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Obama Still Isn’t a Realist

Jonah Goldberg’s understanding [1] 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 [2] 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.

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11 Comments To "Obama Still Isn’t a Realist"

#1 Comment By James Canning On July 9, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

Is Jonah Goldberg aware that the “Greens” in Iran helped to block the proposed nuclear exchange, that would have gone a good way toward resolving the Iranian nuclear dispute?

#2 Comment By James Canning On July 9, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

Let’s remember the damage done to the reformers in Iran, by the George W. Bush administration. Utter stupidity, helping to discredit Iranian leaders who wanted better relations with the US.

#3 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On July 9, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

Neocons seem to believe that if Obama had just spoken up forcefully enough on behalf of the protesters in Iran, they would have been successful. They also believe Ronald Reagan toppled the Soviet Union just by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Their faith in the power of words is astonishing.

#4 Comment By dSquib On July 9, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

The Green movement thing is particularly weird considering the most recent election in Iran. Well, it’s not weird, just incoherent. I doubt Goldberg is very pleased with Rouhani’s victory.

I don’t admire Obama’s hawkish foreign policy in the least, but the fact that he seems not entirely committed to any “vision” in particular is if anything a blessing.

#5 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On July 9, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

Good point on the varieties of “realism.”

To me, it means not imposing our own ideological preferences (for democracy, etc.), but instead looking to defense of the homeland, access to resources, and promotion of trade as the goals of foreign policy.

Thus, Mr. Merry’s peroration:

“With Mubarak, as with Morsi, an appropriate approach might have been to say something like this: “’The president of the United States, representing the American people, wishes the government of Egypt and the Egyptian people well as they struggle with the internal issues before them. We have abiding respect for the Egyptian people and the Egyptian nation, and we fully expect to remain friends with Egypt into the future, as we have in the past, irrespective of the outcome of the country’s current efforts to define its future. So long as Egypt conducts itself in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests, we will continue to support it with due regard for the fact that it is a great nation in an important region of the world.’”

If only.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 9, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

The President is a realist. He has said in regards to his many broken promises, which were the reason for his initial election, that keeping them “would have pissed off too many powerful people.”

The most powerful interests, the banksters and Beltway Bandits, become indistinguishable from government, therefore continue to get just the policies they want.
Regardless of how counterproductive they look to Main Street, these endless conflict policies benefit them mightily in war contracts, dragnet population surveillance and military foreign aid.

If ever one of those wars exclusively paid for by taxpayers do have any economic benefit, that will accrue to them alone, minus a few campaign donations and revolving-door sinecures.

How realistic can you get?

#7 Comment By Gordon Hanson On July 9, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

This is an excellent post on realism, Mr. Larison. I have written in comments online for years that National Review was once a first-rate publication 35 or 40 years ago and more, boasting writers there like its owner, William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Chilton Williamson, Steven Tonsor und so weiter, and now in its shriveled form it puts up the likes of Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg and Kathryn Jean Lopez. Conservatives sure are right about the decline of standards; its publications are a prime exhibit of this phenomenon, the shining example of The American Conservative, excepted of course.

#8 Comment By Ray S. On July 9, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

I wouldn’t say his support of the Arab “Spring”was being a realist. Not at all. He is closer to neocon,way closer than many of his admirers want to admit.

#9 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 9, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

Realism isn’t an ideology so much as it is an absence of ideology; it’s a position of “we’ll do what makes since based on some metric of our choosing”, where “some metric of our choosing” is usually tied to the wealth or power of some special interest or another.

Seen that way–naked imperialism can be viewed as a form of realism, though it’s not how usually those who view themselves as realists use the term.

(And often times ideology is a mere fig leaf for some real motive, one that cannot be spoken of in polite company).

Sensible realism includes such things as a) the capabilities of the nation whose policy is being determined, b) the well-being of all the citizenry (not just special interests), and c) both a long term and short term perspective. And yes, it does include ideological or moral judgments; often the time the thing that holds imperialism in check is a judgment that “it’s wrong”, not a judgment that “we lack the capacity, or it will come back to bite us thirty years from now”.

As far as Goldberg: He’s a partisan hack, who would likely criticize Obama for any foreign policy posture other than “war on Iran”, and his thoughts on the matter should be ignored as unserious.

#10 Comment By James Canning On July 9, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

Was Obama a “realist” when he backed General Petraeus and his call for trebling US military presence in Afghanistan? Obama apparently believed it would fail to pacify the country.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 10, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

“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.”

I think this should be what it is — vastly overstated. Mubrak was not hated initially. And he wasn’t hated by everyone because he was a realist. The reality if I may so use the term was that Egypt is in the midst of a very intense economic and food crisis as is usually the case in the region when tensions boil over to violence. And here one must the distinction between realist and pragmatist. They are not unknown to collide.

If realism doesn’t put food on the table — you have a problem pragmatism does. But it does so in a method in which only those considered of value get fed first – which may or may not leave enough to feed everyone else — and that make people angry — those w/o bread.

Your current pal in the wh is not a realist. He’s more of pragmatist — but the pragmatism is so small/narrow as to sheild him from responsibility for a single action or decision.

He care as to the crisis extended no further than what protected him from blame. His pragmatism is so short sighted that he most likely did not read the real world consequences of healthcare or in only doling money to those who actually by intent caused the crisis as opposed to the overall national impacts, the problem with being an elite is that you cater to elite interests.

Because the current wh occupant has no practical – real world view experience — his mother apparently failed in her bid to expose him to a greater world view in which empathy can be policy as opposed to a manippulative self serving tool. Imagine that a national healthcare proposal that delivers to the private industry guaranteed incomes by the force of government —- hence a policy which taxes those it was meant to serve. Having actually removing competition from the equation – the price of healthcare will continue to rise. And this wh occupant will fine you if you cannot afford to pay — a pragmatist, not a realist.

Yet the elite also served by the same I guess continue to fawn and pander all over him as he is one of their own —-

Foreign policy has not been about policy, but about eschewing blame for any of its consequences. Pressure the military to out Mubarak, “ooooopsss, ” pressure the military by threat of aid withdrawal — to out Morsi —

Despite the elections the admin touted.

He will continue to live in a world out reality for it seems we have entered an age in which the elites thrive on fantasy — even if they have to be pragmatic to maintain it at the country’s expense.