Realism Was Never Like This

There’s an article at The National Interest discussing an interesting question. Is Barack Obama a foreign policy realist?

If we take President Obama at his word that he is not a realist—and there are good reasons to do so—his administration’s long flirtation with foreign-policy realism and especially with the Left’s “progressive realists” raises two important questions. First, why were the president and his advisers comfortable with longtime and widely held perceptions that he was a realist? Second, what changed their minds?

Answering these questions with any certainty would require a front-row seat in the White House Emergency Public Relations Bunker that one can too easily imagine the administration building immediately beneath the Situation Room for its most important decision making. Still, it is not difficult to see how the image of foreign-policy realism could appeal to the president and his communications team—it has provided superficial intellectual and political legitimacy to Obama’s frequently expressed desire to concentrate on “nation building at home.” It likewise helped the administration to justify avoiding undue involvement in complex and time-consuming international problems, especially those inherited from former president George W. Bush, whose legacy the White House has publicly repudiated but quietly continued in many respects.

Want to get out of Iraq? Pivot to Asia instead—it’s more strategically important. Need to withdraw from Afghanistan? We’ve done all we can there. Hope to stay out of further wars in the Middle East? Negotiate with Iran and use Congress as an excuse to stay out of Syria. Americans frustrated with Bush’s expensive choices were understandably tempted.

I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that in international relations “realism” is a term of art that doesn’t mean what you might think it does if you don’t run in international relations circles—something along the lines of “not ideological”. I honestly don’t think we’ve had a foreign policy realist with major influence in policy-making here since Kissinger.

I’d certainly be interested in hearing the argument pro and con in comments.

Just for the record I do not consider myself a foreign policy realist. Pessimistic idealist.

21 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    No, he is not a realist. Mead seems to be spot on by describing him as a vocal Wilsonian with Jeffersonian follow-through. I think that’s what that last paragraph you quoted gets to.

  • TastyBits

    The term realist was used to disparage President Bush’s idealistic based interventionism. The realism of President Obama and the left exists in fantasy land. Hence, their foreign policy philosophy is collapsing.

    You can disregard 10,000 years of human history, but it will not disregard you. Reality will bite you in the ass when you disregard it.

    The realistic response to an existential threat is not to coddle it or to use precision bombing. The realistic response is to exterminate it – carpet bomb. Collateral damage is not only acceptable. It is desirable. It helps focus the mind.

    The past 15 years has exposed the idea of winning hearts and minds as a fantasy. All the nonsense about hating the US because of this or that is crap. They are killers, and they are looking for something to kill.

    If you are not going to exterminate them, it is probably best to not stir up the ant pile.

  • steve

    He certainly seems to me to have adopted a few pages out of the realist playbook. The neocons remain strong enough, alas, that he keeps getting pushed to do more to appease them, but much of what he does still fits within the broad realist camp. (I think we had this discussion when contemplating the problems in Syria a while back. Letting the bad guys on each side kill each other since we had no real interest was very much a realist approach. Much better I thought than the general neocon approach of going to war and trying to turn them into Sweden.)


  • ...

    “[U]we Congress as an excuse to stay out of Syria.”

    I love how that gets spun!

  • jan

    ‘Reality will bite you in the ass when you disregard it.”

    Yeah, it does have a tendancy to do that. As you alluded, Tasty, fantasy resides on the opposite side of the street to reality. While they both flex muscles and swear their side of the street is better, stronger, and has the high ground of truth, fantasy is really nothing more than a movie set structure — a facade — which easily caves when confronted by the duress of unscripted circumstances.

  • jan

    Speaking of reality:

    This warning, about having the DNC Convention in NYC, is an example of how positive social progressive’s policies really are, once their management philosophies are implemented:

    In the letter, addressed to the group Mayor Bill de Blasio wooed during its visit to New York two weeks ago, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Edward D. Mullins, said the city was going “backwards to the bad old days of high crime, danger-infested public spaces and families that walk our streets worried for their safety.”

    He presented a city overrun with “squeegee people” and other panhandlers, with shootings on the rise and morale among police officers flagging.

  • TastyBits


    … he keeps getting pushed to do more to appease them …

    He could just stand up to them. He could get a pair of 501’s and ditch the bike helmet. Is there an app for getting a spine?

  • PD Shaw

    Here is a foreign policy quiz. In which of the following circumstances, would you, as POTUS, risk 5,000 American troops and $500 billion.

