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Obama and Realism

Leon Hadar responds to my post on Obama and realism:

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.

Dr. Hadar is correct that there were good realist arguments against the elder Bush’s wars and the deployment to Somalia. Except for the Somalia mission, it is possible to see how a president generally inclined towards foreign policy realism could conclude that military action served U.S. interests (very broadly defined) in those instances. I don’t think the same can be said for the Libyan war, whose justifications were entirely divorced from any consideration of national interests or national security. Indeed, some of the Libyan intervention’s strongest supporters took pride in the fact that the war had no connection to U.S. interests. The Libyan war was the sort of military intervention that the elder Bush’s administration specifically refused to support in the Balkans in the early ’90s. As a general rule, an administration that launches “humanitarian” military interventions in conflicts in which the U.S. has nothing at stake can’t be described as realist if realist refers to the foreign policy thinking of Nixon/Kissinger or Bush/Scowcroft.

I used the Libyan war as an example of why Obama shouldn’t be considered a realist in the Brent Scowcroft-George H.W. Bush tradition, because I think it’s clear that this is the sort of war that the elder Bush would not and did not engage in when he was in office. I certainly don’t object to the description of Romney as a second George W. Bush on foreign policy, and I’ve described Romney in those terms many times. I would agree that on some issues (e.g., arms control, relations with major powers, Israel/Palestine) Obama is much closer to the elder Bush than Romney was, but I still don’t see how this merits describing Obama as a realist, much less a Republican one.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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