Obama Was Not a Realist President

If he had been, he might have avoided some of his biggest foreign-policy mistakes.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 30:  U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House on March 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by )
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 30: U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House on March 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by )

Barack Obama is in the homestretch of his presidency, and it is only human for him to care about how he will be judged after he leaves office. That impulse probably explains his decision to participate in a series of interviews with the Atlantic in which he defends his approach to foreign policy and explains why he has been reluctant to use American power as widely as his critics would have liked.

Not surprisingly, this story has rekindled the recurring question of whether Obama has been running a “realist” foreign policy for the past seven-plus years — or at least one heavily informed by realist thinking. (One of our country’s sillier pundits once suggested I was the secret George Kennan guiding his actions; anyone who reads this column regularly knows that U.S. foreign policy would have been markedly different if that were in fact the case.)

I understand why many people regard Obama as some sort of realist, but from where I sit, the nonrealist dimensions of his presidency are as prominent and important as any realist elements. And it is those nonrealist features that account for his most obvious foreign-policy failures.

But first, what will Obama’s legacy likely be? My view, for what it’s worth, is that future historians will rate Obama highly. He will be remembered for being America’s first nonwhite president, of course, and for conducting his office with dignity, grace, and diligence. His administration was blissfully scandal-free, and he didn’t make a lot of hasty decisions that turned out badly. He was admirably thick-skinned and charitable toward most of his critics, despite the abuse and thinly veiled racism he faced from some of them. And no matter who wins in November, he is likely to look mighty good by comparison.

As we look back, Obama will get credit for health care reform, for rescuing the country from the brink of another Great Depression, and for promoting greater tolerance toward minorities through legalization of gay marriage. When one remembers how scary things looked when he took office in 2009, this is no small set of achievements. And Obama did these things while facing a Republican opposition so toxic and extreme it kept devouring its own leaders and repeatedly threatening to shut down the entire federal government. That’s GOP-style “patriotism” for you.

But these elements of his legacy are all domestic achievements, and his record in foreign affairs is at best a mixed bag. Still, Obama can claim some clear successes: The U.S. image in most of the world is higher than when he took office; relations with China have been mostly tranquil despite the U.S. “pivot” to Asia; and the nuclear deal with Iran is a qualified success so far. I’d also give Obama props for ending America’s long and counterproductive effort to ostracize Cuba and for making progress on global nuclear security and climate change (though more needs to be done on both fronts).

Unfortunately, Obama’s foreign-policy record also contains a sizable number of depressing failures, beginning with Afghanistan. Obama agonized over this issue during his first year in office and ultimately sent nearly 60,000 additional troops there. He promised this temporary “surge” would turn the tide against the Taliban and enable the United States to get out with honor. It is now 2016, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since 2001, and the United States is still fighting there with no end in sight. As some of us warned at the time, this policy was destined to fail and fail it did.

Similarly, Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians were a series of humiliations: Israeli settlements kept expanding, Gaza kept getting pummeled, moderate Palestinians were discredited, Hamas grew stronger, and the two-state solution that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all favored is now dead (if not quite buried). Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry wasted a lot of time and energy on this problem and got bupkis.

Obama’s response to the “Arab Spring” was no more successful. The United States helped push Hosni Mubarak out in Egypt and backed the newly elected government of Mohamed Morsi, only to reverse course and turn a blind eye when a military coup ousted Morsi and imposed another thuggish dictatorship. U.S. air power helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a decision Obama now regrets), and the result is a failed state where the Islamic State is active. Obama declared “Assad must go” in Syria, despite there being no good way to ensure his departure and no good candidates to replace him, and then United States helped block the initial U.N. efforts to reach a cease-fire to end the fighting. Today, Syria is in ruins, and Assad still rules the country’s key areas. Obama and his team were also blindsided by the emergence of the Islamic State and by the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. It pains me to say so, but the Middle East will be in even worse shape when he leaves office than it was when he arrived. The United States is not solely responsible for this unfortunate trend, but our repeated meddling sowed additional chaos and alienated both friends and foes alike.

To be sure, dealing with simultaneous uprisings in several different countries would have been challenging for any president, and it is easy to imagine responses that would have been even worse than what the United States actually did. Even so, Obama and his team never seem to have figured out what they wanted to accomplish in the region (apart from stopping Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb), and the end result was a series of incoherent improvisations.

Lastly, Obama deserves low marks for his handling of Russia. I’m no fan of Vladimir Putin, but U.S. officials erred by openly siding with the demonstrators seeking to oust former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and by failing to anticipate how Russia was likely to respond. The result was a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, an embarrassment for the United States, and a more precarious situation in Europe, which hardly needed another problem on its agenda.

Does this record reveal the shortcomings of a supposedly “realist” foreign policy, as some of Obama’s liberal critics now contend? On the one hand, Obama does have certain instincts that are consistent with a realist outlook. He recognizes that U.S. power is not unlimited and that military power is a crude instrument that cannot solve every problem. Like most contemporary realists, he thinks the United States is extremely secure and that nuclear terrorism and climate change are the only existential threats it faces for the foreseeable future. His belief that Asia is of rising strategic importance shows an appreciation for the key role that economic and military capability — that is, hard power — play in shaping world politics. Indeed, his emphasis on “nation building at home” reflects an acute awareness that domestic strength is the bedrock of national security and international influence. And like most realists, he thinks the idea that the United States needs to fight foolish wars in order to keep its “credibility” intact is dangerous nonsense.

