Obama Tries His Hand at ‘Realism’

President Obama is what might be called a “closet realist” who often pounds his fists upon the table while shaking hands under the table. He has to pull off this trick because of America’s ugly partisan realities, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Edward Luce in the Financial Times has a take on Barack Obama’s foreign policy that is accurate and should be evident to all. But given the state of foreign policy discourse within American politics, perhaps it is not surprising that it falls to a longtime foreign observer of American policy and politics to make this particular observation.

Luce states that as Mr. Obama’s presidency “matures,” he “is showing qualities one would normally associate with Henry Kissinger,the arch-realist of U.S. diplomacy.” Luce points to Obama’s handling of relations with both Iran and Cuba as evidence that he “is grasping the essence of diplomacy, when adversaries come to terms, neither achieves everything they want,” and that he realizes that “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”

President Richard Nixon with his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1972.

President Richard Nixon with his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1972.

Luce focuses especially on the Middle East as a region where President Obama, without acknowledging it, “is taking a leaf from Mr. Kissinger’s book” by both pursuing a deal with Iran’s regime and simultaneously “stepping up support for its equally dubious counterparts in the Sunni world.”

It is a balance-of-power approach, in which the essence of the Obama administration’s policy in the region is: “Rather than trying to convert the Middle East to our values, it seeks to limit the region’s ability to export its pathologies.”

That Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is in its main respects a sober, prudent, and mostly unoriginal, exercise of realism should be obvious but gets obscured by, most of all, the different colors with which his political opponents assiduously endeavor to paint it. The President is consistently portrayed as naive, or weak, or insufficiently assertive in advancing American values.

Or as Speaker of the House John Boehner said the other day about the nuclear negotiations with Iran (in comments in which Mr. Boehner made clear he wants to kill the deal outright, dropping the pretense that those on his side of the aisle want a “better deal”), “It just appears to me that the administration wants a deal at almost any cost.”

The groundless nature of that statement should be apparent to anyone who has looked at all seriously at the history of the negotiations, at what has been agreed to so far, and at who has had to make what concessions to get to this point.

The obscuring of the nature of the current administration’s foreign policy also has other roots, including ones that do not necessarily involve the President’s opponents. There has been talk about an “Obama doctrine,” reflecting a perpetual yearning among the chattering class in this country to apply such labels and to characterize each presidential administration in unique terms that would warrant such a label. Apply the label if you want, but it implies more uniqueness than is really there.

It is more boring, but also more accurate in characterizing the current administration’s policies, to describe it as guided mostly by realist principles that have been applied not just by Henry Kissinger but many others in the past.

Among those principles are that U.S. policy should be focused consistently on the most effective ways of pursuing carefully defined U.S. national interests, that the world must be dealt with as it really is and not as we might wish it to be, that in pursuing its interests the United States must use all available tools and deal with all other countries, and that compromise is inevitable and perfection impossible. Unexciting stuff, but wise stuff.

The widespread failure to recognize, with regard to this stuff, both what the Obama administration has been doing and what any administration ought to be doing is a sad comment on the state of foreign policy discourse in the United States today (and Luce notes that the realist strand in Mr. Obama’s policy “goes heavily against the grain of the debate in Washington”).

This discourse takes place in an environment in which sound and unexciting realism cannot be accepted for what it is without being dressed up with a snazzier label, and in which policies based on such realism get denigrated as weak or unprincipled or something else.

The political environment in which the discourse takes place is one in which the foreign policy of one of the major parties, which now controls the Congress, has been captured by neoconservatism, with a libertarian minority and a realist remnant, reflecting a tradition once represented by Mr. Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon, that is an even smaller minority.

The other major party, as a political beast separate from the Obama administration, has been having a hard time finding its foreign policy bearings amid a nationwide rightward shift. The Democrats seem likely to put up a presidential candidate who is substantially more hawkish than the party’s rank-and-file, and many members seem less inclined to assert proudly any realist tradition than merely to limit the ability of the other side of the political spectrum to export its pathologies.

The political power of American exceptionalism, of which neoconservatism is the most muscular manifestation, leaves little basis for expecting that any of this will change any time soon. Completion and implementation of a nuclear agreement with Iran would be a significant realist achievement very much in the tradition of, and Luce makes this comparison explicit, what Kissinger and Nixon did in their opening with China. But first the agreement must be completed and implemented, and anti-realist sentiment is keeping uncertain whether that will happen.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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12 comments for “Obama Tries His Hand at ‘Realism’

  1. dahoit
    April 22, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Obomba is a miseducated poison ivy league liar with a bogus view of reality.
    He can’t tell the difference between good and bad guys,obviously.
    And he hates Muslims.
    Is he still smoking?What a maroon.

