The Closet Realism of Barack Obama

Introduction: Through the realist looking glass

Since the glory days of George Herbert Walker Bush, American realists have grown all too used to being political and policy losers. To my horror (for I am emphatically not this sort of American), many of my realist colleagues have come to take a perverse pride in being outside the policy-making mainstream. Aping the worst of the elitism of European intellectuals, they have come to equate marginalization with being uniquely endowed with an understanding that only irrelevance can confer. Rather than seeing their lack of importance as signaling where they have gone wrong, all too often realists have come to see it as a sign of how right they are.

As the Democratic Party has embraced Wilsonian institutionalism as its dominant foreign policy school of thought and as neoconservatives have (rather incredibly, given Iraq and other related disasters of their making) tightened their grip on the Republican Party, realists have settled comfortably (in my view rather too comfortably) into their new, permanent role as the minority foreign policy voice in both parties.

If realism has mattered over the past generation since President Bush was ousted from the White House by Bill Clinton in 1992, it has been as intellectual ballast, helping to right the ship of state by proposing a coherent critique of the two dominant utopian schools of thought, advocating a policy of limits that was sometimes at least partially heeded as a corrective when Wilsonians and neoconservatives were confronted by their own excesses. For my entire working life, this has been the unglamorous and only marginally useful fate in America of the realist school of thought, at least in the practical world.

But now, incredibly, realists who have grown increasingly comfortable with not mattering are confronted by a President who certainly seems to be (all rhetoric to the contrary) largely guided by the realist star. Operating as the equivalent of a foreign policy bad bank, he has followed through on his campaign promise to extricate America from the Iraq morass, and is well along in the process of doing the same in intractable Afghanistan.

Further, unlike the gung-ho George W. Bush, he has prudently (up until now) avoided embroiling American in any new military adventures, evading interventions in Mali and Syria like the plague. Despite getting absolutely nowhere in terms of changing the mullahs’ minds about limiting their nuclear program, this President has still hesitated to strike the recalcitrant Iranians, going so far as to publicly restrain the jingoistic Netanyahu government from doing so as well.

Even when involving America in a very limited military role in Libya, this president famously ‘led from behind.’ Pressured to intervene to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi (a standard Wilsonian and neoconservative war cry from the past), he dipped his toe into the waters of intervention, but resolutely refused to take the plunge. After the first days of intensive American air strikes, the White House played a decidedly secondary role, leaving the bombing campaign to the British and French, all the while only secondarily supplying transport assets, intelligence, and ordinance to the allied coalition.

After Gaddafi had been overthrown—and in decided contrast to the nation- building enthusiasms of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations—there was not the slightest peep about settling down in Libya, tutoring the locals there on how to elect good men. Nation building was decidedly out; leading from behind was in, especially regarding a cause that was only a secondary American interest at best.

Finally, with re-election in the bag, and free to appoint his preferred choices for his second term foreign policy advisors, this president nominated (in Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, and CIA-designate chief John Brennan) a team Dwight David Eisenhower would have been proud of. The new vicars of American foreign policy—two of who had bloodily come to their philosophies through meritorious service in the quagmire of Vietnam—certainly represent the least interventionist-minded senior foreign policy team in memory.

The cautious Wilsonian Kerry, the firm realist Hagel, and the drone-obsessed Brennan–in Eisenhower fashion–favor an internationalist role for America, but are suspicious of promiscuous American military involvement throughout the world, feeling that it often fails to serve basic American interests. The arc of American policy is clear: disastrous primary military involvement in Iraq has led to secondary involvement in Libya, which has been followed up by no direct intervention at all in Mali and Syria.

This generic president is of course, Barack Obama. Given this raft of empirical evidence, is it time for would-be realist practitioners to wake from their long slumber? Could one of their own somehow have secretly made his way into the White House? In other words, in terms of deeds (if not words) is Barack Obama the highly unlikely champion that realists have been pining for?

Disregard the platitudinous, policy–free, garden-variety Wilsonian speeches about nuclear disarmament, respecting other cultures, and changing the tone of American foreign policy, and focus for a minute on the realities of American foreign policy during the time of Obama. Going through the looking glass in this way leads us to a strange world where it is certainly reasonable to conclude that this unabashedly left-leaning Democrat—far from following in the moralistic footsteps of Woodrow Wilson as just about everyone anticipated–might just be a realist in lamb’s clothing.

The Evidence for the Prosecution

The closer one looks, the better the closet realism of Barack Obama seems to get. Not only has he very often practically implemented realist policies, he has seemed to do so for very realist reasons. Here is the case for Obama being the most realist president in a generation.

Point 1: During his first term President Obama lowered American foreign policy ambitions and focused on what could actually be achieved, a primary realist impulse. Cutting previously incurred losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, a primary realist policy goal, was a centerpiece of White House policy.

