Is Obama Real(ist) Confused?

War on The Rocks

February 11, 2015

The Obama administration’s updated National Security Strategy (NSS), released Friday morning, has been widely panned by defense analysts, including yours truly, as a wish list lacking in strategy, being overly focused on placating the U.S. domestic audience, and “really just a PR exercise.” (To be sure, others are more positive, seeing it as rising “above immediate crises and headlines” to provide “a compelling picture of the broader context of the global environment,” albeit one not remotely aligned with the administration’s military spending and procurement policies.) By contrast, President Obama’s actual national security strategy is quite nuanced and very much takes into account costs and benefits. And while he eschews the “realist” label, his actual policy choices seem very much guided by hardheaded weighing of gains to the national interest versus cost in terms of blood, treasure, and bandwidth.

On Monday, Vox released an interview executive editor Matthew Yglesias conducted with the president “in late January.” Off-the-cuff Obama is strangely more lucid–and certainly more candid–on his national security priorities than his staff, at least in the form of the NSS. He articulates why he eschews the realist label, identifies “disorder” as our biggest national security threat, and lays out a reasonably detailed series of thoughts on conflict intervention.

Obama caricatures idealists as “singing Kumbaya” and realists as “supporting dictators who happen to be our friends,” then proclaims “I just don’t think that describes what a smart foreign policy should be.” Neither realists nor idealists would reflexively reject his middle ground approach of using “diplomacy for setting up a rules-based system wherever we can, understanding that it’s not always going to work.” And he certainly leans heavily realist when he adds, “I also think that if we were just resorting to that and we didn’t have a realistic view that there are bad people out there who are trying to do us harm — and we’ve got to have the strongest military in the world, and we occasionally have to twist the arms of countries that wouldn’t do what we need them to do if it weren’t for the various economic or diplomatic or, in some cases, military leverage that we had — if we didn’t have that dose of realism, we wouldn’t get anything done, either.”

Trying to appeal to the idealists, he said, “what I do think is accurate in describing my foreign policy is a strong belief that we don’t have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century,” a caveat most realists would very much endorse.

Ultimately, Obama seems to position himself as a constructivist, saying that treaties and other “rules-based” institutions “reduced the number of problems that you have and the security and defense challenges that you face if you can create those norms,” and that while not perfect, “the UN, the IMF, and a whole host of treaties and rules and norms that were established really helped to stabilize the world in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise be.” But again, neither Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, nor any of the other great realists would disagree with that.

Even more constructivist is the president’s pronouncement of “disorder” as America’s “biggest challenge.” He rightly notes, “we don’t have a peer in terms of a state that’s going to attack us and bait us.” The president continues, “The closest we have, obviously, is Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, but generally speaking they can’t project the way we can around the world. China can’t, either.” He adds, again reverting to his realist instincts, “We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined.”

Thus, we’re left with “disorder. Failed states. Asymmetric threats from terrorist organizations” as the biggest challenges to American security.

While Obama has hardly been averse to the use of military power to address these threats, he maintains that “we just have more tools in our toolkit to deal with the actual problems that we have now and that we can project into the future, rather than just constantly relying on the same tools that we used when we were dealing with Germany and Japan in World War II.”

The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan have freed up forces such that “we can then more strategically deploy, with a smaller footprint, special forces, trainers, partnering, that allows us to get at the actual problem and then frees us up to be able to send a team to prevent Ebola. To double-down on our investments in things like cybersecurity. To look at the new threats and opportunities that are out there.”

While that’s a pretty broad definition of “disorder” and one that, like the National Security Strategy, seems to set no limits on American interventionism, the president has actually been a reluctant intervener. Most notably, he has avoided a major involvement in Syria, arguably the most disorderly place in the Middle East, and been very limited in his engagement against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

After a long and nuanced analysis of the situation in the Middle East, particularly the disruptive effects of the Arab Spring, Obama observes, “this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody’s going to have to deal with.” He adds, “And we’re going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don’t have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can’t do it for them.”

Yglesias observes, “members of your administration often seem acutely aware of the idea of limits of American power, maybe to a greater extent than they always feel comfortably articulating publicly” and asks, “Is it difficult to say, in the political and media system, that there are things that you can’t really do?”

Obama responds, “As I said previously in speeches: when problems happen, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. And we embrace that responsibility. The question, I think, is how that leadership is exercised,” adding, “Where the issue of limits comes in is what resources do we devote that are going to be effective in solving the problem.”

