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Obama Outlines Realist Policy, Rejects Realist Label

Obama-West-Point-2014

My latest for The National Interest, “Barack Obama Gets Realistic at West Point,” has posted. Naturally, it focuses on the president’s speech to the Class of 2014.

Obama transitioned to an odd straw man: “Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.” The president declared that “in the 21st century American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.”

But few realists of any significance, and certainly none that have been in positions of power in the last seven decades, advocate isolationism, much less counsel ignoring what happens beyond our borders. After all, foreign-policy professionals spend their lives focused on the world beyond our borders.

No realist I know—and I know plenty—would disagree with Obama’s assessment that, “If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked—whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military. We can’t ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.”

Nor, frankly, do most realists disagree that “we have a real stake, an abiding self-interest, in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped and where individuals are not slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative, it also helps to keep us safe.”

Where realists differ with idealists and liberal interventionists and neocons is not that those things matter but how one responds to them and how one balances these interests with others. Most notably, we’re generally skeptical of the use of military power to solve nonmilitary threats.

The good news is that, despite eschewing the realist label and lacing his speeches with idealist rhetoric, the Obama of 2014 is very much a realist in practice. After the above set-up, he got down to matters of actual policy and declared, “to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences—without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”

After substantial analysis, I close:

Making grown-up decisions based on the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be, is at the heart of realism. I’ll settle for a president that practices realism while rejecting the label. We have, after all, suffered from the reverse—the results of which are far worse.

In this, I differ with my co-blogger Doug Mataconis, who decried “Obama’s Cloudy Foreign Policy Vision.” As regular readers know, I’m largely in agreement with Doug that,

When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama has clearly failed to live up to the promise that was implicit in his campaign and election in 2008. Far from restoring American credibility in the world in the wake of the Bush Administration’s Iraq War and War On Terror policies, he has instead doubled down on many of them while at the same time implementing other policies that seem to lack any clear vision at all. At the same time he was moving forward with the process of completing the American disengagement from Iraq, for example, he quite literally doubled down on the War in Afghanistan with a “surge” strategy that didn’t really seem to make any sense from the beginning. We had gone into Afghanistan with the mission of locating and destroying al Qaeda and beating back the Taliban government that had harbored the terrorist organization. That mission was quite successful even before Obama took office, but at some point our mission turned into one designed to prop up the government in Kabul and fight Karzai’s civil war for him. The War On Terror, meanwhile, shifted tactics to a drone war that, while successful in many respect, has also resulted in countless civilian casualties that have helped to stir up resentment against the United States in Pakistan and elsewhere.

I consider the Afghan surge the low point of this president’s foreign policy. But I tend to see the lack of the “vision thing” as more a feature than a bug.

When you look at everything else, though, it’s hard to see what direction the President wanted to take. The surge in Afghanistan seemed more like his realization that he had to fulfill a campaign promise about concentrating on the “good war” than anything else. To the extent there was a justification for the intervention in Libya, it involved the so-called “Responsibility To Protect” doctrine, but the fact that the Administration avoided intervention in other conflicts where the human rights crisis was far worse, such as Syria, made clear that this doctrine was little more than words and certainly not the basis for a coherent foreign policy.

I opposed the Libya intervention and maintain that, despite the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, a villain from my undergraduate days, don’t think it accomplished any tangible good while making a volatile region even more unstable. But at least the intervention was constrained and one where we let our NATO allies take a substantial burden. That Obama was “inconsistent” in failing to engage in the Syria debacle is generally a good thing.

I wrote the piece this morning, before Daniel Larison published his pre-rebuttal, rejecting the notion that the realist “label has been expanded to include almost every internationalist who isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist.” While I take his point—Obama is no Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft—American foreign policy has been so dominated the last twenty-odd years by neocons and liberal interventionists that I think defining the criteria for intervention in terms of American “core interests” is close enough to realism to count.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. ralphb says:

    I generally agree with your viewpoint here. Reading most critiques of President Obama’s speech, I presume they were written mostly by fearless members of the 101st Fighting Keyboardists who don’t have the advantage of personal experience to form their views of war.

    Realism is the only view which appears to work in a dangerous world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  2. Tillman says:

    But I tend to see the lack of the “vision thing” as more a feature than a bug.

    I generally agree. I mean, you can’t say “maintain hegemony” is much of a vision, but I figure that’s what we try to do generally.