    1. Retaking the U.S. territory of Guam after it has been seized by another country;

    2. Stopping a genocidal slaughter that has already killed 200,000 people in a distant country;

    3. Preventing a clearly hostile country from acquiring nuclear arms and long-range missiles;

    4. Ousting a dictator who has ended democracy in a distant country and is ruling by terror;

    5. Toppling a government that is supplying a terrorist group that is threatening you;

    6. Liberating a country of no strategic importance that has been invaded by a neighbor;

    7. Defeating a country that dominates the Middle East and has cut off U.S. oil supplies;

    8. Forcing a country harboring war criminals to surrender them to the International Court.

    Do you answers change if the risk is only 1,000 troops and $100 billion?

  • PD Shaw

    Don’t peek here until you’ve answered for yourself.

    * * *

    Answer: The odd-numbered hypotheticals are realist goals, and the even-numbered are idealistic/liberal goals.

  • PD Shaw


    Yes to 1, 5 & 7
    No to 4, 6 & 8
    Depends to 2 & 3
    (2. There are places like Mexico that it would be advisable to act to stop genocide on that scale)
    (3. I need more info about whether deterrence is an option, and the risk of further proliferation)

  • ...

    PD, yes to 1 & 7
    Maybe to 3 & 5 (I can’t imagine 2 happening anywhere close enough to say yes to)
    No to the others.

    My answers don’t change with the 80% discount. It’s worth fighting, or it isn’t. In for a penny, in for a pound…..

  • PD Shaw

    Obama’s actions in the Middle East in particular (Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Libya) are fairly idealistic.

    The key qualifier is Obama is highly risk sensitive and has only been shown to be willing to risk U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the “Good War” of little strategic importance. But not necessarily risk sensitive to costs imposed on non-Americans, like the guy standing next to someone who drives a car for a jihadist leader in Yemen. KABOOM!!!

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    1. Guam is vital. There would be no re-taking because it would never be lost. I would give away Rhode Island first.

    7. The oil market is global with long term contracts and the spot market, and both would be affected. Also, it would increase development elsewhere including alternative energy.

    The rest are too vague to comment. Depending upon the specifics, there may be strategic reasons to engage in seemingly idealistic causes.

    Stopping the genocide may afford the opportunity to gain a foothold in a strategic location, or it could be altering power and having effects elsewhere.

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    … like the guy standing next to someone who drives a car for a jihadist leader …

    This is one area where President Obama has taken the fight to the terrorists like no other president. He is using terrorist tactics against the terrorists and their supports.

    If you hang out with terrorists, you will get blown up like a terrorist. If you are OK with the guy next to you sawing off heads, you have problems, and the US is not the cause.

  • steve

    1,3 and 7. 5 has lots of variables and will usually be wrong. In the case of 3, it has to be really hostile. 2 also under the right conditions.


  • Andy

    That’s a bad quiz IMO because you don’t know what the blood and treasure cost will be ahead of time and it is frequently much higher than original estimates. Also, with a couple of exceptions, the proposals are much to vague.

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, partypooper. The quiz was taken from a textbook on international relations and is supposed to illustrate the difference between realist and idealist foreign policy goals. It’s not supposed to be a military operation proposal.

    By focusing just on making war, I don’t think its terribly successful in showing the differences in the schools of thought. I don’t agree with foreign policy realism, but in the narrow issue of going to war, I’m far more likely to support it for realistic goals.

  • Andy

    Not the first time I’ve been called that. Sorry, can’t help myself!

    That said I agree it’s not successful in showing differences in foreign policy “ideology.”

  • PD Shaw

    OT: American labor force does not lack sufficient education concludes recent NBER paper:

    “Overall, the available evidence does not support the idea that there are serious skill gaps or skill shortages in the US labor force. The prevailing situation in the US labor market, as in most developed economies, continues to be skill mismatches where the average worker and job candidate has more education than their current job requires.”

  • As I’ve been saying for many years. We have now had three consecutive administrations, each elected for two terms, the heart of whose trade and economic policy is that education is the way to a sound and prosperous future. IMO this is so obviously flawed it can’t be taken seriously but they persist.

    Twenty years of it has certainly done wonders for the median salaries of college presidents.

  • ...

    Schuler, they say education is the key to prosperity, but then import uneducated third world immigrants by the millions. Look at what they do, not what they say, to discern motives.

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