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Obama Still Isn’t a Realist

Jonah Goldberg’s understanding of realism is deficient:

During a crisis, the temptation is always to sacrifice the idealistic to the demands of the moment, i.e. to be a buck-passer. Why create problems by supporting this dissident or condemning that stolen election? Why make a ruckus about freedom of the press or the rule of law? Why honor this inconvenient treaty when we have so much to gain from trade with our ally’s enemies? Save the idealism for later.

That’s the process that kept Mubarak in power for 30 years. It’s also the process that, over time, leads to everyone hating you, because no one trusts you.

Since Goldberg builds his argument around the conceit that Obama is a realist, it is worth emphasizing once again that this doesn’t describe his foreign policy very well at all. Realist is a name that is given to almost everyone who isn’t a neoconservative, liberal interventionist, or non-interventionist, and that lumps together people with very different policy views and assumptions into one category that can’t possibly accommodate them all. Thus Obama the “realist” approves of policies in Syria or Libya (or Egypt) that befuddle or outrage many self-identified realists, but somehow this has no effect on the idea that this is how Obama’s foreign policy should be classified. Just as the phrase “national interest” can be defined in a number of conflicting ways, realist is a label whose meaning varies widely depending on who is using it and what it is being used to describe. It can be deployed as a term of abuse, as Goldberg uses it here, or it can be used as a placeholder to designate some middle ground between non-interventionism and support for “benevolent global hegemony,” but it is often not used with much precision.

Just a few paragraphs earlier in his column, Goldberg cited Robert Merry‘s criticism of Obama’s handling of Egypt, yet he didn’t seem to notice that many self-identified realists including Merry don’t approve of a lot of Obama’s foreign policy record and don’t consider him to be one of them. When using Obama’s record to indict realism for its supposed ad hoc qualities, it might be worth noting that many realists fault Obama for sometimes seeming to have no clear idea of what he wants his policies to achieve.

Probably the most irritating part of the column is when he dredges up the U.S. response to Green movement protests in Iran, since it doesn’t even prove what Goldberg thinks it does:

During Iran’s Green Revolution, he stood pat as the mullahs crushed a democracy movement seeking to overthrow a regime hostile to U.S. interests.

Goldberg’s first error is in assuming that the protesters sought to overthrow the regime, which they weren’t. Critics of the U.S. response to the protests in Iran have been pushing this misrepresentation of the Green movement for over four years. The other problem here is that this isn’t an example of Obama acting as a “buck-passer” or yielding to the “demands of the moment.” A truly ad hoc response in that instance would have been to endorse the protesters in Iran without giving any thought to the consequences for U.S. policy towards Iran, the Iranian government’s response, or the eventual disappointment that would follow when presidential rhetoric wasn’t matched by any specific actions. Since there was nothing practical that the U.S. could have done constructively to aid the Green movement, one has to wonder what Goldberg thinks should have been done. Almost everything that Obama did wrong in response to the 2011 protests in Egypt and Syria came from making rhetorical commitments that he wouldn’t or couldn’t back up later, and ever since his policies have been trying and failing to catch up to his public statements. Obama avoided making this sort of mistake on Iran in 2009, but in response to almost every foreign protest movement since then he has bought into the silly idea that it was vitally important that he “speak out” even when he would have been better-served by saying as little as possible.

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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