Paul Saunders makes the case that Obama has never been a realist on foreign policy:
If we take President Obama at his word that he is not a realist—and there are good reasons to do so—his administration’s long flirtation with foreign-policy realism and especially with the Left’s “progressive realists” raises two important questions. First, why were the president and his advisers comfortable with longtime and widely held perceptions that he was a realist? Second, what changed their minds?
I mostly agree with Saunders for reasons I’ve laid out before. There are a few reasons why Obama has been wrongly described as a realist over the years. First, the realist label is frequently misused and applied to almost every non-neoconservative internationalist on both right and left. That has meant that many people with deeply opposed views can be lumped together under this name. When everyone from Kissinger to Obama can be identified with the same label, the label is so vague and generic that it no longer means anything. Second, there have been a few specific issues where many realists have found Obama administration policies to be an improvement over the policies of the previous administration, and so some realists have given their qualified support to a small number of the president’s decisions. Finally, predominantly Republican hawkish critics of the administration have been eager to blame Obama’s supposed realism for whatever it is that they dislike about his policies, but this mostly just tells us how determined they are to define themselves in opposition to realists and how obsessed they are with demonizing them. Events over the last two or three years–and administration responses to them–have made it virtually impossible to maintain the pretenses that Obama is a realist and that most realists approve of his overall foreign policy.
To answer Saunders’ questions, my guess is that the administration didn’t care that much that Obama was often portrayed as a realist. If Obama and his advisers were “comfortable” with this portrayal, it was the comfort of indifference. Then again, I’m not sure that Obama and his advisers were all that comfortable with this portrayal. At several key moments over the last three years, Obama has opted for policies that most realists rejected at the time, and he usually did so while indulging in excessive and unwise rhetorical flourishes. Libya is one obvious example of this, but the same could be said of his handling of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well. Except for pursuing diplomacy with Iran, there is nothing significant from the last three years that Obama has done abroad that most realists would support. The so-called “pivot” was one of the few things that realists liked about Obama’s foreign policy, but it has amounted to very little in practice. Obama’s shot at “self-described realists” earlier this summer told us that he didn’t want to be thought of as one and that he genuinely dislikes their foreign policy arguments. It is no wonder then that he hasn’t governed this way.