Behind the limited intervention in Libya and the non-interventions in Mali and Syria, lurks a basic realist tenet. President Obama, in direct contrast to his predecessor, wanted to re-link America’s wherewithal and capabilities to what the country could actually achieve. He wanted to tailor the cloth of American foreign policy to fit the coat of objective strategic realities.

This newfound caution was based on a structural realist reading of the world. George W. Bush had gone so wrong because he truly believed he lived in a unipolar world, where America was the only significant player on the global stage, with the rest of the planet resembling an inert tabula rosa, just waiting for the reincarnation of the Roman Empire to impose its will.

After the Lehman crisis of 2008–with developed countries recovering far more slowly than emerging market rivals–Barack Obama was certain he did not live in such an unfettered world. Rather, his administration has consistently seen American as the indispensable catalyst in this new era, uniquely present everywhere, if not always deeply involved, and almost always in need of regional or international partners to accomplish much. This is not very far from the structural position of late nineteenth century Britain, 21st century America’s most obvious structural doppelganger. Lord Salisbury’s Britain was omnipresent, but not omnipotent, first among equals in a multipolar world, where a number of rivals (from America, to Japan, to the Kaiser’s Germany) were relatively gaining on it. Seeing the world clearly in a structural realist manner has conditioned all the policies that have flowed out of this surprising administration.

In terms of cutting America’s losses to fit a superpower in relative decline, President Obama has already cleared out of Iraq, despite the fact that previous neoconservative blunders have predictably left the Shia-dominated Maliki government a close ally of Iran. Rather than doubling down, compounding the Iraq error and fruitlessly staying on indefinitely, the President decided that enough was enough; that it was well past time to limit the economic and geopolitical damage to the US by ending the catastrophic intervention.

The same emphasis on limiting the damage is undoubtedly driving America’s Afghanistan policy as well. During corrupt, unrepresentative President Karzai’s recent visit to Washington in January 2013, President Obama bluntly told him America was making for the exits, sketching out plans for a very thin mission on the ground in terms of America soldiers left behind for training purposes in Afghanistan following the major pullout in 2014. The message was crystal clear. If Karzai gets his act together all well and good; but if not, America would not be around to defend the indefensible any longer. In both the Iraq and Afghanistan cases, the overarching strategic goal of the administration was to stop the madness, to limit the damage, based largely on America’s changing position in the multipolar world. These are thoroughly realist goals.

Point 2: As costly, inherited commitments wind down, the White House has made sure not to initiate any new military misadventures to take their place. Obama has repeatedly stood up to his supposed Wilsonian allies, even in the face of great bureaucratic pressure from within his administration to militarily intervene in Syria.

A primary realist adage has always been to shy away from reckless adventurism, especially in military matters, as dissipating one’s wherewithal for secondary or tertiary interests almost always comes back to haunt a country when it invariably finds its primary interests threatened. In the words of the great Bismarck, ‘when you draw the sword, you roll the dice.’

During the first term, the Obama White House routinely and resolutely disdained Wilsonian pressure for a series of military interventions, most notably in Syria. Here two years ago, and largely unreported at the time, the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department all supported an initiative to arm the Syrian rebels, suffering so horrendously at the hands of the Assad regime. Despite all this bureaucratic heft, President Obama decided against this open-ended commitment to a force of which the US knew next to nothing. He couched his disagreement in realist terms, pointing out his fear that arming the rebels was just a step on the road to full military intervention, as if the policy failed to work, pressure would only grow for direct involvement to save America’s new-found allies.

Secondly, Obama pointed out that if Assad is certainly not an American friend, it is an open question as to whether the possibly victorious rebels were likely American allies. The President feared that guns given to the rebels could easily fall into the wrong hands, ending up with Islamist radical fighters who form part of the motley Syrian opposition, something that undoubtedly could lead to trouble down the road, as has happened in the aftermath of Libya, where arms spilled into and helped destabilize Mali.

Over broader sparring as to whether America should directly militarily intervene in Syria, the President has staved off such plans, by arguing in classical realist terms. According to many present at the meetings, he has repeatedly asked for evidence that such an intervention would make things better (and how), rather than succumbing to the usual Wilsonian emotional imperative to ‘do something’ so the west could feel better about itself. Without being presented with a concrete, coherent strategy to leave Syria better off than it was found, the President has consistently refused to move.

Secondly, and more importantly in terms of America’s direct interests, in line with President Eisenhower, Obama has habitually asked the price tag of such an intervention. Following the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, where neoconservative enthusiasts failed to take into account the coming $1.5 trillion costs to an increasingly hard-pressed America, President Obama has refused to follow in the tragic footsteps of President Johnson, whose ambitious domestic Great Society initiatives were almost wholly swamped by the calamity of Vietnam. After Lehman, America has found itself a superpower on a budget. Fiscal realities make running a promiscuous foreign policy almost impossible. To the evident dismay of both neoconservatives and Wilsonians alike, President Obama refuses to accept open-ended military commitments, because they entail open-ended economic commitments.

