Jan 09

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: iraq Redux", please click here.)

When ISIS started taking territory in Iraq, America--with an assist from the media--became afraid of two things. The first was that ISIS would start launching Al Qaeda style attacks against the US, which Michael C debunked yesterday. The second was that…

ISIS IS ABOUT TO TAKE BAGHDAD!!!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, ISIS has been about to take Baghdad for over half a year now... 

- 12 June 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS Militants Plan to March on Baghdad

- 12 June 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS butchers leave 'roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers': Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government's call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

- 15 June 2014, The Telegraph, “Iraq crisis: ISIS battles for Baghdad - June 15 as it happened

- 22 June 2014, Haaretz, “High anxiety in Iraqi capital as it awaits ISIS invasion

- 1 July 2014, Newsweek, “Expected to Take Aim at the 'Baghdad Belt’”

- 29 September 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS fighters now 'at the gates of Baghdad': Islamic militants fighting 'just one mile from Iraqi capital' despite days Western airstrikes

- 5 October 2014, The Washington Times, “Islamic State withstands bombing campaign, plots Baghdad invasion

- 11 October 2014, CBS, “ISIS encroaches on ultimate prize in Iraq

- 12 October 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS rallies ‘10,000 militants’ at gates of Baghdad

- 14 October 2014, Time, “180,000 People Flee Western Iraq as ISIS Inches Ever Closer to Baghdad

- 17 October 2014, The New York Times, “ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate

To be fair, ISIS “threatened” Baghdad mainly in June and October. But this collection is only a partial list. I only started collecting headlines like this after ISIS threatened Baghdad the second time, and I thought, “They haven’t taken Baghdad yet? They’ve been threatening them since June.” More important than that question is this one:

Can ISIS even take Baghdad?

Now, I’m no military expert--that’s Michael C’s area of expertise--but from my layman’s point of view, one thought stands out: Baghdad is majority Shia. True, finding accurate numbers on the actual demographic breakdown is not easy. But according to Newsweek and Joel Wing’s excellent Musings on Iraq--which cites the CIA fact book--Baghdad is 70 to 80% Shia. Secondly, the Shia majority has some very powerful militias ready at their disposal, as America learned the hard way.

In other words, ISIS won’t be waltzing into Baghdad anytime soon.

Jan 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

As the media responded to the death of American journalist James Foley at the end of last summer, the hype for a new war eventually caused 63% of Americans to support air strikes against ISIS. (Read Zach Beauchamp for great coverage on the over-reaction here.) The culmination, for me, was this article by Retired General James Allen [emphasis mine]:

“If all the actions of the Islamic State, or IS, to date weren’t sufficiently reprehensible, this act and the potential for other similar acts will snap American attention with laser-like focus onto the real danger IS poses to the existence of Iraq, the order of the region and to the homelands of Europe and America.

To make sure his readers understand the severity, he continues, “Make no mistake, the abomination of IS is a clear and present danger to the U.S.” Remarkably, General Allen provides almost no evidence to prove this point.

I’m not picking on just General Allen; no one in the Obama administration, including the President himself, or congressmen advocating for war, ever provided evidence that ISIS posed a threat to the US beyond “Trust us.” A perfect example is this USA Today article with the provocative headline, “Islamic State biggest threat since 9/11, sources say”. Again, beyond “sources”, it didn’t have any evidence.  

Since I can’t debunk every media article, I want to use General Allen’s op-ed as a case study in how to over-hype the threat of terrorists. So what evidence did Gen. Allen bring to bear? Here’s a list after reading and re-reading his op-ed:

- The Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

- There are foreign fighters in their ranks.

- They are a well-organized insurgent group.

- They have money and weapons.

- They beheaded one American journalist. (And since more.)

- Al Qaeda used Taliban support in Afghanistan.

- Finally, this vague sentence: “The leadership of the so-called Caliphate has been clear that it will focus on Western and American targets if given the chance...”

So all those factors point to a group that could and is threatening the current state of Iraq. At least they have a significant chance to carve out a chunk of territory for their own. The problem is many of those “facts” don’t lead to ISIS being a threat to America’s homeland, as General Allen claimed.

