08/11/2014 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As ISIS Beast Threatens Mideast, A Call for Realism in U.S. Foreign Policy

Through most of its history, America was a nation of realists. The prevailing POV was this: the world is filled with jealous, back-biting, self-centered scoundrels, mountebanks, and thieves, who, unless they have a strategic or economic motive to play nice, don't give a deuce about this country, its ideals, its history, or that it is -- generally speaking -- the greatest force for good the world has ever seen.

As a result of that somewhat cynical POV, America was historically loathe to get involved in the world's sundry spats, horrors, quagmires, and mindless butchery, unless a conflict had such overwhelming importance to the survival of this country or its allies that we had no other choice but to intervene.

WWI -- whose 100th anniversary we remembered last week -- started the bloody ball rolling on a more proactive US foreign policy, which picked up steam during the Cold War when the US saw threats to its existence in every civil war from Saigon to Santiago. Nevertheless, despite clarion calls to the contrary, the US foreign policy establishment was content to deal with nations on their own, often un-democratic, terms as long as they didn't cause existential trouble for our companies, our allies, and us.

That POV changed 180 under George W. Bush. Under the tutelage of formerly liberal neoconservatives in the Leo Strauss mode -- who had gotten religion watching the Arab and Persian world's un-ceremonious treatment of their beloved Israel -- and a formidable, if tragically myopic and deceitful, quartet of foreign policy heavyweights (Cheney, Powell, Rice and Rumsfeld), Mr. Bush decided that in a post-9/11 world we couldn't afford to accept nations and leaders as they palpably were. Moreoever, we could no longer afford to deal with them on their often vile, authoritarian terms as equal players in a game of centuries-old Real Politik. Instead, we needed to kickstart the move towards democracy, the lack of which Bush and his Machiavellian minions believed to be the prime cause of religious extremism popping up from Nairobi to Bali, Mosul to Kabul.

This new Bush Doctrine rested on a blind faith that the denizens of the nations that were to receive our forced benevolence had both the desire and wherewithal to manage that refined American invention known as The Constitutional Republic. This faith in the civic smarts of the largely Islamic masses -- who heretofore had mostly lurched from tribal rule to religious caliphate to dictatorship and back again -- was surprising, uplifting, and, in retrospect, more than a little naive.

The first test of the Bush Doctrine had nothing to do with 9/11, though it was deceptively pitched as such to win approval from a gullible American public shell-shocked from 9/11 ("Never let a good crisis go to waste"). As friends deep inside the DOD matrix informed me, Iraq was picked because it was "the easiest to win." 9/11 was the necessary sideshow that enabled this first grand test of the Bush neocon POV.

We all know now that this attempt to preemptively force democracy upon an artificially created nation ridden with deep sectarian divdes was a fool's errand. Thousands of dead and tens of thousands of wounded brave American soldiers later, Saddam Hussein looks like a rock star to the increasing number of Americans who now begrudgingly admit that only strong men of Saddam's brutal mien are capable of keeping a hornet's nest like Iraq in relative check.

But we tracked down Saddam and helped the Iraqis try and execute him And we helped kill Gaddafi. And we had Mubarak deposed. Bad men, all three. Corrupt. Violent. Grandiose. Disgusting. And incredibly effective.

The old American foreign policy elite would have held its collective nose and dealt with these knaves as the necessary price of keeping a lid on the Mideast powder keg. As all three tyrants warned us -- and Bashar al-Assad in Syria ever since -- we don't have a clue of what horrors await us should the iron fist of these brutal fiefdoms be lifted. And, man oh man, are we seeing how right they are now.

The Islamic State (formerly ISIL and ISIS) is so genocidal that they've been shunned by Al Qaeda. They cut off the heads of babies from families who refuse to convert to their extreme form of Islam. Their other acts of unspeakable barbarism do not bear repeating here. Suffice to say that Yeats was prescient when he wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Mr. Obama -- a decent, kind, if fatally disengaged, populist -- thinks that we can solve this foul new nemesis via some measured form of humanitarianism. If we just keep ISIS away from the Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, we will have done our duty. And Mr. Obama can safely inform his liberal Hollywood backers that he hath righteously learned the lessons of Rwanda and Darfur.

The President applies a similarly naïve calculus to other crises of his own creation. If we just sanction Mr. Putin hard enough, he will back off from his megalomaniacal ambitions. If we just grant amnesty to the 20 million illegal immigrants here now -- just like President Reagan granted amnesty to millions years ago -- they will be so grateful to be let into this land of milk and money that they will tell their relatives back home to never illegally cross our borders again. And the drug runners, and human traffickers, and would-be terrorists now crossing our southern flank will just fall in line too. Just like criminals fell in line when we allowed open dealing of crack, and homeless opening doors at ATM machines, and squeegee people galore, back in 1980s New York.

Mr. Obama, it's wonderful that you want to see all people as decent, rational and law-abiding. However, I must respectfully inform you that most people are none of these things, and certainly not all three. If they were, the genocidal terror group Hamas would take stock of how ridiculously ineffective its rockets are at inflicting lasting damage to Israel and just call it quits. But they won't. Hamas doesn't care how many of its innocent children must die. They will keep hurtling forward with their messianic desire to see every single Jew annihilated. It's in their very charter.

Yet, compared to the mindless evil of ISIS, Hamas seems like a child relief organization. ISIS is emblematic of a new kind of pre-Enlightenment crusader lurking in the Middle East. And in Africa. And in eastern Ukraine and Russia. And in many parts of Latin America and Asia. That is, we are dealing with people who don't think like us. Who lack our moral compass. Who were not fortunate enough to be birthed into legal existence by men as enlightened and far-seeing as Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison. That is, people who do not fundamentally believe, in their cultural DNA, in the sanctity of law over religion, or the power of free and elected representatives over that of the demagogue and his or her rabble.

Over the past decade, under the weight of the Bush Doctrine, we tried in vain to find and support that rare breed of Mideast ally: a genuinely pro-American, non-theocratic freedom fighter who can at least tacitly accept Israel's right to exist. And we failed. Not because we didn't try hard enough, but because most Muslims are not ready to make that intellectual leap.

It may take decades, even a century or more, before the minority of secular humanist protesters from Tahir Square find sufficient numbers of fellow countrymen able to grasp, let alone implement, the separation of church and state so essential to effective democracy.

In the meantime, darkness drops again. And a rough beast marches towards Irbil, Baghdad and beyond. This is no country for young foolish amateurs, for whom political expediency and empty idealism come before doing the right and necessary thing.

The sooner we get back to a time-honored way of seeing global reality as it is, the sooner we can become effective actors in our own interest, and, by extension, the world's interest, whether they want to acknowledge our wisdom or not.