Terms of Engagement

A Moral Adventure

Is Barack Obama as much of a foreign-policy realist as he thinks he is?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Late in the summer of 2007, I watched Barack Obama speak to a small crowd gathered in the backyard of a supporter in Salem, New Hampshire. He had a lot to say about foreign affairs. Abroad as at home, he said, we need "a new ethic of mutual responsibility" based on the recognition that "we have a stake in each other." Thus the need to reinvigorate the United Nations, increase foreign aid, and end torture. Afterward I asked him whether that ethic really arose from pragmatic calculation, as opposed to moral duty. "You don’t want to oversimplify it," he told me. But it was true, he went on, that U.S. national security was tied to human security across the globe. Failing states produced transnational problems, including massive refugee flows and epidemic disease. And because how people in poor or abused countries felt about their own lives would shape their attitudes toward the West, it behooved the United States to address their suffering. "The hard case," he added, "may be convincing people that we can do anything about it."

I thought back to that conversation when I listened to Obama’s March 28 Libya speech. At its core was the president’s assertion that "it was not in our national interest" to permit Muammar al-Qaddafi’s troops to carry out a massacre in Benghazi. But what was that interest? After all, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said only the day before that the United States did not have a "vital" interest in Libya, while critics of the mission have ridiculed the notion that Americans should be pouring scarce resources into a civil war in one of the least strategically significant countries in the region. A lot of things, after all, are in America’s national interest; why act here?

Obama labored to explain how failing to act in Libya could compromise U.S. interests: A massacre in Benghazi would have "driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders," endangering democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia; emboldened regional autocrats to resist calls for reform; and undermined the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, which had called for action. Those are hardly trivial concerns; but — as arch-realist Ted Koppel pointed out on Meet the Press on March 27 — 700,000 people had already fled the violence in Ivory Coast, where the United States had no thoughts of intervening; and inaction in Libya could add only a mite of damage to a Security Council that had watched while Darfur burned.

In short, Obama’s application of conventional definitions of national interest wasn’t much more convincing than it had been in my conversation with him four years ago. Perhaps, then, the realist critics are right: Obama has embarked on a moral adventure, and quite possibly an ill-fated one, under the flimsy cover of national interest. And it’s certainly true that Obama has the "liberal" view — now shared by neoconservatives — that American power must at times be used for moral purposes, which is to say for the benefit of others rather than to advance American interests. That is why, right after the assertion about national interest, he added, with uncharacteristic passion, "I refused to let that happen." Obama believes — like virtually all presidents, to be sure — that the United States has a singular moral status that carries with it singular obligations. "Some nations" might ignore atrocities abroad, he declared. (Obama is addicted to this particular straw-man device.) "The United States of America is different." Realists cringed.

Of course it’s in the interests of any state to act in conformity with its own expressed principles — even George Kennan would concede that. But Kennan, who was no fan of democracy, practiced diplomacy, and wrote about it, in an era when statecraft took place behind closed doors; the American public knew virtually nothing, for example, about the vast world of intelligence activities and shadowy diplomacy during the Cold War. Today’s advocates of realpolitik often write as if this continues to be true — as if the United States incurs no real costs for publicly supporting friendly autocrats. The deep anti-Americanism in Latin America and the Middle East, where the U.S. government supported hated rulers for decades, proves the contrary. In fact, as Obama said in that backyard in Salem, the way the United States is seen to behave in the world enormously affects its capacity to shape events. That’s a national interest, whether or not you call it "vital."

Indeed, no president has ever been as acutely sensitive to this species of "soft power" as Obama, whose early speeches were full of the imagery of outsiders looking at the United States — of the "desperate faces" of people in remote countries gazing up at an American helicopter, feeling hope or perhaps hate. One of Obama’s mistakes early on was to put too much stock in the idea that the world was looking at him — his face, his voice, his biography — as evidence of American renewal. That was why his June 2009 Cairo speech was long on autobiography and noble sentiment, and short on new proposals. And the speech, so giddily received at home and, initially, abroad, did very little to change the way the United States was seen in the Middle East.

Obama has learned that only deeds will change America’s standing in the world. The Libyan intervention was such a deed, and was certainly intended to be seen as such. The politics of the decision were at least as compelling as the morals; in a setting where Western military power really could prevent mass killings and where — unlike Iraq — Arab neighbors were imploring the United States to intervene, the failure to act would have been understood across the Middle East as a decisive statement of American indifference. Is the calculus of national interest there really so complicated?

A lot of the talk-show chatter beats up on Obama for moral inconsistency: Why Libya and not Ivory Coast, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Some of those critics would like to see more intervention, but most would like to see less, or none. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Koppel wasn’t advocating bombing Abidjan. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael Doyle recently asserted that the "slaughter of civilians" does not "automatically qualify" as a threat to international peace and security, and so should not trigger Security Council action. Would the United States protect its vital interests better by adopting such a view, keeping its powder dry until some hypothetical Rwanda-level genocide came along? The answer is obvious — and Obama gave it by observing that the fact that the United States can’t always act to stop mass violence "cannot be an argument for never acting." Rather, he said, the United States will "measure our interests against the need for action."

It’s not a simple calculus. Obama might have saved more Libyan lives by acting earlier, before the Arab League and the Security Council had authorized an intervention. But by reminding the world of the Iraq invasion, carried out without U.N. support, he would have generated enmity that might have doomed the mission over time. The same is true with making regime change the explicit goal of the bombing campaign; doing so would rupture the coalition and lose Arab support. But at the same time, agreeing to limit the mission to humanitarian protection has trapped Obama in a contradiction, because he has openly called for Qaddafi to leave. And if the bombing succeeds in protecting civilians but Qaddafi stays in power, the mission will inevitably be seen as a failure — thus damaging American prestige. The skeptics who have predicted that the battle will end in a stalemate have a point — but not a good enough point to justify inaction.

We need to examine the premise that realism is realistic. Realists like to think that they look out for America’s interests while progressives, or whatever you call the other side — and it badly needs a presentable name — have a moralistic preoccupation with America’s values. Maybe Eugene McCarthy, the Vietnam-era dove who ran for president in 1968, was such a progressive; Obama certainly isn’t, which is why, even as the United States attacks Libya, the White House has preserved a careful neutrality toward Bahrain and Yemen, key allies that have brutally repressed mass protest. But there’s a price to be paid for that, too. Arab citizens are no longer passive or resigned. And they will increasingly judge the United States not on remote but emotionally charged issues like Palestine or counterterrorism policy, but on the way American policy affects their own lives and prospects. A ruthlessly realist calculator would say that the United States would be well advised to put itself on the right side of history.

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