November, 29th 2009

Realism to die another death on Tuesday?

– Liz Mair

On Tuesday, President Obama will go ahead and announce that he is sending an additional 30,000 or so more troops to Afghanistan-- a controversial move that has lots of his base up in arms and all peed off at him once again, and in relation to which he's presumably going to rely on Republican backing, which will probably constitute the necessary political support in order to execute this particular change (pun intended). 

According to Politico, however, Obama is also being "urged" to:

return to a line of argument little heard since the Bush years: the United States has a moral obligation to protect the Afghan people, particularly women, from the Taliban.

Politico also notes that:

Obama ran on a promise to restore cold-eyed calculations of national interest to American foreign policy, a reaction against President George W. Bush’s tendency to cast a confrontational foreign policy in terms of the freedoms it would achieve for nations that did not have them. And he has governed without the public appeals to human rights that marked American foreign policy ventures from Kosovo to Iraq.

But realism has proved, at times, a hard political sell. Bloodless talk about “engagement” has left the Obama administration without a compelling story to tell or argument to make.  And its emphasis on process has only increased the pressure for more tangible results.

Oh noez!  No compelling story!  Well, we all know what a disaster that is in the eyes of key players on Team Obama, non?

You know, I don't write much about foreign policy these days.  That's partly indicative of the fact that my particular foreign policy views are complicated, and don't easily fit into the dominant camps one comes across in the online world, and indeed Washington, DC (respectively, neoconservative and straight-up liberal).  It is also, however, indicative of the fact that-- surprise!-- I don't think Obama has been doing a full-on God-awful, or great, job on foreign policy thus far (little to complain about or laud equals little writing on said subject, at least at this blog).

Yes, I don't think all of our allies (or at least key figures within their governments) have been consistently impressed with all of what Obama has had to say on, say, the subject of Iran since coming on the foreign policy scene (and there are press reports to back this up) and I'm not sure Obama has lived up to the expectations they had in January of this year, either, quite.  A wide array of foreign leaders are dismayed at his seeming disinterest in advancing free trade agreements (and trade is one area where I think Obama is predictably sucking).  I think a lot of ordinary people in countries we do and should care about hated George W. Bush and were and largely remain excited about Obama being President, but it's pretty clear to me from my own conversations with people in traveling outside our borders that that doesn't equate to non-Americans actually liking America (and for a variety of reasons, in many cases, I'm not sure it ever will).  But the bottom line is, I don't think Obama has been an abysmal failure on the foreign policy scene. 

I do consistently feel that he tends towards the naive as opposed to the deeply savvy end of the spectrum, and that he's lucky (for lack of a better word) that Hillary Clinton agreed to serve as Secretary of State.  And on that count, I have to eat my words a bit, because I actually did think him appointing her to that position was exceedingly stupid-- but it turns out I was wrong, and perhaps him having made that move can be taken as an indication that Obama does know his limitations a bit. 

Above all, though, Obama has run things in what I would describe as a vaguely realist-friendly fashion (to differ from Politico's calculation a bit)-- and therefore one that I, the realist, do not downright hate.  He gets credit for not striking a pose that looks overtly hostile and intransigent to the rest of the world, and which therefore risks impeding the advancement of US interests other than at the barrel of a gun (with the big exception of trade, where I don't think his positioning is doing us many favors at all).  He gets credit for recognizing (as, I would remind readers, John McCain did, too) that a little more conversation in international relations would probably, at least in some instances, be beneficial (and potentially lead to a little more action-- though that hasn't been much seen as yet).  I don't however think Obama takes the sort of hard-nosed approach to assessing US interests that, say, Henry Kissinger or other prominent realists would.  I think he's more of a globalist than that, and he is much more of an idealist.  I think he does seem to dither and has been seen to project weakness somewhat more than he ought to.  But still, he has governed thus far in a realist-ish, and not totally disastrous way where foreign policy is concerned.

"Has governed" are potentially the operative words here, though.  I don't believe for a second, and never have believed, that Obama is actually "realist-ish" in his private thinking on foreign policy.  I do believe that's been a comfortable position for him to occupy thus far, not just because it is a better rhetorical counter to the foreign policy thinking of the Bush years, but also because it's one that-- to date, anyway-- has allowed him to do his business in a fashion that doesn't inherently dictate ineffectiveness while not offending his base, who (as we are now increasingly seeing) hate all war, and eventually, will come to have an objection even to wars they once supported and used as a rhetorical crutch for expressing opposition to other wars they equally dislike.  That, in a nutshell, is Obama's current pickle: The Democratic Party, including it's very liberal base, had, up until recently, expressed lockstep, resolute support for the war in Afghanistan.  Now that that is getting messier, they hate it, too.  But Obama doesn't want to let the Taliban win, the country become a haven for Al Qaeda again, or-- probably most importantly, politically, anyway-- lose.  So he's going to send in more troops and (probably) redefine the mission, so it's not utterly crushing and defeating Al Qaeda/the Taliban, but rather dismantling or disrupting terrorist networks.  And very possibly, at least if he listens to those doing the urging (and my guess is he will), argue that we have to do this because of "human rights"-- the two words that usually can in fact get liberals on board with any military action conceivable, no matter how stupid or non-advancing of US interests (kind of like beauty pageant judges, when they hear "world peace").

If Obama ties ongoing action in Afghanistan to human rights or any variation of it (I expect with Nancy Pelosi at the helm in the House, "women's rights" will probably be a phrase to listen out for, and a good drinking game phrase on Tuesday night), it will probably get him the political support he needs.  But it will also be a reversion to the common tendencies of neoconservative foreign policy and liberal foreign policy, where regime change and nation-building are to some extent seen as objectives worth pursuing in their own right.  If Obama goes in this direction, it will signal another death to realism, at least insofar as any rhetoric gets tied to what US troops are in fact doing there.  There are realists I know who think we should send more troops to Afghanistan, and realists I know who think we should not.  But while all of them care about human rights and women's rights, I don't think any of them think we should be fighting a messy, expensive, complicated, and often nasty, war with the primary purpose of trying to establish, and then preserve them, in one country among a handful, virtually all far, far away from our own borders, that desperately could do with them. I certainly don't think so.  If Obama goes in this direction, no matter how much I may think the troops are needed and can get the job done (and I'll admit to being skeptical but hopeful on the latter count), he'll be moving rapidly towards a big, fat FAIL in my book.

The objective should be to dismantle and disrupt terrorist networks and keep them weak enough to not take hold of Afghanistan and use it as a base from which to launch attacks on the US aimed at taking the country as a whole down-- and if that is genuinely not achievable, then the objective should be to preserve our strength and otherwise secure ourselves by avoiding ongoing losses and engagement that will weaken us.  There are a number of ways, at least in theory, of achieving the former objective, some of which would have good side effects like further establishment of human rights and women's rights and many other good things.  But the point is what's the meat and what's the gravy-- and if Obama listens to those doing the "urging," he's going to make the purpose all about the gravy and none of the meat.  That may further US interests (though probably not the most immediate ones), but it's a less efficient, reliable way of doing it-- and it'll be another way in which Obama will wind up looking more Bush-like and less like change.  And it will represent another death for (semi-) realist foreign policy, which is one of the few things that in my book, Obama has going for him.  [intro]


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