Daniel W. Drezner

When is realpolitik not terribly realistic?

When is realpolitik not terribly realistic?

Just as TNR’s precise transcription of Denis McDonough’s talking points long disquisition about the Obama administration’s policy planning process comes out, Roger Cohen unfurls his long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine about the administration’s thinking on Iran, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.

Here’s the bigthink of Cohen’s essay: 

Just how far Obama is ready to go in engagement’s name has become clearer in Iran. At the time of that Thursday demonstration, almost a week after the election, the toughest thing he had found to say about the turmoil was that the suppression of peaceful dissent “is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people.” He had also equated Ahmadinejad with Moussavi, from the U.S. national-security standpoint, because both support the nuclear program, even as people died for the greater openness that Moussavi espoused.

A sobered America is back in the realpolitik game. A favored phrase in the Iran team goes, “It is what it is.” Now the question is whether such an approach can yield results. Can Ross honor his own precept to match objectives with “available means”? To the nuclear clock has been added a democracy clock, complicating every diplomatic equation. An Iran of mullahs and nukes has morphed, for many Americans, into the Iran of beautiful, young Neda Agha-Soltan, cut down with a single shot while leaving a June 20 demonstration, a murder caught on video that went viral. Whatever Obama’s realism — and it’s as potent as his instinct for the middle ground — a president on whom so much youthful idealism has been projected can scarcely ignore the Neda effect.

All well and good, but there’s a nugget buried in Cohen’s tale that wories me juuust a bit.  As fans of Laura Rozen are aware (and if you’re not a fan, you should be), Barack Obama had a disappointing meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last month: 

[T]wo sources, one a former U.S. official who recently traveled there and one a current official speaking anonymously, say the meeting did not go well from Obama’s perspective. What’s more, the former official says that Dennis Ross has told associates that part of what prompted Obama to bring him on as his special assistant and NSC senior director for the "Central Region" last month was the president’s feeling that the preparation for the trip was insufficient.

Ok, except that after reading Cohen’s story, I can’t help but wonder whether Ross was part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Here is Cohen’s description of Ross’ meetng with the Saudi King — which occured six weeks before Obama’s: 

On April 29, in Dammam, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Ross sat down with King Abdullah. He talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Iran — and talked and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, according to one U.S. official fully briefed on the exchange, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about U.S. policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.

When the Saudis are accusing you of being all hat and no cattle, you know you have a problem.

Seriously, let’s think about this from Abdullah’s perspective for a second.  A new envoy comes to chat filled with new plans and ideas on Iran.  Except it turns out that these new plans and ideas haven’t been filled out exactly — key contingecies haven’t been thought through, etc.  For a leader who had to deal with eight years of George W. Bush, this had to sound a lot like U.S. foreign policy déjà vu.  Why should he have been more forthcoming with Obama. 

So, just to be clear, Obama found that meeting unsatisfactory — and as a result he brings in the guy who might have laid the groundwork for the unproductive meeting? 

Look, Ross is a smart guy, and he might have ust had a bad day when he met with Abdullah.  But there are times when the Obama administration, for all the talk about embtracing realpolitik,* doesn’t sound terribly realist at all. 

*Granted, there are other points in the essay where the administration sounds positively Waltzian