first portion of the 21st) have not been more bloody than the early portion of the 20th Century. If anything, there's been a trend towards more infrequent and less bloody wars over time. The only difference is, these days, it can be pumped into your living room in real-time.

2.) The French did not support the United States during the American Revolution based on mutual values of democratic governance. In fact, the American Revolution must have been a controversial cause for monarchies to support. Indeed, the French supported the American Revolution to drain resources away from the British, who had previously bested the French during the French and Indian Wars a decade or so prior.

3.) How does the US support democratic revolutions--from the sideline--without actively appearing to be influencing them? Few things remain secret for long. If the US was seen to be influencing, say, the Green Revolution in Iran, would the results have been different? Would it lose momentum if the US were involved? Those same social networking technologies which can organize gatherings can also be used to leak information of US involvement.

Dennis M. (not verified)

Tue, 02/01/2011 - 11:23pm

To both Move Forward and D. Nelson,

I think you guys may be jumping the gun a bit. From all the reports I have read, the protesters are mostly young, secular students. Those that appear to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood seem to be a minority. However, they are the most organized group. But there are many more secular opposition groups that, while less organized, have been very active in staging protests and strikes in Egypt in the past few years (e.g. the April 6 group).

The fact is that Egyptian society is largely secular. Estimates are that in a free and fair election -- exactly what the protesters are demanding, including the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Muslim Brotherhood would get not too much more than about 20% of the vote. It does not appear, at least from what I have read, that the islamists hold much sway with Egyptian society at large.

Now, those estimates may be wrong and everybody may be full of crap, but Mubarak is not going to be able to remain in power. The army ain't going to support him, and will likely challenge him if he uses the police to crack down on the protesters. So what do we do? Back him in spite of the writing on the wall?

By the way, the protesters themselves have not been shown to be looters or thugs, though some looters and thugs have taken advantage of the chaos (some have charged, with some evidence, that it was the secret police who are perpetrating the crimes). In fact, the demonstrators have shown remarkable restraint, and they have certainly shown their respect for the army, just not for the police who have been the enforcers of the repressive regime.

In fact, the army is the most trusted institution in the country and is likely to have the most pivotal role in the transition. It is likely to be our insurance against some radical regime taking power in the vacuum. It knows that its power is in large part the result of American money. If we have any influence in Egypt, it is likely through the military.

As for other countries in the Arab world, who knows what will happen. But clinging to this cold war model of supporting despots in the face of a democratic uprising is kind of short sighted (one might even argue that it was short sighted during the cold war, too -- Ho Chi Minh made overtures to the U.S. but we instead supported the French in their bid to hold onto their empire -- we could have just stayed out of it).

We may not get the ideal government in Egypt, i.e., one that we can count on to support our policies, but continued support of Mubarak will certainly get us a government that will challenge us at every turn. Same is true elsewhere.

Apologies, the first and second paragraphs were initially just a single paragraph. Perhaps that sheds more light on my point.

D Nelson (not verified)

Tue, 02/01/2011 - 10:13pm

The muslim brotherhood will take over and they will put Egypt in a position to be attacked by Israel. Seems that another mideast war in inevitable at this point. I'm thinking Iran, Syria and Lebanon will join in again and get routed again. Lets just hope Iran doesnt have nukes by then. I bet Mubarak is wishing he had been as bad as the people think he is and wiped out the MB. If he had he could step down and not have to worry. It doesnt suprise me that the people who parked their airplanes in a line "in preparation for driving Israel into the sea" are doing it again. Poor ignorant fools dont realize they are being used by the same guys who screwed them before. Oh well shame on them.

The major problem with your argument is that "democratically-selected" government created via organized but unrepresentative protest, state-sponsored terror money (disguised as charity), and radicals that do not represent the will of most and that exploit the idealistic/utopian view of not acceptable "democracy."

Even if a government is legitmately elected, should it subscribe to hatred/genocide of another nation/religion, violation of women and children's rights, and insistence on living in the past when others in the country want to move forward and choose a less radical group of is not a process we should embrace.

If that democratically-elected nation seeks to obstruct world commerce by cutting off oil supplies or chooses to develop nuclear weapons for use as described in the first paragraph, that is not acceptable.

Do we support protestors/looters or those protecting their property in neighborhood groups because the police would not. Do we support leaders who make it feasible for foreign and domestic business to thrive, or those who will drive them away, and in doing so leave that nation in an even more hopeless job outlook than it already faces.

Looking at our own democracy, thank goodness we have individual states with separate democracies that preclude larger states from imposing their will and ways on other states. The most vocal and powerful minority of coastal states should not impose their way of governing on other states anymore than protestors should overthrow a government and replace it with tendencies outlined in paragraph one.

Extremism in any form, democratically created or not, religious or not, cultural or not, is unacceptable. It is acceptable for U.S. foreign policy to support friends and leaders who act reasonably and impose sanctions on those who do not.