But on the other hand, the Atlantic story shows that Obama never fully embraced a realist worldview either. He thinks there are four main strategic alternatives for the United States: realism, liberal interventionism, internationalism, and isolationism. He rejects the latter completely and believes foreign-policy making involves picking and choosing from among the first three. And though he offers some tart criticisms of the interventionist “D.C. playbook,” Obama believes (along with most of the foreign-policy establishment) that the United States is an “exceptional” power and that American leadership is still “indispensable.” At bottom, he wants to have it both ways: to acknowledge there are limits to U.S. power and some problems it can safely ignore, but to still stand ready to intervene when vital interests are at risk or when U.S. power can produce positive results.

But after seven-plus years in office, this most articulate of presidents never articulated a clear and coherent framework identifying what those vital interests are and why and spelling out how the United States could advance broader political ideals at acceptable cost and risk. To be specific: What regions of the world were worth significant commitments of American blood and treasure? Why were these regions more important than others? Under what conditions is it advisable to put U.S. citizens in harm’s way in order to keep the rest of us safe? When will the costs and risks of action outweigh the potential benefits? And don’t forget the flip side: What regions or issues are of little or no importance to the United States and can safely be left to others?

The Atlantic story suggests that Obama has asked himself these questions more than once and is comfortable with the answers he has come up with for each. He is said to believe the Middle East is of declining importance, for example, and that Asia is rising. But Obama never shared his overarching vision with the rest of us, and he never openly stated that some parts of the world lay outside the sphere of vital U.S. interests and were therefore not worth sending Americans to fight and die for. Instead of laying out a hierarchy of interests and explaining the logic behind his thinking, Obama’s public utterances mostly echoed and reinforced the familiar tropes of U.S. liberal hegemony.

In his 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he defended the need for military power and told the world that the United States has “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” And he showed he meant it by ramping up the use of drones, targeted assassinations, and special operations activities. Obama may have used military power in smaller increments and to achieve more modest goals than Bush did, but he used it in a lot more places. But how he decided where to act and where to hold back remains something of a mystery, even to those of us who have been paying attention.

His failure to define U.S. interests clearly and his tendency to recite the familiar rhetoric of liberal hegemony had several unfortunate consequences. First, it meant Obama faced constant pressure to “do something” whenever trouble beckoned in some distant corner of the world, but he had no overarching argument or principle with which to deflect the pressure (save for the correct but unhelpful dictum to avoid “stupid shit”). The danger, as the Libya debacle shows clearly, is that advocates of intervention will sometimes manage to override more sensible instincts and convince even a reluctant president to act, even though vital U.S. interests are not at stake and Washington has no idea what it is doing. In the absence of a clear strategy, stupid shit sometimes happens anyway.

Second, because Obama kept saying U.S. leadership was indispensable, he was vulnerable to hard-line criticism whenever he tried to end a failed policy or avoid some new quagmire. Getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq and staying out of Ukraine and Syria were the right calls, because vital U.S. interests were not at stake in any of these countries or their problems. But Obama never presented a convincing explanation for why this was the case (and in Afghanistan, in fact, he said the opposite). Thus, what he should have presented as difficult but hardheaded strategic judgments were seen as symptoms of war-weary and woolly-headed weakness.

This same ambivalence marred relations with U.S. allies. Free-riding and “reckless driving” by U.S. allies clearly bothers Obama, yet he spent considerable time and effort trying to convince many of these same allies they could count on Uncle Sam no matter what happened or what they did. What was the predictable result? U.S. allies continued to misbehave in various ways while getting angry and upset because Washington wasn’t doing everything they wanted. Foreign governments might have been equally disappointed had Obama told them why they had to do more to defend themselves, but at least they would have known where they stood (and so would the American taxpayer).

Most importantly, because Obama never publicly embraced an unvarnished realist outlook or tried to explain this view to the American people, he never disrupted the “D.C. playbook” that he now disparages. During his first presidential campaign, he said he didn’t want to just end the Iraq War; he also wanted to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” The American people are in some ways already there, but the foreign-policy establishment hasn’t gotten the memo. The Atlantic story describes Obama as openly dismissive of the D.C. “think-tank complex,” but he appointed plenty of its members to prominent positions and embraced many of its shibboleths — most notably the indispensability of “U.S. leadership” — throughout his presidency.

Altering a well-entrenched mindset is not easy, and the president is just one voice (albeit an unusually influential one). Changing the current consensus would have required Obama to take on these entrenched interests and intellectual fiefdoms directly and to appoint a different sort of person to at least a few important government positions. He would have had to articulate a different grand strategy over the course of his presidency and not just in a couple of quickly forgotten speeches. No, changing a consensus requires making the case with the same persistence and focus that he showed in selling the Iran deal. And while he was doing that, he would still have had to run the government and deal with each week’s surprises. That’s a lot to ask of any president and especially one who took office with the economy on the brink and without a lot of prior experience in Washington.

In short, Obama did not in fact run a “realist” foreign policy, because he doesn’t fully embrace a realist worldview, didn’t appoint many (any?) realists to key positions, and never really tried to dismantle the bipartisan consensus behind the grand strategy of liberal hegemony. As I’ve noted before, a genuinely “realist” foreign policy would have left Afghanistan promptly in 2009, converted our “special relationships” in the Middle East to normal ones, explicitly rejected further NATO expansion, eschewed “regime change” and other forms of social engineering in foreign countries such as Libya or Syria, and returned to the broad strategy of restrained “offshore balancing” that served the United States so well in the past.

Of course, even if Obama had explained the logic behind this strategy carefully and followed it consistently, he might still have failed to transform the foreign-policy establishment’s interventionist mindset. After all, that worldview is supported by plenty of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, influential think tanks, and well-connected lobbies. A more ambitious effort to change how Americans think about foreign policy might not have succeeded. But as his presidency approaches its close, I still wish he had tried.

Photo credit: KEVIN DIETSCH-POOL/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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