Take the first and last bullet points; they’re contradictory. If ISIS wants to establish a Caliphate, the worst thing it could do would be to provoke US, UK and European nations into re-invading Iraq. That would set back its plans years, decades or end them all together. (Ask the Taliban how it worked out for them.)

Further, US intelligence agencies really don’t know much about the group. In fact, the US Counter-Terrorism adviser contradicted the Secretary of Defense on whether ISIS posed a threat to the homeland. So its more accurate to say, “Some sources say ISIS isn’t a threat and other sources say they are.” The number of fighters under ISIS control vary wildly from one estimate to another. When the US intel community (and the media) don’t know much about a new terrorist group, they tend to overestimate their strength.

To top it off, this dire and immediate threat to the US finished the year by completely dropping out of the news almost altogether, except for articles about how ISIS ended the year stalled out.

(Oh, and using the evidence that because Al Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban that ISIS will surely harbor international terrorists isn’t evidence.)

Yes, ISIS committed a war crime when it executed a journalist in Iraq. Yes, ISIS is bad for the Middle East and civil wars are bad for the world. However, given that it is against their interests to attack the US, we don’t know how many troops they have in the first place, they don’t have a terrorist arm, it is probably reasonable to conclude they won’t attack the U.S. homeland.

If politicians really want to make the case for action against ISIS, they can, but they shouldn’t hype a terror threat on our homeland.

Jan 06

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: iraq Redux", check out the articles below... 

- Future ISIS Terrorist Attacks and Beach Front Property in Arizona

- Waiting For ISIS or: The Islamic State is about to Take Baghdad!

- The (Opportunity) Costs of the First Iraq War

- The (Opportunity) Costs of ANOTHER War with Iraq

In one of our first posts, Eric C made a bold prediction. In “The Obama Blame Game Part 2”, he wrote that, “Since 2003 all terrorist roads lead through Iraq.” He predicted that, in the future, terrorists would be inspired by Iraq, trained in warfare in Iraq, and even funded/organized in Iraq. In short, invading Iraq would have more to do with promoting extremism than it did in stopping it.

Like other predictions we have made, Eric went from being wrong to right. Terrorism didn’t “go through Iraq”, as a succession of lone wolf, would-be jihadists--the failed Times Square bombing or the failed underwear bombing or the failed cargo plane attacks--had their origins in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, respectively. The Boston Marathon bombing had its origins with Muslim Chechens.

(Eric C clung to his point that, borne out by each of the above plots, the U.S. invasion of Iraq still inspired many, most or all of the would-be jihadists.)

Then came ISIS. When the Islamic State of Iraq/Syria/Levant beheaded Western journalists, it seemed to finally vindicate Eric C. And when they invaded Iraq, the Washington national security establishment jumped on board with Eric C’s thesis: ISIS (formerly the scary Al Qaeda in Iraq) is the new boogeyman of the moment. These national security types believe that if we don’t get involved in Iraq again, we will be attacked on our own homeland (though many were the same who advocated for invading Iraq the first time). 

In just the above four paragraphs, we’ve related Iraq to international terrorism, counter-insurgency, extremism, failed predictions, American politics, the failure of the Army, a “Getting Orwellian” topic, and we’ve only just started scratching the surface. Iraq, one of the reasons Michael C joined ROTC, one of the places he deployed (at the very end), one of the inspirations for this blog, is back in the news because its civil war (unsurprisingly) re-ignited. And that civil war involved the beheading of a US journalist that caused the country to believe ISIS was the most dangerous organization in the world. And that fear, in part, helped swing the balance of power in Washington in an election year.

So we have our “On V Most Thought Provoking Event of 2014”, though not without some controversy, which we debated yesterday.

Of course, the thoughts this war inspired are legion. Expect a good bit of debunking, controversial opinions, and unmentioned ideas.

In short, as a nation, still haven’t learned the lessons of the last decade.

Jan 05

If you read our post on “The Most Thought Provoking Events of the Year So Far: Bowe Bergdahl and Boko Haram”, then you read this:

“Then Iraq fell apart. (Spoiler alert: that’s our most thought-provoking event of the year. Unless some absolutely devastating catastrophe occurs between now and then.)”

