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Is Barack Obama Really a Realist?

At the risk of turning this site into an online seminar on international relations, I feel obliged to respond to comments made by my colleagues Daniel Larison and Noah Millman in response to my earlier post about Obama and foreign-policy realism GOP-style.

I think that this discussion is important because Republican leaders and conservative/ libertarian thinkers need to bid farewell to the neoconservative agenda and to embrace a new foreign-policy doctrine. That process should evolve out of the re-examination of U.S. global interests and result in the readjustment of American policies to the changing geo-political and geo-economic realities. But this debate hasn’t been taking place among Republicans and conservatives who seem to be ceding the control over it to President Obama, with Republican Chuck Hagel being now part of his national-security team.

I do agree with Noah that realism is an international-relations theory and that it is difficult to identify “realists” or their old intellectual rivals, the “idealists,” in the real world of foreign policy. But in the narratives we draw up about the debates over social and economic policies, “conservatives” and “liberals” play the leading role—even though, like “realists” and “idealists,” they are nothing more than “ideal types” to use Max Weber’s terminology, a construct that helps us make sense of the messy social and political reality around us by stressing the common characteristics of a certain phenomenon or school of thought.

So, for example, we all recognize and accept that there are conservatives who are “pro-choice” (in itself an ideal type) and who support gay marriage and some liberals who are “pro-life” and are opposed to the decriminalization of the use of marijuana. But we use the term “liberal” or “conservative” to describe the political views of someone, instead of detailing all his or her positions on political issue, even when some of his or her views are exceptions to the type.

Similarly, consider, for example, Democrat Zbigniew Brzezinski, who together with Republican Brent Scrowcroft is considered now by the Washington establishment as the elder statesman of American realism. Zbigniew is strongly committed to the main tenets of Realpolitik and argues that America’s. strategic interests, and not its devotion to lofty ideals like human rights. should determine U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to the use of military power, which explains why he supports expanding U.S. ties with China.

But then whenever the issue of American policy towards Russia comes up, “Zbig” is transformed into a flaming idealist, charging the Russians with the violation of human rights and repression of ethnic minorities, and urges Washington to punish Moscow. Why the difference between the attitude towards China and to Russia? Well, I invite you to lunch at your favorite Polish restaurant if you know the answer.

In short, one man’s realist can be another man’s idealist under certain conditions. But Brzezinski still remains a realist in my book, one who believes in the main principle of the American tradition of realism, as defined by the political thinker Walter Lippmann, that foreign policy “has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance” and the nation “must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes.”

But I certainly agree with Noah and Daniel that it would be difficult to pigeonhole the U.S. presidents since 1945 as exclusively realists or idealists, since they have all pursued policies that exhibited elements of both these schools of thought.

One should recall that the first and second president Bush alike used realist and idealist rationales to justify their interventions in Iraq. The realist Bush the Elder, like a good old fashioned Wilsonian, compared Saddam to Hitler and argued that the occupation of Kuwait violated international law and that Iraq was committing atrocities in Kuwait. The neoconservative Bush the Younger sounded the Realpolitik man of action when he alleged that Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction and that it posed a direct threat to the interests of the U.S. and its allies.

Yet as someone who has written quite forcefully against the Obama administration’s decision intervene indirectly in the civil war in Libya—who argued that it was Europe’s affair and that Washington shouldn’t follow France’s lead there—and who was also opposed to the Clinton administration’s direct intervention in the civil war in Yugoslavia, I don’t buy the Larison Axiom that these are the two case-studies that allow us to decide who is a real realist and who is not.

In both cases, it was possible to support U.S. military intervention based on consideration of American national interests. For example, read a golden oldie, The Third American Empire from 1996 in which self-proclaimed realists Jacob Heilbrunn and Michael Lind explained why the deployment of American troops into the former Yugoslavia should be seen as part of the protection of U.S. geostrategic interests. From my realist perspective, they were wrong. But their credentials as realists remained intact. And while it’s true that the first Bush resisted the pressure to intervene in Yugoslavia, I am not sure that he wouldn’t have done the same as Clinton did if elected to a second term.

In any case, since Daniel mentioned U.S. interests, French intervention, and Dwight Eisenhower in the same sentence, let me remind him that as Fredrik Logevall details in Embers of War, Eisenhower supported French efforts to secure its colonial possessions in Southeast Asia during the 1950s through massive military and diplomatic assistance and decided to replace it as the hegemon in South Vietnam after the French were kicked out (with Republican Nixon extending the war there until the bitter end) making Obama’s intervention in Libya look like a French aperitif. And I’m not even mentioning Republican presidents (including Eisenhower) practicing regime change in Iran (in coordination with the Brits), Guatemala, Lebanon, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, Panama, and Congo, among other places.

Again, based on my reading of President Obama’s foreign policy, including his resistance to get drawn into intervention in Syria and into war with Iran, his muddling through or empiricist approach toward the so-called Arab Spring, his ending the war in Iraq and accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the emphasis on the U.S. relationship with other great powers and on the need to protect U.S. interests as opposed to the global promotion of democracy, I would argue that when its comes to foreign policy and national security, President Obama can be compared favorably with Republican President George H. W. Bush. And in contrast to the current Republican foreign policy agenda—with its emphasis of invading countries and doing regime change here, there, and everywhere—President Obama is at least trying to bring U.S. global commitments and power into some balance.

about the author

Leon Hadar is a foreign policy analyst, author, and contributing editor at TAC. He holds a Ph.D. from American University, and is the author of the books Quagmire: America in the Middle East and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. He is geopolitical expert with RANE Network, a former Cato Institute research fellow, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Washington Times, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the National Interest.

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