Is Obama a realist?

Some years ago, when the Iraq war was still a going concern, I wrote a few stories on the different strands of US foreign policy thinking – for example here, here and here. With the debate over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defence, it’s a good time to revisit that question.

My general theme was that the traditional division between “realists” and “idealists” failed to do justice to what had happened under the Bush administration: that the neo-conservatives, who had started out as idealists, had instead become captive to people such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who were neither realists nor idealists but could best be described as imperialists.

With that background, one can better understand Tom Switzer’s piece in Wednesday’s Age. Switzer is an old-fashioned realist; on that basis he courageously opposed the Iraq war, contrary to the views of his political allies and his then employer, News Ltd. Now he sees Hagel, and by extension President Obama, as kindred spirits:

A decorated Vietnam war veteran and two-term Republican senator, Hagel emerged as a leading realist critic of the Bush doctrine of preventive war, regime change and a division between those “with us” and “against us”. Among other things, Hagel lamented that the Bush administration had been dismissive of unpleasant compromises that a messy world inevitably demands.

Republicans in both Congress and the White House were outraged that one of their own had the gall to criticise his own side. Meanwhile, Hagel’s views not surprisingly resonated with many Democrats, not least Barack Obama with whom the maverick Republican served in the Senate for four years.

And it’s true that compared with the Bush White House, almost any sane person starts to look like a realist (or vice versa). The proponents of the Iraq war managed to synthesise the worst elements of realist and idealist views: they had the idealists’ lofty disdain for practical consequences together with the realists’ contempt for human rights and international law.

Yesterday in the New Republic, John Judis took a similar tack. Arguing against the view put by some Republicans that Hagel is “outside of the national security mainstream”, Judis also paints him as a realist, but in nuanced fashion:

Hagel and the ex-officials understand realism to mean a “realistic”—as opposed to “reckless”—foreign policy. They don’t reject the idea that the world would be better if dictatorships became democracies, but they are very cautious about how the United States could bring that about.

That seems to leave open the possibility that Hagel is an idealist at heart but one who nonetheless approaches his goals realistically. Such a description certainly seems to fit Obama. A realist would not have welcomed the revolutions of the Arab Spring the way Obama did; an unrealistic idealist would have been much more reckless in lending them military support.

The alternative, that Hagel is a dyed-in-the-wool realist, is not so pleasant to contemplate. In its canonical form, represented perhaps most of all by Henry Kissinger, realism holds that a foreign country is just a “black box” whose internal workings are of no concern – whether it keeps its citizens free and prosperous or herds them into concentration camps should make no difference at all when it comes to foreign policy.

The recent high point of realism was the administration of George Bush senior, which among other things sent James Baker to help start a civil war in the Balkans, sent Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to toast the butchers of Tiananmen Square, and incited the Kurds and Shi’ites of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein before deciding as a matter of policy that it was better if they were crushed.

So much for (in Switzer’s words) “an unsentimental focus on clearly defined economic and strategic national interests.” Yet the realists were still at it during the Clinton administration, opposing the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and theirs was the line espoused by Bush junior when he became president – until the attacks of 11 September gave the upper hand to the neocons and the imperialists.

Between them, the realists and the imperialists have left Obama with some fine messes to try to sort out. Let’s hope Chuck Hagel is the right man to give him a hand.


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