On Dec. 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy, met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. According to declassified documents, the Reagan administration sought to re-establish long-severed relations with Baghdad amid concern about growing Iranian influence. While U.S. intelligence had earlier confirmed Saddam's use of chemical weapons, Mr. Rumsfeld did not broach the subject. His handshake with Saddam, caught on film by Iraqi television, represented a triumph for diplomatic realism.
Iran and Iraq would fight for five more years, leaving hundreds of thousands dead on the battlefield. Then, two years after a ceasefire ended the war, Saddam invaded Kuwait. In subsequent years, he would subsidize waves of Palestinian suicide-bombers, effectively ending the Oslo peace process. Saddam's career is a model of realist blowback.
On Sept. 23, 2002, as Saddam defied international inspectors and U.N. sanctions crumbled under the greed of Paris, Moscow and Iraq's neighbors, Newsweek published a cover story, "How we Helped Create Saddam," that once again thrust the forgotten handshake into public consciousness. Across both the U.S. and Britain, the story provoked press outrage. NPR conducted interviews outlining how the Reagan administration allowed Saddam to acquire dual-use equipment. Mr. Rumsfeld "helped Iraq get chemical weapons," headlined London's Daily Mail. British columnist Robert Fisk concluded that the handshake was evidence of Mr. Rumsfeld's disdain for human rights, and Amy and David Goodman of "Democracy Now!" condemned Mr. Rumsfeld for enabling Saddam's "lethal shopping spree." While 20 years too late, progressives decried the cold, realist calculations that sent people across the third world to their graves in the cause of U.S. national interest.
What a difference a war makes. Today, progressives and liberals celebrate not only Mr. Rumsfeld's departure, but the resurrection of realists like Secretary of Defense-nominee Robert Gates and James Baker. Mr. Gates was the CIA's deputy director for intelligence at the time of Mr. Rumsfeld's infamous handshake, deputy director of Central Intelligence when Saddam gassed the Kurds, and deputy national security advisor when Saddam crushed the Shiite uprising. Mr. Baker was as central. He was White House chief of staff when Reagan dispatched Mr. Rumsfeld to Baghdad and, as secretary of state, ensured Saddam's grip on power after Iraqis heeded President George H.W. Bush's Feb. 15, 1991, call for "the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." In the months that followed, Saddam massacred tens of thousands of civilians.
While Mr. Rumsfeld worked to right past wrongs, Messrs. Gates and Baker winked at the Iraqi dictator's continuing grip on power. For progressives, this is irrelevant. Today, progressivism places personal vendetta above principle. Mr. Rumsfeld is bad, Mr. Baker is good, and consistency irrelevant.
Progressive inconsistency will only increase with the unveiling of the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations calling for reconciliation with both Syria and Iran. In effect, Mr. Baker's proposals are to have the White House replicate the Rumsfeld-Saddam handshake with both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The parallels are striking. First, just as Saddam denied Kuwait's right to exist, Mr. Assad refuses to recognize Lebanese independence (Damascus has no embassy in Beirut) and Mr. Ahmadinejad calls for Israel's eradication. Washington realpolitik enabled Saddam to act out his fantasies; evidence suggests both Mr. Assad and Mr. Ahmadinejad aspire to do likewise.
Second, just as the Reagan-era Rumsfeld turned a blind eye toward Iraqi chemical weapons, so too does Mr. Baker now counsel ignoring their embrace by the Syrian and Iranian leadership. Tehran used chemical munitions in its war against Iraq, and senior Iranian officials have also threatened first-strike use of nuclear weapons. Syria is just as dangerous: On April 20, 2004, Jordanian security intercepted Syrian-based terrorists planning to target Amman with 20 tons of chemical weapons. Mr. Assad has yet to explain the incident.
And, third, there is the issue of detente enabling armament. Following his rapprochement with Washington, Saddam transformed investment into replenishment. The cost of ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait was far greater than any benefit borne of engagement.
Trade with Tehran has likewise backfired. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. During this same period, Iranian authorities used their hard currency windfall not to invest in schools and hospitals, but rather in uranium processing plants and anti-aircraft batteries. Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Ahmadinejad's predecessor and a man often labeled reformist by U.S. and European realists, showed the Islamic Republic's priorities when he spent two-thirds of his oil-boom windfall on the military. Said Mr. Khatami on April 18, 2002: "Today our army is one of the most powerful in the world. . . . It has become self-sufficient, and is on the road to further development." Subsequent discovery of Iran's covert nuclear facilities later that year clarified his boast. The Assad regime has shown its willingness to spend its discretionary income on a wide-range of weaponry and terror groups.
Realism promotes short-term gain, often at the expense of long-term security. With hindsight, it is clear that Mr. Rumsfeld's handshake with Saddam backfired. While it may have constrained Iran in the short-term, its blowback in terms of blood and treasure has been immense.
Why then do so many progressives then celebrate the return of realism? The reasons are multifold. First, having allowed personal animosities to dominate their ideology, they embrace change, regardless of how it impacts stated principles. Hatred of Mr. Rumsfeld became a principle in itself. Likewise, the same progressives who disparage John Bolton seldom explain why they feel forcing the U.N. to account for its inefficiencies or stick to its founding principles is bad. They complain not of his performance, but rather of his pedigree.
Second is a tendency to conflate analysis with advocacy. Progressives find themselves in a situation where they both embrace realism but deny reality. An Oct. 13 Chronicle of Higher Education article regarding a Columbia University professor's attacks on Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," highlighted the issue: "The conundrum, say these [Middle East studies] scholars, is how to voice opposition to the actions of the Islamic Republic without being co-opted by those who seek external regime change in Iran through a military attack." By embracing a canard, intellectuals convinced themselves of the nobility of ignoring evidence. Thus, Western feminists march alongside Islamists who seek their subjection while progressive labor activists join with Republican realists to ignore Tehran's attacks on bus drivers seeking an independent union, even as a Gdansk-type movement offers the best hope for peaceful change in Iran.
Both realism and progressivism have become misnomers. Realists deny reality, and embrace an ideology where talk is productive and governments are sincere. While 9/11 showed the consequences of chardonnay diplomacy, deal-cutting with dictators and a band-aid approach to national security, realists continue to discount the importance of adversaries' ideologies and the need for long-term strategies. And by embracing such realism, progressives sacrifice their core liberalism. Both may celebrate Mr. Rumsfeld's departure and the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, but at some point, it is fair to ask what are the lessons of history and what is the cost of abandoning principle.
Mr. Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.