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Should we fear Obama’s “realism”?

Should we fear Obama’s “realism”?

By Aaron Friedberg

As President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies come increasingly into focus, a sharp distinction between the two is beginning to emerge. On the home front, the new administration has veered sharply to the left and is now proposing an array of measures that will raise spending, redistribute incomes, and increase government’s role in large sectors of the economy, including health care, banking and automobile manufacturing. In the sense that the term is used in American politics, this is the most ambitious and "liberal" domestic agenda since Lyndon Johnson.

Obama’s foreign policy team, meanwhile, seems to have abandoned the Democratic party’s traditional liberal internationalist playbook in favor of hard-headed (some would say hard-hearted) realism. Instead of emphasizing international institutions, international law, and the defense of universal values, the administration has made clear its willingness to downplay human rights and to make whatever deals it can with Iran, Syria, Russia, and China. In keeping with the recommendations of many foreign policy realists, the administration appears to be de-emphasizing the "war on terror," backing away from any commitment to help build a strong, reasonably democratic central government in Afghanistan, and moving with all deliberate speed to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

These two sets of policies are not in contradiction. Both have clear goals and, in the early stages, are being executed with determination, efficiency, and an impressive measure of ruthlessness. Both reflect an underlying theory or ideology. Any thought that this would be a pragmatic, ad hoc, ala carte presidency should now be dispelled. (In this sense, at least, President Obama is starting to look more like George Bush than Bill Clinton.) Most important, the foreign and domestic halves of the Obama agenda are clearly intended to fit together into a coherent whole. The new administration appears intent on ameliorating international tensions to the extent that it can, and reducing external costs, in order concentrate on its domestic agenda of recovery and far-reaching "reform."

Both halves of the Obama program promise near-term results but carry long-term risks. The administration’s domestic policies should be widely popular, at least initially, and assuming that things start to get better reasonably soon, they will be widely credited with bringing the country out of its economic crisis. 

Whether the cure turns out to be worse than the disease will not be evident for some time. Higher taxes, more regulation, and a bigger government share of GDP, perhaps mixed with immigration restrictions and some protectionism, are not a formula for efficiency and economic dynamism. Some critics claim that the Obama administration wants to make the United States more like Europe. Whether or not this is the intent, if its policies reduce the long-term trajectory of American growth and American power, they may have a similar end result.

In foreign policy, President Obama has already won praise, both at home and abroad, for his willingness to take a fresh, flexible approach. At a minimum, the administration’s multi-axis diplomatic offensive will be credited with producing a relaxation of international tensions, and it may also yield some more tangible results. 

The danger here is that agreements reached with the various regimes the administration now seeks so eagerly to engage are likely to paper over real problems (or worse, conceal them) without actually achieving lasting solutions. Syria may be willing to talk with us about its role in Lebanon and its support for terrorists groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Its leaders may even offer to alter their behavior in return for various diplomatic and economic rewards. As it has done many times before, however, Damascus will probably find ways to subvert, undermine, and bypass whatever agreements it makes.    

Similarly, Moscow may agree to apply more pressure to Iran in return for an American commitment not to deploy parts of a missile defense system in central Europe. But it will no doubt try to pocket its gains regardless of how hard it actually tries or what results are ultimately achieved. (Given how much credit the Chinese have earned with us for their ineffectual efforts to discourage North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Russians would be foolish not to give this gambit a try.)

The new administration seems to believe that its predecessor just didn’t try hard enough or that for moral or ideological reasons it was unduly squeamish about doing deals with non-democratic governments. But the real obstacle to reaching agreements with such regimes that actually serve American interests has much more to do with them than it does with us. Unchecked by a free press, an independent judiciary, or a powerful legislative branch, authoritarian rulers have far greater leeway to misrepresent their intentions, conceal their actions, and break their promises. 

Most important of all, while there may be some temporary coincidence of goals, the fundamental interests of authoritarian regimes will ultimately diverge from those of their democratic counterparts. Bashar al-Assad has no desire to see a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would deprive Syria of its regional leverage and could weaken his grip on domestic political power. Vladimir Putin and his associates aim to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence that will shield them from the further eastward spread of an alliance of democracies. Iran’s mullahs benefit from standing up to the West and may well regard nuclear weapons as vital to the survival of their faltering revolution and to their dreams of dominating the Persian Gulf.

Leaders like these may be happy to talk and may even pledge to change their ways. Unfortunately, if past history is any guide, their promises are likely to prove empty, and any agreements they sign will turn out to be worth less than the paper on which they are written.