And then we found out--or more accurately, Congress confirmed--that our country tortured detainees during the war on terror, including rectal feeding, the killing of prisoners, the capture and detention of innocent men, and many other war crimes and human rights abuses.

We both consider the torture report an “absolutely devastating catastrophe”. Not in terms of a foreign policy crisis, but a catastrophe of constitutional proportions; a revelation that America had, in response to 9/11, violated its core principles in a way that ranks with the worst sins in American history, like internment, the Sedition Act and Watergate.

For Michael C, the torture report was bad, but not bad enough to displace Iraq as the most thought provoking event of the year. For Eric C, it was all he could think, read or write about for a week. Frankly, we still don’t agree. To quote Intelligence Squared, “Well, that sounds like the makings of a debate, so let’s have it”: what mattered more in 2014: Iraq Redux or the Torture Report?

Eric C’s Argument:

I’ll concede one point early on: I certainly think both events are thought-provoking. (Though on a technical, behind-the-scenes level, I don’t feel as confident as Michael C writing about Iraq as I do writing about torture.) But the torture report matters more than America intervening again in Iraq, because of what it represents symbolically.

With Iraq, America just ended up making the same mistakes, again. With the torture report, at least we’re trying to learn from our mistakes. In short, Iraq represents more of the same; the torture report represents a country trying to move forward. At least there was a debate.

And that, to me, is what truly matters. After 9/11, our country made mistakes, and if we write about the torture report, I feel that On Violence can add to the chorus of people, pundits and writers trying to make our country better; with Iraq, I don’t feel like the lessons will be learned.

Michael C’s Argument:

Each year Eric C and I pick the most “thought-provoking” event of the year--the event that inspires the most unique thoughts or ideas--then we write about that for a week (or two). On that front, Iraq Redux just inspires more unique, On-V-esque ideas than the torture report.

Iraq Redux had poor media coverage (the constant threat of invading Baghdad; over-hyping of the threat of ISIS), fearmongering on terrorism (the beheadings of Western journalists), discussion of counter-insurgency theory (the debate on airstrikes or more troops in Baghdad), the ramifications of international relations theory (including the duty to protect innocents versus realism versus liberalism) to start.

This isn’t to say the release of the Senate’s report on torture isn’t thought-provoking. It pretty soundly took over the media for a cycle. It also unites certain conservatives and liberals. And it shows the uniqueness of democracies: how often in history have rulers of a country willingly admitted they committed war crimes?

But most of our post ideas aren’t unique, but more filled with outrage that it happened in the first place. That isn’t unique or thought provoking per se, just morally outraging.

Eric C’s Conclusion:

I’ve decided to concede this argument, for two reasons. The first is practical, but intellectually not admirable: we’re mostly done with a whole bunch of posts on Iraq and we (the Cummings Bros) have a very busy month ahead of us.

But on a thematic, what-this-blog-is-working-towards level, in discussing torture (the release of the torture report), Iraq (the rise of ISIS and America “needing” to engage Iraq militarily for the fourth time in four decades), and the NSA (the release of Citizen 4 and more revelations of citizen snooping), a new theme emerged:

America has begun pushing back on our collective over-reaction to 9/11.

Altogether, the outlines of a new series and an essay or two emerged, which we plan/hope to finish in the next few months, after we write about Iraq and a bunch of other random topics. A number of themes of the blog--the dehumanization of our enemies, the world is getting safer, an unquestioning faith in the national security establishment--help explain America’s overreaction to 9/11, and we want to explore it.

So enjoy our series on Iraq Redux, which begins tomorrow. But expect much, much more in the year ahead.

Dec 22

(Before we begin, as happens every holiday season, On V will be “On-V-cation” until January fifth.)

Welcome to our 700th post. Though we’ve been posting less frequently, we’re still adding to the collection. As we like to do every hundred posts, we’re sharing our best/favorite posts from the last 100.

To read more “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.

