Anyone who wants to understand American foreign policy of the last few years could start by reading an article in yesterday’s Australian
by Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Debate in Australia is clouded by the common habit of using “neo-conservative” as a general synonym for “right-wing” or
“unpleasant”; Clemons demonstrates the proper usage, setting the
neo-cons against the “realist” tradition in foreign policy.

Inspired by neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, the
Bush administration argued that the invasion of Iraq would spread
democracy through the middle east and usher in a new age of peace and
freedom. Realists, on the other hand, distrust the influence of ideas
and principles in foreign policy; they talk instead about national
interests and the balance of power. This view is well presented by Owen
Harries, former adviser to Malcolm Fraser, in an article reprinted in
this morning’s Age.

we rush to embrace the realists, however, a word of caution. Realist
influence dominated US policy in the administration of George
Bush senior, and it was not a shining success. It was realists who
sparked the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the bloodiest conflict
in Europe in 50 years, and it was realists who encouraged the Shi’ites
of southern Iraq to rebel and then made the “realistic” calculation
that it was better policy to stand back and watch Saddam crush them.

In the debate between idealists and realists, the
neo-cons are actually on the right side. But what distinguishes them is
a belief in the unlimited virtue of American power. Previously,
idealists stood by international law; the rule of law was as important
as liberty and democracy. Idealist goals should be achieved by
international co-operation, with war as a last resort. Throwing over
that belief has led to the disaster in Iraq.

Idealism in foreign policy is indispensable, but
imperialism plus idealism is a dangerous mix. Harries aptly quotes John
Stuart Mill: “To go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not
defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue.”