The failure to address that question is at the heart of the critiques of the National Security Strategy, which mentions the need to set priorities but fails to actually do so. But the president at least attempts to do so in the interview: “So, in Iraq, when ISIL arises, if you think you have no constraints, no limits, then I have the authority as commander-in-chief to send back 200,000 Americans to re-occupy Iraq. I think that’d be terrible for the country. I don’t think it’d be productive for Iraq.” So, instead, we get very limited intervention with significant caveats, “What I said was Iraqis have to show us that they are prepared to put together a functioning government, that the Shia majority is prepared to reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis, and that they’re credibly willing to fight on the ground. And if they do those things, then we can help, and we’re going to have a 60-nation coalition to do it.”

Now, most observers, myself included, are incredibly skeptical that those conditions can be met and that, therefore, the president’s ostensible strategy of “defeating and ultimately destroying” ISIL is doomed to failure. But it’s actually a very realist position: we’re willing to take minimal risks to mitigate the problem but don’t see the threat to our interests as great enough to commit large numbers of ground forces. The rhetoric is in direct conflict with the actual policy. But that beats a dumb policy to carry out overly ambitious rhetoric.

Obama continued, “I think the real challenge for the country not just during my presidency but in future presidencies is recognizing that leading does not always mean occupying. That the temptation to think that there’s a quick fix to these problems is usually a temptation to be resisted.” That’s a lesson frequently identified, but seldom learned, from the last quarter century of American interventions into civil wars (including a couple spurred by our interventions).

Additionally, he repeated an oft-stated axiom of his administration’s policy that was articulated in both NSS’s under his tenure: “American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we’re the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don’t have. But that way there’s some burden-sharing and there’s some ownership for outcomes.” While this often comes across as idealist multilateralism, it seems realist in application. Essentially, it’s an updated version of the Truman and Reagan doctrines, applied to “disorder” rather than communism.

The sum of all this is an interesting minimalism: “in the meantime, you take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse. And that’s in no way a concession to this idea that America is withdrawing or there’s not much we can do. It’s just a realistic assessment of how the world works.” Indeed, the strategist Edward Luttwak dubbed this “post-heroic warfare” two decades ago. Perhaps because of the poor branding, the concept never caught on. Maybe a quarter century of failed interventions has made the idea more palatable. But, interestingly, even while admitting this is his actual policy, Obama continues to articulate maximalist goals—like “destroying” ISIL.

Later in the interview, Obama again returns to the baby steps idea. He says that while he will continue to tell American partners that “you are better off if you’ve got a strong civil society and you’ve got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights,” he’s “also going to acknowledge that for a country that, say, has no experience in democracy or has no functioning civil society or where the most organized factions are intolerant, you know, religious sects, that progress is going to be happening in steps as opposed to in one big leap.” This is a much more compelling articulation than the bland and undefined “strategic patience” of the NSS.

Thus, he returns to the juxtaposition of realism and idealism: “I think, the goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn’t mean perfect. It just means it’s better.” Again, most realists would accept that as a truism.

Similarly, Obama observes that, “We can’t guarantee that the forces inside of Iran take what should be seen as a good deal for Iran. We can’t guarantee that they make a rational decision any more than we can guarantee Russia and Mr. Putin make rational decisions about something like Ukraine.” Given that, “We’ve got to guard against their efforts militarily. Any aggression they may show we’ve got to meet firmly and forcefully.” At the same time, “We’ve also got to see whether things like diplomacy, things like economic sanctions, things like international pressure and international norms, will in fact make a difference.”

In closing, the president returns to a constructivist incrementalism: “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better.” That requires flexibility and patience: “Sometimes the play you run doesn’t work and you’ve got to have a plan B and a plan C. But the overall trajectory, the overall goal, is a world in which America continues to lead, that we’re pushing in the direction of more security, more international norms and rules, more human rights, more free speech, less religious intolerance.” Finally, “Those efforts over time add up, and I’m confident that there’s a way for us to maintain our idealism, be hardheaded in assessing what’s out there, confronting the dangers that we face without exaggerating them.”

Just that last paragraph alone contains more strategic nuance than the entirety of the National Security Strategy. By failing to prioritize, the latter makes all threats seem central and all objectives seem equal; that’s the opposite of strategy. Thankfully, the president seems to understand that few threats are sufficient to warrant major military intervention and that attempts to make the world safer and more prosperous by spreading our values are worthwhile but not urgent; it’s a slow process of chipping away.

If Obama isn’t a realist, he’s a constructivist with strong realist tendencies. But, if the president would prefer to eschew the label but accept the policy, I won’t complain too much.

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