By the far the biggest, most popular series we’ve ever done was our “debunking/getting the facts out” about the Lone Survivor film and memoir. First off, find the comprehensive, 4,000-plus word comparison article here. We jumped at the chance to shrink that post down and sent it to Slate. In December, we analyzed Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, where he repeated many of the mistakes in the book, and we discovered a new mistake: that Ahmad Shah “killed 20 Marines the week before”. Finally, we detailed the appalling media coverage of the film’s release.

We also took on the mishandling of COIN in both the book and the movie.

To read all of our Luttrell/Lone Survivor articles, click here.

We finally got around to creating a home page for our “Getting Orwellian” series, now collected here. Our two favorite language posts were “Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech” and  “Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism”.

We also wrote about two wars that never happened in North Korea and Syria. On Syria, our favorite posts were “Syria-sly? or: the Media Coverage on Syria So Far” and “An Open Letter to Our Representatives on Syria”. Finally, Michael C wrote “I'm an Isolationist?”. Expect us to hit this theme hard next year.

On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013” last year was the NSA. Unfortunately, the government’s still fighting terrorism ineffectively and violating our civil liberties, so expect more on this as well.

Other prominent series included our “Our Belated Week (or Month) on the 2013 Oscars”, Eric C’s series on how “COIN is Boring”. And Michael C started, but hasn’t finished, “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security”.

To close, some of our favorite individual posts were “The Non-Traditional On Violence Reading List” and Michael C’s not-nearly-read-enough guest post “The Officer as Manager Reading List” at “The Best Defense”. We also like “(Non-Time Travel) Thoughts on "Looper"”, “America Looks Gross Naked” and “The Moral Argument Against War Validating One's Existence”.

Enjoy, and once again, thank you for everyone’s support.

Dec 17

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.

Dec 10

(Today's guest post is by Francis Conliffe. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

The current US approach to counter-terrorism is based on targeted kill-capture missions. This approach has been described as industrial counter-terrorism in Iraq, and is today associated with drone strikes and shadowy prisons, of which Guantanamo Bay is the best known. While this approach may be productive in terms of body counts, it is counter-productive in terms of image and international legitimacy. But there is an alternative approach.

During the 1990s, Yugoslavia imploded in a horrific civil war fraught with war crimes and atrocities. In 1993 the United Nations called for establishing an international tribunal to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, resulting in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal Yugoslavia.

This court had little actual prosecution to do at first as the General Framework Agreement for Peace, also known as the Dayton Accord was not signed until 1995. The Accord called for a “safe and secure environment,” and compelled the three signatories (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) to “cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Those responsible for violations became known as “Persons Indicted For War Crimes” or PIFWCs. Little traction was gained at first, as the three parties had little incentive to turn in and prosecute their own people, and the United Nations Protection Force was not pursuing war criminals. The NATO Stabilisation Force (SFOR) which came into effect in 1996 had the mandate to “provide a 'safe and secure environment',” and noted that “the presence of PIFWCs is a major obstruction to the peace process.” But there was a problem: American forces were initially reluctant to pursue war criminals, retaining bad memories of man hunts in Somalia, and saw the exercise as counter-productive to the mission.

While a number of PIFWCs actually turned themselves in, it was not until 1997 that SFOR started actively pursuing PIFWCs. This activity was the domain of coalition special forces, who would conduct snatch missions. Prisoners were then handed over to Military Police, received medical examinations, and upon arrival at The Hague, received legal counsel. It is worth noting that this was not some “soft” police-style mission. A number of PIFWCs were killed while resisting capture.

The Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal, Louise Arbour, pushed hard for SFOR to pursue war criminals. She noted that the legal process is “a process whereby if we are successful, we will assist a people in letting go of what it believes to be its war heroes, by exposing them as criminals.” The trials have proved to be an effective way of bringing reconciliation to the war-torn region and bringing justice to those who have committed egregious crimes. As noted above, not all indicted survived to see trial. Further, not all who were tried were convicted. Numerous parties have criticised The Tribunal for expense and bias, but no criminal system is without critics. There would be harsher criticism if all indicted were simply executed.

The US used to approach terrorism as a criminal problem. This approach was criticised as leading to conflict between Defence and Justice, with the DoD excusing itself from the problem and Justice lacking the resources to really pursue terrorists.

