Historians studying Russian and German foreign policy in the last century have tried to figure out whether the strategic thinking and diplomacy of Nazi Germany’s Hitler and the Soviet Union’s Stalin were driven by traditional national interests or by the ideologies of communism and fascism.
One way of analyzing this issue would be to ask what German or Russian leaders who were clearly pursuing Realpolitik-type foreign policies–say, Peter the Great in the case of Russia or Bismarck in the case of Germany–would have done had they been in Hitler’s or Stalin’s shoes. The general consensus tends to be that Peter the Great’s foreign policy during and after World War II would not have been so different from Stalin’s conduct; and that when it came to foreign policy, Hitler was clearly no Bismarck.
I am bringing this up in part to respond to the comments by my colleague Daniel Larison and other critics of my article on Obama’s brand of Republican realism. I did point out President George H. W. Bush and his foreign policy advisors as standard bearers of Republican foreign policy realism. So Larison brings up Libya as a way of demonstrating that Obama is no Bush I.
Well, if I am not mistaken Bush the Elder deployed hundreds of thousand of U.S. troops into Iraq, Panama and Somalia. In all these cases, Bush and his advisors justified the interventions in “internationalist” terms: Saddam violated international law by invading Kuwait; Panama’s leader was a drug dealer; and Somalia was facing a humanitarian crisis.
There is a clear realist argument to be made that those military interventions didn’t advance U.S. interests. And the only good thing that you could say about Desert Storm is that (in my view) Bush I decided not to invade Iraq and depose its leader, which he did in Panama.
So one must explain why a non-direct U.S. military intervention in Libya should be considered more “internationalist” and “interventionist” and less “realist” than the first Iraq war, Panama, and Somalia.
Moreover, I assume that Larison and others do agree that President Eisenhower–whose Secretary of State called for the rollback of Communism and toyed with the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons–not to mention the Nixon-Kissinger team, which escalated the war in Southeast Asia, among other things, were realists. And what about Reagan?
It all depends on how you define “realism” or “Republican foreign policy realism.” Larison seems to equate these terms with his own version of what U.S. foreign policy should be today. That’s fine. And if future Republican presidents do follow his advice, we would clearly need to update those definitions.
The point that I want to make is not that Obama is a non-interventionist president in the tradition of, say, Robert Taft, who probably wasn’t as non-interventionist as some suggest. This is the kind of policy that I am personally more inclined to support.
But I do believe that if Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush I, and Reagan had occupied the White House between 2008 and 2012 they would have pursued a foreign policy that would have looked and felt very much like the one being advanced by the current Democratic president. With this view, the choice in 2012 was whether to elect a Bush I (Obama) or a Bush II (Romney).