Is Barack Obama More of a Realist Than I Am?

This president isn't weak and waffling. He's calculating, coldhearted, and decisive when it counts.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

I had a strange thought late last week, while chatting with a colleague about the various hot spots that are dominating the news and interfering with U.S. President Barack Obama’s vacation. Is it possible, I wondered, that Obama is craftier and more ruthless than I’ve realized? I’ve been disappointed by a lot of his foreign-policy decisions, but have I underestimated him? Far from being indecisive or too easily swayed by hawkish advisors, might he be even more of a realist than I am?

An early hint came in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama was asked to identify his favorite movie. His answer was The Godfather. His second favorite? The Godfather, Part II. It was a revealing moment, borne out by subsequent events. He followed the Godfather’s advice when he appointed Hillary Clinton secretary of state ("Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer"), and his style as president resembles Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in many ways. They don’t make many threats, they never bluster, and they rarely raise their voices. But when the time comes, they dispatch opponents with remorseless indifference and pay little attention to who might get hurt in the process. "It’s not personal; it’s strictly business."

At first glance, you might not see this approach in places like Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, or East Asia. For some commentators, the various upheavals and confrontations in these places are signs that a more restrained U.S. policy has opened the door to instability and even chaos. Pundits and policymakers from Roger Cohen to Frank Bruni to David Brooks to Robert Kagan to Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine now bemoan American malaise and complain that the pendulum toward disengagement is swinging too far. What these critiques lack, of course, is a convincing explanation of how doing more in all these trouble spots would make Americans safer or more prosperous.

In fact, because the United States is already so powerful and so secure, there is relatively little the United States could gain in most of these situations, even if they were to turn out well. Furthermore, diving back into the quicksand might easily make them worse. As Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer tweeted on Aug. 12, "If the US had provided more arms to the Syrian rebels, the most likely outcome would have been a stronger ISIS."

Equally important is that Obama’s approach is causing more trouble for America’s various adversaries (and for some of its less cooperative allies) than it is causing the United States, and at a rather low cost to the United States itself. That’s not a bad definition of a successful foreign policy: If you can give opponents headaches without having to do very much, what’s not to like? The only downside is that innocent third parties end up bearing most of the burden, which merely underscores the degree to which Obama’s approach is based on coldhearted realpolitik.

Let’s start with Russia and Ukraine. The United States and its European allies bear considerable (though not sole) responsibility for causing the crisis in the first place, but the United States has so far escaped any serious damage. Instead, the immediate costs are being borne primarily by the people of Ukraine. The escalating confrontation has also inflicted real pain on Russia and on the European Union, whose fragile recovery has been jeopardized by the punitive sanctions imposed by the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reputation abroad has suffered considerably (and with some justification), but the short-term costs to the United States and to Obama himself have been minimal.

To be clear: I still think everyone would be better off if the United States were pushing harder for a deal that guaranteed Ukraine’s status as a neutral buffer state, and the standoff makes it harder to get Russian cooperation on other issues. But in the short term, Obama has succeeded in pinning almost all of the blame on Putin, and it is mostly the Russians, Ukrainians, and Europeans who are getting hurt in the process.

Next, consider how Obama is dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama took office in 2009 hoping to achieve that elusive two-state solution, which he believed was essential to ensuring Israel’s long-term future. While pushing for an end to Israel’s self-defeating settlements policy, he also reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel in myriad ways and bent over backward to be supportive. His reward for his efforts? He has been repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu, and his aides have been publicly maligned by Israeli officials. And his diplomatic envoys (George Mitchell, John Kerry, etc.) have gotten exactly bupkis for their time-consuming efforts to advance the cause of peace.

So what is Obama doing now? He’s letting Netanyahu do pretty much whatever he wants — including pummeling Gaza to no real purpose — even when these actions damage Israel’s legitimacy and hasten the arrival of the one-state solution that most Israelis oppose. In other words, Obama seems increasingly willing to watch Israel drive itself off a cliff, even though this policy necessarily entails further suffering by the residents of Gaza. He has to pretend to be sympathetic to Israel’s plight in order to placate its lobby back in the United States, but I wonder whether what’s really going on is a devilishly subtle form of payback. If so, Don Corleone would probably approve.

Which brings us to the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS). Unlike the reflexive threat-inflators who dominate the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, Obama didn’t panic over the emergence of this lightly armed group of bloody-minded radicals whose new "caliphate" extends over a lot of mostly empty territory. He recognized that this group is brutal and that its recent advances need to be halted, but he also knew it wasn’t the reincarnation of the Soviet empire, Nazi Germany, or even Baathist Iraq. In particular, Obama understood that the threat to the United States itself was neither large nor imminent and that a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. Instead of doing "the full McCain" and plunging back into the quicksand, Obama has done just enough to give the Kurds and the Iraqi government the opportunity to contain the problem themselves.

Not only has he kept the United States off the slippery slope — at least so far — but this policy convinced Iraqis to rid themselves of divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pick someone who might govern more effectively. As he has done before, Obama, in short, was essentially buck-passing, a time-honored realist tactic. His measured response took advantage of the Islamic State’s brutality and overweening ambition, which convinced local actors with far more skin in the game to get serious about dealing with the problem.

One can even see elements of this approach in Obama’s handling of China. He has repeatedly emphasized Asia’s importance to the United States, and the much-publicized "rebalancing" was obviously intended to signal to America’s Asian partners that it wasn’t abandoning the region. Obama reinforced these themes during his visit to Asia in April, but the administration has implemented this policy at a measured pace, content to let China’s growing assertiveness do the work for us. Overreacting would alarm the local powers and let them continue to free-ride, while speaking softly makes present and future allies more eager for help and more willing to do what America wants to get it.

The common thread to these various responses is an appreciation not just of the limits of U.S. power, but also of the limited need to exercise it. "Limited" does not mean zero, which is why sensible people oppose a return to 19th-century-style isolationism. But this approach recognizes that the overwhelming majority of problems in the world do not threaten the United States directly and therefore do not require an immediate, forceful, and potentially costly U.S. response.

As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, Obama’s greatest political genius has been his Road Runner-like ability to let enemies beat themselves. It would be even easier to do this if the Republican Party, the punditocracy, and some members of his own administration weren’t constantly pressuring him to venture abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But I’m beginning to suspect that Obama understands America’s privileged international position better than they do and that he also has a better grasp of where the public is on these issues as well. He’s not running an especially noble foreign policy, but from a purely selfish U.S. perspective, it may be more effective than I used to think.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.