  2. Gregory Kruse
    April 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Obama is a president; Kissinger was an adviser. Apples and oranges.

  3. Peter Loeb
    April 22, 2015 at 7:32 am

    NO “MATURATION” FOR THIS LATEST CON ARTIST

    Barack Obama was always what we dreamed we wanted. What he was selling us with
    his philosophic rhetoric was exactly what we had ALWAYS, ALWAYS wanted!
    He was wrapping our dreams in impressive verbiage such as his deep belief in
    “holy wars”, the beliefs of St. Augustine that anything —murder, massacre, oppression,
    even rape, home demolition etc.— is justified if it for a “holy” purpose, a purpose
    wherein “we” are superior and deserve to do as we will to inferior beings. This is
    “settler colonialism”,the centerpiece of Zionism in all its forms. If you take the Israeli-
    Palestinian conflicts you are on target but you could just as well have looked at
    the Christian Crusades of the 10th and 11 centuries and the marvelous beheadings
    of hundreds of “infidels” as Christians (Franks) took Jeruselum and tramped through
    the bloody streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After all, it was directed by
    God and for a holy purpose.

    Meanwhile Obama was always loyal to his “cronies” (an old word perhaps) in the
    same fashion that politicians always have been. It is votes at certain times but
    in between the “constituents” are the lobbies such as AIPAC (for Israel), the
    weapons makers (now only three corporations pushing for greater profits
    and more international markets while workers yearn for another WW III (like the
    good old times when jobs were many).

    How these lobbies actually function is described in detail by Professor Lawrence
    Davidson in his analysis at: http.//www.tothepointanalysis.com/3290.

    I credit Obama with his salesmanship and not much more. He is following a long
    tradition which will undoubtedly be continued in the near future. For the security
    of Americans (of course) and to teach the inferior peoples about something we
    call “democracy” which is the same as what is “of vital interest to America” which
    is everything in the world US interest groups (industry etc.) wants and needs and
    desires….

    Forget “maturation”!

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. incontinent reader
    April 21, 2015 at 11:04 am

    I don’t know about the maturation of Obama’s thinking, or the extent of it. I see him still as a puppet of his mentors and the Deep State to which they belong. Whether or not in some arenas he has exhibited ‘realism’, in too many others it has been ‘exceptionalism’ backed up by ‘smart power’ (i.e., military threats, coercion and clandestine action) and then characterized as ‘realism’. So, while he has seemed at times to rein in the crazies- e.g., with Iran- the negotiations are not over by a long shot, and it does not mean that he will not still try to bring down Iran’s regime, or keep it in a long term economic strait-jacket, or turn it against Russia- as if perpetuating our preemptive war and manufactured conflicts with Russia were anything resembling ‘realism’. And Cuba? Just read this to see where he is with Latin America:
    “Obama’s «Diplomacy» Masks His Bullying at Jamaica and Panama Summits” at: http://www.voltairenet.org/en, and ask why he has declared Venezuela a ‘national security’ threat
    (which could be one step away from putting it and its advocates on the State Department terrorism list), or why he has also threatened Ecuador. I see his approach to Cuba as a ‘trojan horse’ in that country and the rest of Latin America, and an attempt to preempt Cuba’s growing -political, economic, and cultural relationship with Russia, and, specifically, Russia’s development of Cuba’s offshore oil and gas reserves, and a nuclear energy program.

    As for why on the few occasions he has seemed to rein in the crazies, I think General Dempsey has been one of his only advisors with a sober mind and record of military experience who has given him the necessary reality check about the consequences of his policies and actions.

    • Susan
      April 21, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      Incontinent reader you are the realist in recognizing that Obama is not, and because at times he engages in diplomacy doesn’t means he’s a realist either. This trend of thought about Obama is often repeated by Mr. Parry, unfortunately. And, to drag in Kissinger and Nixon on China and make a comparison is beyond ludicrous when you think of the overall political policies of either one. Most unfortunate interpretation of reality no doubt skewed by all of Mr. Pillar’s years in the CIA, and because the Republican party is so war mongering that Obama looks tame by comparison means nothing.

  5. incontinent reader
    April 21, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I don’t know about the extent of maturation of Obama’s thinking. I see him still as a puppet of his mentors and the Deep State to which they belong. Whether or not in some arenas he has exhibited ‘realism’, in too many others it has been ‘exceptionalism’ backed up by ‘smart power’ (i.e., military threats, coercion and clandestine action). So, while he has seemed at times to rein in the crazies- e.g., with Iran- the negotiations have not been smooth and are not over by a long shot, and it does not mean that he will not still try to bring down Iran’s regime, or keep it in a long term economic strait-jacket, or turn it against Russia- as if perpetuating our preemptive war and manufactured conflicts with Russia were anything resembling ‘realism’.

