Is Barack Obama’s Realism Better than George W. Bush’s Idealism?

Barack Obama’s reaction to the mass protests and violence in Iran shows he is following through on his pledge to be more like George H.W. Bush rather than his son, George W. Bush.  Obama has admired the father’s realism and has criticized the idealistic neoconservatism of the son.   But is realism a better foreign policy for the United States?

The answer is a resounding "yes!"  Obama has been reluctant to be goaded into meddling in the delicate situation in Iran by the likes of Republicans John McCain and Charles Grassley.  They want him to harshly criticize the Iranian government, thus allowing it to portray the protesters as lackeys of an imperialist superpower.  In contrast, realist Republicans — such as Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar, Pat Buchanan, and George Will — have jumped to defend Obama’s cautious handling of the situation.  George Will correctly pointed out that the Iranian protesters already know how the U.S. government feels about their government, even in the absence of inflammatory pronouncements from Washington.

Obama has also demonstrated an orientation toward realism by stating publicly that transforming Iraq and Afghanistan into pro-Western democracies should no longer be the U.S. goal.  George W. Bush was clearly committed to achieving this neoconservative nirvana.

Obama, however, is not a pure realist.  Obama seems willing enough to abandon the younger Bush’s nation-building quagmire in Iraq.  But instead of doing the same in Afghanistan, withdrawing U.S. troops from that country, and using intelligence, law enforcement, and maybe an occasional Special Forces raid to go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Obama has elected to escalate the military social work in Afghanistan.  This strand of Obama’s thinking more resembles the idealistic muscular liberalism of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton.

And, of course, the liberal interventionism of Wilson and the neoconservative overseas meddling of Theodore Roosevelt and George W. Bush are two birds of a feather.  In the 1800s, they both originated in the idealism of American Christian missionaries trying to convert heathen peoples to believe in Jesus Christ.  Today, the secular goal of converting countries to democracy has substituted the religious one.

But is the worldview of the hard-nosed realists superior to the messianic democratization of the liberal and neoconservative interventionists?  Yes, because when people feel that their way of living is superior to others, all opposed to that way of life become "the other," who can be demonized, attacked, and either converted to the cause or slain. 

To absolve realism of bad behavior, however, would be a mistake.  The realism of Henry Kissinger gave us American carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and active U.S. assistance to the brutal Argentine government to commit human rights violations against dissidents.  Overall, however, realists are usually more pragmatic than their idealistic counterparts on both ends of the political spectrum and are much less likely to go off on ideological crusades, such as George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  In fact, even the "offensive realist" school practices a more restrained foreign policy than either the liberal or neoconservative interventionists.  And one strain of realist thought — the realist minimalists — laudably advocates taking military action only under rare circumstances — when U.S. vital interests are at stake. 

Realism, however, tends to focus on the international balance of power and pragmatic U.S. strategic goals overseas and attempts to be value-free.  But foreign policy is supposed to protect the domestic system and allow it to flourish, not warp the domestic system to further objectives overseas.  Realism overseas is good up to a point, but the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve, protect, and defend the republican form of government at home.  The traditional foreign policy of the United States — practiced, with some exceptions, from the founding until the Cold War began- — was inclined to avoid most overseas conflicts. 

The nation’s founders, who initiated this restrained foreign policy, were realist minimalists with a twist.   They realized that among nations, the United States had a unique strategic position:  very intrinsically secure because of vast distances over oceans that separated the country from the world’s main centers of conflict.  The founders also abhorred what the militarism of European monarchies had inflicted on their common citizens — high costs in blood and treasure.  They realized that war, above all else, threatened liberty and limited republican government.

Obama’s pragmatism in foreign policy is more reassuring than the messianic meddling overseas of George W. Bush.  But if Obama is to avoid a common pitfall of realism — a dearth of values — he needs to value liberty at home above all and promulgate a restrained foreign policy that will preserve it.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.