As such, in the face of fierce and largely united bureaucratic opposition from his supposed Wilsonian allies, President Obama refused to commit American wherewithal to a risky course of action, for an area (Syria) of only secondary importance to the US, merely to stave off a humanitarian crisis, as such an intervention did not serve basic American interests. It is hard to imagine a more realist stance than this.

Point 3: Obama has shown himself prepared to negotiate with his enemies, another primary realist tenet.

In direct contradiction to the neoconservative Bush administration disdaining to talk to Tehran about its ominous nuclear program, from his first inauguration on, Barack Obama has made it clear his government was prepared to talk to the mullahs. Neocons and a good number of Wilsonians (aghast at Tehran’s terrible human rights record, particularly after the failure of the Green revolution) now will reflexively sneer, ‘And what has it gotten him?’ This is to entirely miss the underlying reasoning for Obama’s realist insistence on talking to his enemies.

If the offer of direct talks with Iran had surprisingly borne fruit, President Obama would now finally deserve the peace prize earlier and fecklessly given to him. But the failure of such talks has also served a significant and beneficial purpose. It has made it clear to the rest of the world that it is Iran, and not the United States, that is the basic problem here. While the bellicose, neoconservative Bush administration was in office, its refusal to engage Iran made America seem to many potential allies (particularly in Europe) equally as intransigent as the secretive and mendacious Iranian leadership.

But President Obama realized that by offering his hand he would win the global public relations war with the mullahs, especially if they rejected his overtures. It is impossible to imagine that the draconian sanctions that Obama and Secretary of State Clinton fashioned–where Europe has marched in lock step with America—would have been remotely possible if the White House hadn’t made a good faith effort to negotiate.

The administration was not foolish or naïve; they knew the overwhelmingly likely outcome of their talks initiative was an Iranian rejection. It was not for this reason that it was primarily undertaken. Rather, it locked Europeans and much of the rest of the world into the pro-American orbit on the Iranian nuclear issue. By neither seeing negotiation as a sign of weakness (the neocon view) nor as an end in itself (the Wilsonian view), President Obama’s realist adoption of a strategy of talking to America’s enemies has profoundly served American interests, whatever comes next.

Point four: In proper realist fashion, President Obama has not allowed himself and his government to become distracted, wasting time on lost causes that will not lend themselves to medium-term resolution.

In typical Wilsonian fashion (and no doubt influenced by her husband’s agonizingly near failure), Secretary of State Clinton has long argued the administration should spend its time focusing on the impossible: To seize the Holy Grail of securing Palestinian-Israeli peace. In 2010, she urged the president to go over the heads of their leaders—bypassing the recalcitrant Netanyahu government as well as the fatally divided leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—laying out America’s vision of what a two-state solution ought to look like, and then trying to force this down the throats of the hapless interlocutors.

Once again, the president coolly declined, citing realist reasons. It has long been a realist statement of faith that America cannot want a peace settlement in the Middle East more than the Israelis and Palestinians do. This is true due to the practical matter that if somehow a settlement were imposed on their leaderships, the minute anything went wrong—as neither Israelis nor Palestinians were stakeholders —it would be thrown overboard, condemned as a great power imposition. Only with both sides buying in could their political legitimacy be harnessed to bolster the very hard compromises that are obviously necessary.

And both sides palpably are not capable of reaching a deal at present. The absolutely debilitating Hamas-PA split means that even reaching agreement with the PA gets Israel nothing; there can be no lasting peace without Hamas signing on. And at present as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right of existence, there is no deal. Likewise, Prime Minister Netanyahu has never shown himself prepared to offer the major concessions in terms of ceding land that would be necessary for an agreement to be reached. On the contrary, he has in fits and starts advocated settlement expansion in the disputed territories, making any ultimate deal ever more difficult to reach.

In short, as neither side is in any position—or wishes to—reach an agreement, the United States cannot do so for them. An American over-preoccupation with the presently impossible would merely divert time, energy, and attention from the many things in the world that are possible, and do serve American interests. The President’s realist discipline is to be commended, as wasting time is no longer something the United States has the luxury to do.

Point Five: In stressing the Asia Pivot and above all the primacy of domestic reform, President Obama has followed realist tenets in focusing on the important strategic moves that can secure and advance primary American interests around the world.

In the words of the great American philosopher (and ‘30’s bank robber) Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, blandly replied, ‘That’s where they keep the money.’ So it goes for the Obama pivot to Asia, the brainchild of NSC Director Thomas Donilon, a holdover from the first term, having emerged as the single most important foreign policy practitioner in the administration other than the President himself.