    As for why on the very few occasions he has reined in the crazies, I think General Dempsey has been one of the only ones with a sober mind and record of military experience who has given him the necessary reality check about the consequences of his policies and actions.

  6. incontinent reader
    April 21, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I don’t know about the maturation of Obama’s thinking. I still see him as a puppet of his mentors and the Deep State to which they belong. Whether or not in some arenas he has exhibited ‘realism’, in too many others it has been ‘exceptionalism’ backed up by ‘smart power’ (i.e., military threats, coercion and clandestine action). So, while he has seemed at times to rein in the crazies- e.g., with Iran- the negotiations are not over by a long shot, and it does not mean that he will not still try to bring down Iran’s regime, or keep it in a long term economic strait-jacket, or turn it against Russia- as if perpetuating our preemptive war and manufactured conflicts with Russia were anything resembling ‘realism’.
    As for why on the very few occasions he has reined in the crazies, I think General Dempsey has been one of the only ones with a sober mind and record of military experience who has given him the necessary reality check about the consequences of his policies and actions.

  7. Tom Welsh
    April 21, 2015 at 8:04 am

    I can’t see what is “realistic” about killing (literally) millions of foreigners who have done you no harm, and do not intend to. Isn’t that calculated to make you rather unpopular?

    • par4
      April 21, 2015 at 10:00 am

      The author worked for the largest terrorist and drug running organization in the world for 28 years.

  8. Rob Roy
    April 21, 2015 at 1:47 am

    Henry Kissinger as a statesman to admire and imitate is a baffling choice, he being one of the most ruthless persons who’s every lived. His latest book is “New World Order” and that should tell people his world view. He believes the “exceptionalism” of America, right there an arrogance held by people who really think they have the right to control all the world, its resources and its populations. The ugly phrase “American interests abroad” and its combinations, meaning colonialism and imperialism is and was Kissinger’s, and others of his ilk, highest goal. Any “doctrine” we’ve employed since WWII has been devastating to all those countries we’ve attacked illegally–Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya plus all the side hits such as Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Bahrain, Ukraine, Yemen. AND we haven’t won a single one, nor will we; but as you know by now, the point isn’t to “win” but just keep all in disarray and chaos and austerity until their cultures no longer exist. Then the U.S. will be what? Biggest Empire Ever? The New World Order? No one in our government is a realist, really. By the way, Congress can’t stop this Iran agreement once it’s signed by all six countries.

  9. tramol
    April 20, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Maybe Obama approaches his foreign policy from a realist perspective but we have to keep
    in mind it’s not like each new president rolls up his sleeves in january and plots an unique foreign policy. Each president inherits and attempts to bend the narrative of America- a resilient mother, forged in the bowels of Industrial Europe, then tempered and flattened with genocide, enslavement, and gluttonous militarization. Obama may act a realist or pragmatist when deciding what to do in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Honduras, Ukraine, Nigeria, but the situations he’s inherited are bat guano crazy. They’re the consequences of supremacists with colonial appetites, and neo(con)colonialists with violent, capitalist fetishes. How can we blithely call the little decisions he makes in the big clustermess that is the US Imperial empire “realistic”. What would be realistic would be to dismantle the juggernaut while forging ties and mending relations, releasing our disproportionate control of the world’s resources and redesigning our material society in a steady, controlled simplification rather than an overstimulated rush of wealth to some sudden wall of limits that looks like invading armies, ostracism, famine… We have to change our attitudes about what we think we can accomplish and thus call realistic. Is it realistic to want to stop having to decide how many troops to send here, splats to order over here? Is there anyway to gracefully resign from being the world’s foremost policeman/arms dealer? Just sayin

  10. John
    April 20, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    The excuses that the administration is merely realistic are best argued to the right wing warmongers. While it is better to seek peace than war in Ukraine and Iran, the realism is imposed by superior forces there, not by any apparent acceptance of a benevolent US role.
    With the US sending trip-wire forces to Ukraine and carrier task forces to Yemen, there is no sign that the lessons of Korea, Iraq, etc, have been learned.

    If the US had not intervened in Afghanistan to cause problems for the USSR, nor supported dictators and Israel in the ME, nor attacked Iraq for Israel, it would not have set off Islamic extremism across the region. Had it a foreign policy of benevolent diplomacy and economic aid since WWI, instead of bone-headed imperialism, it would have none of these enemies. That is the policy of realism, not merely recognizing that it cannot afford to fight everyone.

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