That has clearly changed in recent years, and perhaps the DoD has now taken too much of a lead in the process. DoD has demonstrated the capability to pursue individuals. It may be time to marry that capability with a judicial capability, modeled on the ICTY, in order to bring terrorists to legal justice. It is not too late to adjust course on the approach to counter-terrorism, and a more law-based approach would earn back much legitimacy that has been lost in a decade of secret prisons, torture and targeting boards. It would also result in a more transparent way to view those involved in terrorism, bringing clarity to the respective importance of each accused individual. Just as some of the PIFWCs facing trial at The Hague were low level operatives, while others were the “masterminds” and instigators, so too some accused terrorists are simple foot soldiers while others are key leaders. Currently, they are all treated the same way, facing at best a life in limbo in questionable prison, or at worst facing death by RPV strike.

The USA could change the narrative of the war by bringing these people before trial and, as Louise Arbour stated, exposing their supposed heroes as criminals.

Francis Conliffe is an Armour officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Dec 01

(To read the entire "Getting Orwellian” series, please click here.)

To stand out in the crowded field of foreign policy sites, the editors of War on the Rocks, when launching their new website, promised to approach all topics from the perspective of “international relations realism”. I wish them well. Though I tend to come from the other side of the international relations theory spectrum, I find parts of realist theory fantastically useful, particularly the blogging of Stephen Walt.

Part of me also sighed. Seeing the word “realism” reminded me how much I hate that term in national security debates. I wish I had the power to rename that entire branch of international relations theory.

Why? Because “realism” means so much more than just one branch of IR theory. Since I don’t want to take us down an uber-wonky rabbit hole, I want to quickly define realism. Fortunately, War on the Rocks does a good job of that in a post explaining their site:

[realism] is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power. À la Morgenthau, we understand power as “anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man …. from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”

See that definition? It isn’t bad and (according to the wisdom of crowds) it defines the discipline fairly accurately.

Except War on the Rocks then precedes to confuse their IR realism with being realistic:

“Our realism is not merely theoretical, but is rather a perspective earned through experience and reasoning. We are not reasoning backwards from a blind ideological position.”

This is the part of the phrase “realism” I hate: some Realists use the name of their sub-discipline like a club on international relations liberalists (like myself), pacifists (like Eric C), Democrats (by Republicans), people who oppose increasing defense spending (by lobbyists or mouthpieces of lobbyists), or the proponents of the hypothesis that the world is increasingly violent.

International relations realists--or anyone using the term “realist” in a foreign policy debate--benefit from the convenient fact that their sub-discipline of international relations happens to share the same etymology as another word, “realistic”. In debate, international relations realists and neo-conservatives both use the phrase “realism” to mean, “grounded in reality” interchangeably with “analysis using power politics as the base”. They take advantage of a rhetorical quirk: in foreign policy terms, the opposite of realism is liberalism; linguistically, the opposite of realistic is naivete (at best) or unrealistic (at worst).

And honestly, “realism” is better than “idealism” in colloquial English. A realist accepts the world for what it is; an idealist aspires to a different world. Idealists are dreamers; realists are men of action. Foreign policy tends towards the latter; the American voting public favors the latter as well.

But that isn’t what “international relations realism” is. Realist IR theory sees the world and nation states in a balance of power struggle...and generally conduct their analysis through that lens. As smart theorists--like my aforementioned favorite Stephen Walt--have written, neither side has won the intellectual war. If they had, there wouldn’t be a debate. Instead, each side has its own data, arguments and intellectual foundations.

But that won’t stop a pernicious breed of IR theorist--and opportunistic politicians and pundits--from claiming the “realism high ground”. To differentiate them, I call them “real-world-ists”. These pundits and politicians love to insist their viewpoints come from “the real world”, especially as opposed to isolated “ivy tower academics”. Bad “realists” mix up their philosophy of IR theory with phrases like, “realist”, “reality” and “realistic”, while criticizing their opponents as “naive”, “unrealistic”, “idealistic” and “head in the sand types”.

I can’t fix this problem, but I can point it out. Embracing one branch of the ideological spectrum of IR theory doesn’t make your beliefs more accurate or descriptive of the real world. Even if your theory is named, “realism”.