Obama’s Realism

In an editorial published today in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/09/AR2009030902231.html), Richard Cohen critiqued President Obama’s foreign policy.  The title of the piece, “Moralism on the Shelf,” is a good indicator of what Cohen’s conclusion will be.  He claims that Obama’s policy is amoral and lacks “an overarching desire to do good.”  As examples of this he cites Obama’s willingness to overlook China’s human rights abuses and Putin’s “neo-Stalinist” actions, as well as his desire to engage diplomatically with authoritarian regimes such as Syria, Iran and North Korea.  After warning of the consequences of these policies, Cohen goes on to declare that they are “good” for the most part, and that realism is “sterile but necessary.”  He then says that it is “wise” to have no foreign policy doctrine at all, which he claims Obama does not have.


Cohen contradicts himself several times.  He calls Obama a realist but then claims he has no international relations doctrine.  He describes Obama’s foreign policy as amoral, but then notes that one of Obama’s favorite philosophers is theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a self-described “christian realist” who believed that the US should accept unpleasant realities and deal with them accordingly but not abandon its moral principles. Cohen asserts that Obama’s suggestion that he would not rule out talking with moderate elements of the Taliban marks the end of “the American century,” which he believes was characterized by a moralistic foreign policy.  Yet he also describes former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft as an “arch-realist,” and mentions America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, which was promoted by President Nixon’s arch-realist adviser Henry Kissinger, as an example of realism.  Indeed, much of US foreign policy in the twentieth century was dictated by what could reasonably be described as a narrow focus on national security interests.  America did not intervene militarily in World War Two to stop the Holocaust, but because Germany was a hostile power that declared war on the US.  The Eisenhower administration accepted a settlement to end the Korean War which left the North Korean people under a brutal communist dictatorship.  As noted earlier, the Nixon administration pulled out of Vietnam and left the South Vietnamese to fight the communists on their own.  The George H.W. Bush administration chose not to go into Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War because the threat to Middle East oil fields had been eliminated.  Thus, modern American presidents have always had strands of realism in their foreign policies.


Cohen also argues that the political left will not criticize Obama’s realist policies because “Liberalism has been blanched of a pronounced moral component.  That is now the province of conservatism.”  He seems to have forgotten recent American history.  Since the end of the Second World War, it has been Republican administrations, besides that of George W. Bush, that have been accused of embracing realism too much, whereas Democratic administrations have been described as being too moralistic.  When President Carter put human rights at the top of his agenda and President Clinton intervened in the Balkans to combat ethnic cleansing their opponents said they were doing things out of moral concerns that did not serve US interests. 


During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama stated that the US should act quickly to stop genocide in parts of Africa where it could easily be argued that America has no major economic or security interests.  If Obama meant what he said then he has clearly not set aside all moral principles when it comes to policymaking. 


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