Beyond Realism and Idealism: Explaining Obama's Shifting Middle East Policy

Much has been made of President Obama's intellectual incoherence following his decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Caught between hard-nosed realists like Thomas Donilon and Robert Gates and liberal interventionalists like Samantha Power, Hillary Clinton, and Susan Rice, Obama has been apparently unable to advance any overarching ideology of his own. Indeed, abandoning the calculated approach to the Tunisian and early Egyptian uprisings and diving into a full-blown military assault on Colonel Qaddafi can be chalked up to the do-gooders on Obama's right shoulder simply out-yelling the cynics on his left.

This is the tune being carried by the mainstream press. Jacob Heilbrunn of the National Interest, for example, writes that the administration "entered office emphasizing realist tenets. Now it is jettisoning them." Samantha Power and "her subjects," he continues, are transforming American foreign policy "from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can -- at the point of a cruise missile if necessary." The New Yorker is no less scathing: "Obama's reluctance to articulate a grand synthesis has alienated both realists and idealists," writes Ryan Lizza, who portrays the president as an intellectual lightweight worrying more about Yo-Yos than China or Pakistan during his days as a "provincial legislator." In Lizza's estimation, Obama has "emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law."

All this talk of dithering and deference would be interesting if it didn't confuse realism with isolationism while also misidentifying the point at which Obama's foreign policy began to tack away from its early "realist" positions.

On the first count, one does not have to look far back to recall a time when realists -- also employing a moral smokescreen (freedom) -- argued persuasively for military intervention in Iraq. Realists, unlike isolationists, evaluate foreign policy decisions based on how they impact America's power vis-à-vis other great powers. It makes sense, therefore, that some of America's greatest realists did a lot of intervening in other parts of the world. For example, Theodore Roosevelt, who is described by Henry Kissinger as defining America's role in the world "completely in terms of national interest," was the first to proclaim America's "police power" in the international arena, establishing the Panama Canal Zone and occupying Cuba under its auspices. Thus, to insist that Obama has abandoned realism simply because he intervened in Libya is to misread the litmus test for a realist foreign policy. One must look beyond the airstrikes -- and the rhetoric about humanitarian intervention -- to the larger powers jockeying for position in what is a rapidly changing Middle East. In particular, one must look to Iran.

This brings us to the second count: misrepresentation of the timeline of Obama's shifting foreign policy. Egypt, not Libya, was the battleground that remade Obama Doctrine into something that Power could get excited about.

On January 25th, as tens of thousands of protesters swarmed Tahrir Square, the U.S. response was exactly what you would expect from a country whose relations with Egypt were shaped primarily by oil, Israel, and concerns about radical Islam. "[T]he Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," was the unsympathetic assessment of Hillary Clinton. Only later, after it had become clear that Mubarak was lost, did the Obama administration begin to shift into interventionalist gear. Fearful that Iran might exploit the unrest to extend its influence -- and, indeed, it sent two warships through the Suez Canal within weeks of Mubarak's ouster -- Washington scrambled to choreograph a replacement for Mubarak. As Ross Douthat noted in the New York Times, "If the Obama White House has its way, any opening to democracy will be carefully stage-managed by an insider like Omar Suleiman... This isn't softheaded peacenik dithering. It's cold-blooded realpolitik." It was only then that the president broke publically with his emissary, Frank Wisner Jr., and declared that "An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."

When handing off the reins to Suleiman proved untenable, the White House settled for the next best alternative: a managed transition to democracy. It was at this point that the president finally threw his support behind the protesters and started to sound like a Wilsonian idealist: "[N]othing less than genuine democracy will carry the day... The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary -- and asked for -- to pursue a credible transition to a democracy." New political realities, therefore, necessitated a break from the U.S. policy of deliberately forestalling democracy in the Arab world. What resulted was more palatable from an idealist perspective, but was no less cognizant of American interests at the end of the day.

Libyan intervention can be explained along similar lines. By the time Qaddafi's forces began firing on protesters in Tripoli, the calculus of American interests could no longer be reckoned according to old scales. Brent Scowcroft's assertion that "our real interests in Libya are minimal," quoted by Lizza in his New Yorker article, had become dangerously outdated by this point. The president faced a new and more populous Middle East -- one that was paying close attention to the American reaction to Qaddafi's bellicosity. It was not just the specter of genocide that loomed large for Obama, but the potential for the U.S. to botch its first dealings with an entirely new, and less pliable, Middle East. Moreover, concerns that Iran might fan the flames of internal conflict -- like it does in Iraq currently -- pushed the U.S. toward its ultimate decision to intervene. As deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said only days after the Coalition intervention commenced, "We do expect that Iran will try to take advantage of events. We always monitor very closely."

Whatever the merits of the decision -- it is yet unclear if intervening in Libya, or even fence-sitting in Egypt will pay off in the end -- it can certainly be couched in terms of realpolitik, much the same way that emphasizing democracy promotion after 9/11 was framed as a national security imperative. Explaining America's shifting foreign policy in terms of the relative influence of realists and idealists on the National Security Council ignores the real impetus for change: a surge in Arab self-determination that left the U.S. without its most reliable client state in the region and threatens to rob it of a long list of reliable autocratic allies. Raw power, not Sam Power, explains "how the Arab Spring remade American foreign policy."