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Realism, Non-Interventionism and Obama

Probably foolishly, I’m going to weigh in on the HadarLarison contretemps over whether Obama is a “realist.”

To start, allow me to put in a word for retiring the word “realist” as a prescriptive rather than a descriptive term. “Realism” already refers to a theory of foreign relations according to which such relations are driven by the national interest. Not should be – are – that’s why it’s a descriptive rather than a prescriptive term. Using the same word to refer to people who think our foreign policy should be driven by national interest only confuses matters.

Moreover, I don’t think the prescriptive assertion that foreign policy should be driven by national interest actually gets you very far. Jeffersonian non-interventionists and “hard-Wilsonians” alike think that their preferred policies are ultimately in America’s interest, even though the first camp would not intervene in a situation where there is a real prospect of short-term loss from abstaining, while the latter would intervene in situations where there is no immediate and obvious interest at stake for the sake of building a larger “international order” that, they would say, is ultimately in our highest interest.

Finally, in post-war America there have been no principled non-interventionist Presidents, and even in pre-WW II America the pickings are slim. So if we’re going to compare Obama’s record against some standard to see where he fits historically, that standard should have something to do with actual history.

What’s interesting if you look at the actual history is that there’s not always a particularly good fit between where we situate a President ideologically and what their actual behavior was in office. Eisenhower is looked back on now as the model of prudence, with some reason. But he was hardly a principled non-interventionist (IranGuatemalaLebanon?). And under his tenure, the lines of the Cold War hardened if anything. Eisenhower’s Administration largely took the Cold War division of the world and the forward defense posture of the United States as a given, and aimed to opportunistically pursue advantage in that contest without triggering full-scale war. Unlike Washington, who left office warning about entangling alliances that he had avoided, Eisenhower left office warning about a military-industrial complex that he had helped build.

Reagan, meanwhile, is looked back on as an ideological anti-Communist warrior – again, with good reason. But Reagan had arguably one of the least-interventionist post-war records President. Left-wing opponents of the Administration were incensed by covert support for anti-Communist groups in Angola and Nicaragua (particularly because the latter was illegal). Reagan sent American troops briefly to Lebanon, only to withdraw them; he invaded the tiny nation of Grenada; and he used American naval power in the Gulf and air power against Libya. But compare this record with, say, Nixon’s record of foreign intervention. It’s no contest. Meanwhile, Reagan pursued the most far-reaching armaments reductions of any post-war President, the first ones to include elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons.

And Reagan’s successor, who is viewed in retrospect – once again, with reason – as a prudential realist, was the man who uttered the phrase, “a  New World Order” to explain what would follow the Cold War whose end game he managed so expertly. This order involved an invasion of Panama many times the size of any operation Reagan ever authorized, and a war in Kuwait to oust Iraqi invaders that dwarfed Operation Just Cause in turn. While he presided over a significant draw-down in American defense expenditures, he also presided over a significant expansion of expectations for American involvement in overseas conflicts.

Eisenhower’s reputation for prudence is due in part to comparison with his predecessor and successors. People assume (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly) that since he cleaned up the Korean War he would have handled the peninsula better from the start, and that he would not have escalated our involvement in the defense of South Vietnam as Kennedy and Johnson did. Reagan’s reputation for belligerence is due in part to comparison with his predecessors, Carter and Ford, who governed during the atypical post-Vietnam trough. The first President Bush, meanwhile, was quickly outflanked post-Gulf War from the hawkish right both within his party and by the Democratic opposition. While before the war there was a great deal of hand-wringing about the risks we were taking, the easy victory changed the terms of debate completely, and the question became: why didn’t you finish the job? And why aren’t you aggressively promoting your New World Order in Yugoslavia? In China? In the former Soviet Union? If these are the questions being asked, then of course Bush I comes off as a model of prudent restraint.

President Obama, like all post-war American Presidents, Republican and Democrat, is not an instinctive anti-interventionist. He’s an internationalist, with both liberal-internationalist and conservative-internationalist inclinations, and that’s reflected in his record. He is governing, like Nixon, in a period of retrenchment, and like Nixon he has been laboring primarily to prevent loss rather than to advance. Like Nixon as well, he makes few bones about legal restraints on his authority. But I tend to agree with Hadar that his record fits in pretty well with post-war Republican predecessors who we tend to call, rightly or wrongly, “realist.”

Contra Larison, even his Libyan adventure can be understood partly in these terms. Yes, the strongest domestic champions of the war argued from the grounds of “responsibility-to-protect,” a liberal-internationalist project to create rule-bound justification for humanitarian intervention that, in practice, would undermine the entire structure of international law. But the war was primarily a French project with strong support from the UK, and was supported by the Gulf states. And a significant motivation for the President to engage was to show that America would be a supportive ally and not merely a demanding one. That may not have been a good enough reason to go to war (I don’t think it was), but it’s a very different context from the Iraq War.

(It’s also a very different context from the Suez escapade, which Eisenhower opposed firmly. That war was widely understood in the region as a power grab by the old imperial powers, and American support would have had very negative consequences for our position in the non-aligned world, which Eisenhower understood. Of course, we wound up “losing” Egypt and much of the non-aligned world anyway, but my point is that the Libyan war had considerable support from within the region, and even Turkey changed from opposition to support of a NATO role once the U.N. authorized action.)

As for comparisons to the elder Bush years, I’m not clear why Libya looks to Larison so much like Yugoslavia and yet so little like Panama (where we deposed a former ally) or Somalia (where we intervened for humanitarian reasons). And it’s also worth recalling that the “Christmas warning” to Milosevic not to intervene militarily in Kosovo (an integral part of Serbia and Yugoslavia at the time) lest he face an American military response was issued by the first President Bush in 1992 before leaving office, a warning which was the basis for President Clinton’s subsequent reiterations and then intervention in that conflict. So even if Libya was Obama’s Kosovo (in many ways a good comparison), President Clinton’s intervention was more a continuation of the first President Bush’s policy than a repudiation thereof.

Advocates of principled non-interventionism should recognize that they are swimming against the overwhelming tide of American foreign policy going back to the Founders’ generation. Internationalist advocates of retrenchment and a return to a less-forward defense posture (like myself) need to recognize that few if any dominant military powers have managed that transition elegantly and peacefully. It is very easy – and valuable – to point out the folly or danger of individual uses of military force, and I think Larison does a real service in doing so. But all of these acts take place within a larger context that is equally worth analyzing, and analyzing not only against an abstract ideal but against actual historical precedent.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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