Commentary

President Obama: A Realist Interventionist?

Figuring out the direction President Barack Obama’s foreign policy will take has become a full-time job for pundits and foreign diplomats in Washington. And a key question on everyone’s mind is how exactly Obama will seek to exert influence as the American Empire shrinks.

A clear consensus among Washington cognoscenti on the direction of “Obadiplomacy” has yet to emerge, despite nearly two years of presidential campaigning and a full slate of Cabinet nominees. This points to two possibilities. First, that Obama has a coherent foreign policy vision and a strategy to implement it, but that he and his aides are keeping it top secret—a great skill for those who want to win victories in the games that nations play.

Or that Obama does not have a grand diplomatic strategy à la Cold War containment or the “war on terror.” If such is the case, the evolution of foreign policy under Obama could be a process of trial and error, a cost-effective diplomatic approach in which major decisions are made in response to political and economic pressures at home and abroad.

If the second possibility eventually comes to define the Obama presidency, we can be certain of one thing—the Washington foreign policy elite will not be sated. Whether they are on the right or the left, hawks or doves, liberal internationalists or neoconservatives, foreign policy “professionals” tend to gravitate to grand strategies that reflect their favorite intellectual fads or narratives—like Fukuyama’s End of History, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Kaplan’s Coming Global Anarchy, or the neocon’s Islamofascism threat. Intellectuals are drawn to global crusades to promote a collective good that tends to be transfused with a sense of adventure and romance.

But after eight years of foreign policy fantasies, the notion of an Obama administration muddling through foreign policy choices should be welcomed, even by those who will be disappointed if the new president’s choices fall short of our high expectations.

In making our predictions about Obama’s policies, many of us project our hopes and fears. Many opponents of the neoconservative agenda supported the Obama candidacy based on his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, stated willingness to dialogue with Iran and Syria, and apparent commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Compared to the ideologues and fanatics who were recently in charge of U.S. diplomacy, Obama has seemed a staunch member of the antiwar camp. This explains much of the enthusiasm that he garnered among antiwar bloggers during the Democratic primaries, when he challenged then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favor of the congressional resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

But there is a certain element of wishful thinking in this image of Obama. Obama’s earlier opposition to the Iraq War corresponded to the constituency he represented as an Illinois State Senator. But he never proposed that his position on Iraq was grounded in any leftwing or progressive anti-interventionist principles. Instead, he reiterated several times during the campaign that he respected the realpolitik types who were responsible for the more traditional diplomacy of the first President Bush. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports Obama consulted with one of these realist luminaries, former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, about his foreign policy picks for the new administration.

Some hopes of progressive and libertarian antiwar activists were already dashed when Obama announced he would retain Robert Gates as defense secretary, and nominate Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and retired General James Jones as his national security advisor. The non-interventionists’s mood was probably not improved after reading reports about the potential role that former Clinton administration aides like Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, or Richard Holbrooke—known for their pro-interventionist approaches—might play in the administration. Indeed, those of us who were hoping, wishing, and praying for the making of a new U.S. foreign policy paradigm—that would disengage militarily from the Middle East, end the special relationship with Israel, withdraw from NATO, terminate military pacts with Japan and South Korea, and take a less belligerent approach towards Russia—were bound to be disappointed by many of Obama’s selections for his foreign policy team.

But then Obama never stated that he would embrace the non-interventionist agendas of Taft Republicans or McGovern Democrats. President Bush père and President Clinton have been his role models when it comes to diplomacy and national security. And these two were both committed to maintaining the U.S. dominant position in the post-Cold War era, including through the use of military force. It is true that neither Bush père nor Clinton embraced the more ambitious neoconservative policy proposals that called for invading countries in the Middle East and establishing a permanent U.S. military presence there. And while they and their aides had occasionally employed Wilsonian rhetoric, they never had any urge to “liberate” Iraq and implant democracy in the Middle East. Theirs was a pragmatic—or opportunistic—foreign policy that took advantage of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the only potential challenger of U.S. hegemony, as well as America’s economic might, to establish a dominant U.S. position in the Middle East and East Asia, to expand NATO to the borders of Russia, and to continue calling the shots at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. Under them, Washington was able maintain an American Empire whose military and economic costs were largely acceptable to the U.S. public.

Obama, with the help of the Clintonites and the Scowcrofts, is hoping to recreate that kind of cost-effective Pax Americana. Applying diplomatic means to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran and to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could permit the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq and reassert its influence in the region. Creative statesmanship could also help reduce tensions in South Asia and create the conditions for stability in Afghanistan. Working more closely with the European Union (EU), the country could bargain and make deals with the Russians. And then there is America’s “soft power,” pumped-up by the sex-appeal of Mr. Cosmopolitan Cool himself, which might win the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere.