Even before the Lehman crash of 2008, almost half of global growth was being generated by only India and China, rising great powers that America will have to increasingly contend with. The White House’s Asia focus has met with continued success, building on the successful regional policies of both the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. America now finds itself closer to long-term allies Australia (where American Marines are now stationed), Japan, and South Korea than at any time in memory. At the same time—in a classic realist hedging strategy regarding China—America has dramatically improved ties with vital India, Vietnam, and even Myanmar. America’s diplomatic focus has led China to find itself quickly surrounded by neighbors, all of whom have burgeoning ties with the United States.

At the same time America has not isolated a China that is neither its friend nor its enemy. Rather, in classical realist fashion it has engaged it, as economic ties between the two great powers grow ever closer. By classically employing both the carrot and the stick, the Obama administration has made it far more likely that over the long run China will decide (based on its own interests) to emerge as a status quo power, ultimately a source of stability in the region. If this rosy scenario fails to come to pass, at least America will find itself with numerous allies in Asia, all determined to join it in preventing a Chinese lurch towards dominance. Focusing on this new primary global engine of growth amounts to time very well spent by the administration.

But at base, even beyond the Asia pivot, the administration has long made it very clear that its primary goal is to provide for ‘nation-building at home,’ as the president has put it. It is here that the traditional Democratic zeal for bigger government can be palpably felt; it is here that one finds the primary motivation for almost everything else. While I am personally convinced that the White House’s refusal to be serious about entitlement reform and its feckless big spending ways will prove deeply damaging for the country, I am equally certain that for members of the administration this focus on government action over domestic matters is the driving force affecting and conditioning all other policies.

In short, given a second term agenda that includes immigration reform (likely), gun control reform (less likely), and climate change (not likely at all), there is precious little time or energy for foreign policy adventures of any sort. Given all that has economically happened to America post-Lehman, the president is surely correct to make righting the domestic ship of state the overriding goal of his presidency. To fail to comprehend this, is to fundamentally misunderstand Obama’s cautious, seemingly realist foreign policy, characterized above all else as being founded on creating absolutely no new problems, beyond the domestic agenda the president is determined to address.

Conclusion: It’s Even Better Than It Seems

A foreign policy that cuts prior losses (Iraq, Afghanistan), doesn’t initiate new adventures (Syria), believes in talking to enemies (Iran), does not waste time on the impossible (Palestinian-Israeli peace), and focuses on the essential (Asia, domestic issues), is all in place. Can it really be? Is President Obama the highly improbable heir of Henry Kissinger?

One difference I continually note with amusement as I shuttle between the worlds of thinkers and practitioners is how entirely differently they discuss how ideas are generated, and then clung to. In proper Cartesian fashion, foreign policy thinkers often naively seem to believe practitioners come into office with a thought out foreign policy philosophy, and then say, ‘As I am a neocon, I will now translate traditional neocon views into practical policy regarding say, Egypt.’ As if the thought and thinking trumps all.

On the other hand, practitioners often seem to think ideas do not matter, that they are not as Keynes put it, the prisoner of some long-ago and long-forgotten scribbler, as if they are all inherently pragmatic and acted without ideological preconceptions of any kind. I have long found both general views laughable, and entirely wrong. For the truth in the real world lies somewhere in between fantasy worlds where ideas are everything or they are nothing.

So if goes for the Obama administration, which to its credit is more facts-based and less dogmatic than the previous shambles of George W. Bush. Yet think if Wilsonian crusader Susan Rice had not been brought down by the Benghazi disaster, a team with her at State, Kerry at Defense, and Brennan at CIA would have us trumpeting the comeback of Wilsonianism. Given this bureaucratic political counter-factual, it is safe to say that the administration’s realism is hardly deep-rooted.

But ideas truly do matter. That is what makes Obama’s seeming realism all the more interesting. Having talked to many old friends in the administration over the past four years, the most telling thing I have come across is this struggle within many of them between their Wilsonian hearts and their increasingly realist heads.

Sure, many of my old Wilsonian friends would love to do nation building around the world, yearn for America to intervene to stop the bloodletting in Syria and other places and emotionally miss telling China it ought to treat the people of Tibet in a more kindly way. And yet for all that, they know at some intellectual level they cannot, given the countervailing realities that I have sketched out here. I imagine the President himself follows in this general, and striking pattern. Multipolarity–and the relative American economic decline that has accompanied it–has made sensible Wilsonians increasingly act like realists, because those living in the facts-based world no longer have any other choice.

So is President Obama a realist? In his heart of hearts (and of course here I can only guess), I’d imagine not. But I’d also imagine that his policy actions have led him to unwittingly drift into the realist camp, because structurally as a fact-based sort of person he has little other choice. If that holds, that is the best news realists have had for a very long time.

By Dr. John C. Hulsman, April 2013, Limes Italy

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