    If the surge in Afghanistan and the Libyan war had been lone incidents, you could have passed them off as hiccups inside a grand strategy, but both of them in the same term no less makes it harder to parse what the goal is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. CB says:

    While I take his point—Obama is no Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft—American foreign policy has been so dominated the last twenty-odd years by neocons and liberal interventionists that I think defining the criteria for intervention in terms of American “core interests” is close enough to realism to count.

    I don’t think this represents any imminent shift, but I couldn’t agree more with your closing, at least rhetorically. Where this goes politically, who knows, but as ever, incremental change is the name of the game.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Tyrell says:

    Don’t go in unless you have a plan to win. None of this “half try”, ‘holding on” stuff. All out, or stay out.
    “No terms except unconditional surrender” (General Grant)
    Have a plan to get out, with honor, no bugging out.
    “If in doubt, attack” (General Patton)

    That is a realistic policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:
    So how do you square that with your support of Republicans ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. mantis says:

    But few realists of any significance, and certainly none that have been in positions of power in the last seven decades, advocate isolationism, much less counsel ignoring what happens beyond our borders. After all, foreign-policy professionals spend their lives focused on the world beyond our borders.

    Does a seat in the US Senate count as a position of power? I’m not sure it does as far as foreign policy goes, but we’ve got a few isolationists there, including one with a sizeable national following who will probably run for president in 2016.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. C. Clavin says:

    I’m OK with no grand strategy…beyond dealing with each sutuation based on your core principals.
    Which he laid out clearly; we’ve got a big hammer but every problem isn’t a nail.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @mantis:
    But if Dick thinks Obama, who killed OBL and Ghaddafi and a ton of folks by drones, is weak….what’s he gonna think about Doug’s man Rand???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: I don’t think Rand Paul is a realist. Nor, for that matter, despite a seat on the Foreign Relations committee, do I see him as a foreign policy professional. He’s a domestic libertarian who extends that viewpoint to foreign affairs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Dog save us from people with a “Vision”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Eric Florack says:

    An improvement?
    I must say, based on what I’m seeing, even from his own people, you’re likely as near to alone as no matter in that view, James.

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  12. stonetools says:

    Obama once objected to people criticizing his foreign policy on “style points”, rather than his accomplishments. I think there is a lot of truth to that.
    Most of the criticism comes across as foreign policy expert wankery. Such people are always calling for a clear statement of principles-a “doctrine” they can criticize, annotate, and put into a box, often without reference to the actual real world results of any presidential policy. People seem to want the President to be a “Maud’Dib”, a clairvoyant who can foresee every development in foreign policy. Others seem to think the President should have Jedi like powers to control the behavior of other world leaders. Even those who don’t expect the President to be a superhero, fall back on such tired tropes as bewailing that the President is not “projecting strength” or “showing resolve”, etc.
    I have a more humble view of Presidential foreign policy. I don’t expect the President to “get it right” , i.e. always agree with me on FP. What I expect is that he at the very least avoid major errors, I.e. the kind of errors that get us involved in foreign interventions that cost us far more than they are worth. IMO Obama has done this.
    Even with the Afghan surge, I think he made the decision to go about it in the right way. It did not work out to our advantage, but he thought hard about the decision and listened to the experts. The surge didn’t work out because his local partner-Karzai- was corrupt and incompetent to an extent that none of his experts foresaw. Had that not been the case, it may have worked. In any case, when it became clear that his local partner was not up to the job , he did the right thing and bailed.
    As to Libya, acting in partnership with Britain and France, he achieved the overthrow of a brutal dictator at little cost. The Libyans have had a tough time establishing a stable government since then, but that’s not Obama’s fault and it is not currently costing us anything. I still count that as more of a success than a failure at this point.
    If we look at Obama’s record and compare it-not to a hypothetical Maud’Dib but say, Henry Kissinger’s record-the secret war in Cambodia, support of Pinochet’s murderous coup, the collapse of South Vietnam, etc, 20,000 American war dead-I can’t say Obama is doing any worse. Sure, Kissinger talked a good game. But the Kissinger era was not one of uncontested American foreign policy triumphs.
    Right now, the President has extracted the US out of two foreign wars, avoided us getting into the Syran quagmire, forestalled Putin in Ukraine and “pivoted” to the Pacific, just in time to face a more belligerent China. I think he is doing OK. We know for certain he could have done far worse.

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