Obama Isn’t a Realist, But His Administration Accepts Realist Refugees from the GOP
To answer the question in the title of Leon Hadar’s new article, no, Obama isn’t a realist in the tradition of Scowcroft and the elder Bush. Inasmuch as his foreign policy has been less reckless and less aggressive, there have been things that realists, Republican and otherwise, can find in it that they support, but Obama still has the worldview and instincts of a liberal internationalist that will always separate him from that realist tradition in some important ways. The administration may have launched the Libyan war grudgingly and mostly because it was urged to do so by France and Britain (France is now meddling in Mali in a belated, misguided attempt to cope with the consequences of the war in Libya), but intervention in Libya was exactly what one wouldn’t expect from “a replica of the administration of George H.W. Bush.” Obama launched the Libyan war over the objections of Robert Gates, so we cannot rule out the possibility that he could do the same elsewhere over the objections of a Secretary Hagel. I’m not saying that this will happen, but only that it could. If this were “a replica of the administration of George H.W. Bush,” we would presumably be able to rule that out.
The most interesting thing about Dr. Hadar’s article is that a realist scholar still wants to make the argument for Obama-as-realist even after the Libyan war. That points us to something important about the foreign policy debate during the election and the Republicans’ deficiencies on foreign policy. As we all know, the Iraq war thoroughly discredited the GOP with many realists on the right, and they turned sharply against the party during the last decade, but their traditional political “home” was still most likely to be the Republican Party. During the last six years, the Democrats made room for those that movement conservative pundits often like to call “natural” Republicans on foreign policy. Instead of trying to appeal to them to win them back, the common Republican hawkish response was to curse them as they left. The Republican foreign policy tent continues to shrink because the people still inside it seem to want it that way, and there are still remarkably few in the party willing to argue otherwise.
The McCain campaign obviously had nothing appealing to offer realists on foreign policy, but the 2012 ticket might have. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead of breaking with Bush-era folly and recklessness, the 2012 ticket embraced most of what was wrong with Bush-era foreign policy and made one of its reliable supporters the vice presidential nominee. That left Hadar and other alienated realists with the choice of supporting Obama, not voting, or casting a protest vote. In Hadar’s case, the last two weren’t acceptable, which left him supporting Obama for this reason:
I voted for Obama in order to deprive Romney and the members of his foreign policy clique from getting us into new military adventures and quagmires that would have made the invasion of Iraq look like a picnic on the shores of the Euphrates.
Romney gave realists, moderates, and antiwar conservatives and libertarians absolutely no reason to support him because of foreign policy and national security issues. Some may never support a future Republican nominee, but unless the next nominee offers a substantively very different foreign policy from the one that the party has been selling for the last decade virtually all of these people are going to withhold their support permanently. That doesn’t simply deprive Republicans of their support in the present, but creates a lasting impression with each new cohort of voters that they must not be trusted with the conduct of foreign policy. It is in the party’s own interest to fix this problem, and until it does the opposing party will reap the benefits whether it deserves them or not.