Obama’s Foreign-Policy Realism

AP images/Meisam Hosseini

President Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Iran and Syria takes him full circle, back to the Obama of the 2008 campaign and the Obama who was (prematurely) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently the United States is now willing to foreswear the use of force if these still-nasty regimes will give up weapons of mass destruction. It’s both a remarkable shift, and a low bar.

This new course presents a tricky set of diplomatic challenges. It falls squarely within the school of foreign policy known as realism: give up on ideals that are unattainable and focus on those that serve core national interests and that can be achieved at proportional cost, even if that means making peace with regimes you detest. In modern times, Henry Kissinger, sponsor of détente with China, was the great advocate of realism—with the notable exception of the failed crusade in Vietnam.

Realism says that we should try to get along with even brutal status-quo powers, not topple them, unless our own vital interests are at stake. Post-Soviet Russia, though an ugly kleptocracy, turns out to be a status-quo power with interests that overlap our own. Putin, with home-grown terrorists in his central Asian regions, is just as alarmed by radical Islamists, as we are. Putin’s asylum for Edward Snowden is suddenly less of a big deal.

But are the governments of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the slightly toned-down Islamist Republic of Iran really status quo powers, even if stripped of chemical and nuclear weapons, which still remains a very big if? Or will they continue to harbor and sponsor Islamist fighters and de-stabilize the rest of the region?

Are we kidding ourselves to think that getting rid of weapons of mass destruction could be just a first step towards broader regional peace? Pakistan remains an example of the perils of accepting a status-quo regime that is a source of chaos, not stability.

One place where this question is being asked with increasing alarm is Jerusalem. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu was quietly enlisted to support the planned missile strike against Assad’s chemical weapons capacity—and was one of the several players who felt the rug suddenly pulled out when Obama abruptly changed course.

The Israel lobby in the U.S. pressed its usual allies in Congress to vote for the attack, but suffered a rare exposure of the limits of its power. Even reliable supporters of Israel in both parties were leery of supporting the strike. Where Palestine is concerned, the Israel lobby can count on easy Congressional backing. But when constituents are opposed to broader interventions involving America’s own vital interests, the Israel lobby is no longer ten feet tall.

Netanyahu does not buy the premise that a Syria minus chemical weapons would be any less of a threat to Israel—if anything a more entrenched Assad regime enjoying a détente with Washington would be freer to support Hezbollah. Nor does Netanyahu believe that the reformist government of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran is serious about giving up nuclear weapons, much less about turning away from other Islamist policies.

Indeed, if Obama and Rouhani were somehow to make an enforceable deal that got rid of Iran’s nuclear weapons, the reformist leader would be under pressure to show his bona fides with the Mullahs on other fronts, including support for the Palestinians.

Several things are noteworthy about this remarkable turn of events in Obama’s foreign-policy leadership. Accepting the limits of America’s military power is surely praiseworthy and overdue. Yet an accommodation with Assad and Rouhani on weapons of mass destruction overlooks the fact that such agreements would not buy stability in the Middle East. All of the risks of terrorism, the mass appeal of radical Islamism, the unsavory regimes put in power by the Arab spring, would continue, perhaps even intensify.

So would the threats to Israel, though these are at least as much the responsibility of the intractability of the Netanyahu government as that of the Palestinians and their Islamist allies. In that respect, a little distance between Washington and Jerusalem, for a change, might not be a bad thing.

There remains the problem of the sheer viciousness of many of these Middle East regimes towards their own people. It is ironic that Obama’s new ambassador to the U.N. is Samantha Power of all people. Power came to prominence as a crusader against genocide and advocate of military intervention to prevent it. Gassing thousands of innocents in Syria is not quite full-blown genocide but is in the same moral category.

The opposite of the tradition of realism is idealism—intervene on behalf of moral norms. But Power is now serving a president who has turned away from that doctrine in favor of a diplomacy of realpolitik that may or may not work.

There are times when intervention is justified purely in human terms—not just against an expansionist genocidal regime like Nazi Germany but against a contained one, as in Rwanda. Today, however, the United States is coming to the end of a hundred-year cycle of idealist interventionism that began with Woodrow Wilson, peaked during World War II, and took a wrong turn in Vietnam. During the Cold War period, many of our interventions in places like Iran and Chile were designed more to serve U.S. corporate interests than universal human rights.

Only under President Clinton were there several humane interventions that blended realism and idealism, as in the Dayton Accords that ended genocide in the former Yugoslavia as well as the administration’s skilled diplomacy in Northern Ireland. Had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated, Clinton might even have pulled off an Israel-Palestine agreement.

But George W. Bush inadvertently seeded the ground for a massive public backlash against American military adventures, by pursuing an idealistic intervention against the wrong tyrant based on misinformation and self-deception. Now the U.S. is using diplomacy rather than brute force to pursue détente with some unsavory regimes. To have this remarkable policy shift serve as a net gain for peace and human decency will take some fancy footwork—and, if successful, would truly earn Obama his Nobel.

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