Indeed, during his inaugural address, Obama seemed to reiterate the kind of internationalist and realist principles embraced by Bush père while avoiding any mention of “axis of evil’ or the term “war on terrorism.” Instead, he projected a mix of tough pragmatism and soft idealism. ‘ “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said, sending a message to Iran, Syria, and other governments Bush II refused to engage and sought to isolate. And he specifically addressed the Muslim world, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”.

Two days after entering office, Obama announced that former Sen. George Mitchell would be his special envoy to the Middle East to help revive the Israeli-Palestinian process, and that former Clinton aide Richard Holbrooke would serve as his special envoy to South Asia. Obama’s selection of the Lebanese-American Mitchell and not of Dennis Ross, an American-Jewish diplomat perceived as being one-sidedly sympathetic to Israel, was seen by some as an indication that Obama intends to embrace a more even-handed approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Moreover, there is a rising expectation in Washington that Obama will use his charismatic and cosmopolitan persona, including his quasi-Muslim roots, to re-energize U.S. diplomatic influence and accentuate its commitment to be an honest broker in the Middle East. Obama and his skilled foreign policy advisors will demonstrate that Washington can revive now the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, overcome the many obstacles to a political settlement, and help bring peace to the Holy Land.

At least that’s the way many in Washington and the media seem to see things. They insist that not before long, the Obama administration will bring stability and peace to Middle East (and South Asia and the Caucus and to…) where supposedly everyone is waiting for the United States to exert its leadership role. If Obama builds America’s “standing” in the world, they—the Israelis and Palestinians (and Indians and Pakistanis)—will come to the negotiation table and make peace.

But once again, these high expectations may not be fulfilled. The problem is that the United States of 2009 has clearly lost its position as the Global Number One. It could find it very difficult to secure even the less ambitious goal of being first among equals. The debacle in Iraq coupled with the horrific costs of the financial crisis have eroded U.S. military and economic power and, by extension, its diplomatic influence. This change in the balance of power is driven to a large extent by growing public opposition to the Iraq War and to new military interventionism.

The country’s diminished leverage is also demonstrated in the failure to contain Iran’s rising power and growing influence through surrogates in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Notwithstanding strong opposition from the Bush administration, Israel decided to open negotiations with Syria while Lebanon invited Hezbollah to join the government. Moreover, the Europeans and the Egyptians—not the Americans—played the leading role in achieving a cease-fire during the recent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

If Washington could not get an Israeli-Palestinian peace process going at the height of the 2000 “Unipolar Moment”—when the Israelis and the Palestinians were less radicalized and led by strong and moderate leaderships—there is little reason to expect President Obama will become an instant Holy Land peacemaker. With a worn-out military and an economy in a down-turn trajectory, Obama and the rest of Washington will be forced to recognize this reality, sooner or later. But the process of a great power adjusting to changes in the balance of power tends to be long and painful.

Economists have drawn attention to the time lag between when an actual economic shock (such as sudden boom or bust) occurs, and when it is recognized by economists, central bankers, and the government. The existence of this time lag—or, to use the economic term, recognition lag—explains why, for example, it has taken economists so long to signal the current economic recession..

One can identify a similar lag between the time when an international crisis, like a military conflict, takes place, and the time when officials, pundits, and the public recognize its effect on the global balance of power. Hence, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which devastated the military and economic power of the two leading empires, Great Britain and France, it was still common for officials and journalists to refer to these declining nation-states as Great Powers.

The same kind of lag can be observed in the way officials and pundits have failed to recognize the combined impact of the Iraq War and the financial crisis have had on U.S. long-term standing in the international system. There is a tendency in Washington to attribute its declining influence to the Bush administration’s mismanagement of U.S. diplomacy and national security policy. But even the most visionary and competent U.S. president will be constrained in his ability to “do something” whenever an international crisis takes place or to create incentives for global and regional players to work with it.

Will Iran be interested in playing diplomatic ball with the U.S.? Will the Europeans continue to follow U.S. leadership or will they try to make separate deals with Russia? China and India are climbing up the economic and military ladder just as America seems to be stepping down. Realpolitik in the Obama Age could prove to be a painful cost-cutting exercise as Washington readjusts to the realities of the post-neoconservative era. In that case, imperial retrenchment could prove to be the default choice of the new president.

Leon T. Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.