Obama, the Reluctant Realist

Individuals make history, but sometimes the process reverses itself and history makes individuals. President Barack Obama may have wanted to bomb Syria, and he certainly did want to meddle in Libya – where the results of his disastrous "humanitarian" intervention backfired badly – and yet his presidency will go down in history as a moment when American imperialism hit the pause button.

This is not to negate his interventionist record or ambitions: it is only to say that the ability of the United States to intervene massively has run up against the inherent limitations of such a policy. This is underscored by the foreign policy section of President Obama’s State of the Union speech.

One paragraph into the foreign policy section Obama had already begun touting his record of making good on his promises to withdraw American troops from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Citing the (doubtful) possibility that a security agreement with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be signed, he warns us – almost apologetically – that "a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda." He didn’t add: "Sorry about that, folks," but you could hear it in his tone.

In an interview with Jacob Heilbrunn of The National Interest, John Mearsheimer, dean of the "realist" school, opines that Obama is really a closet realist, and he makes a good case, but I would modify this judgment and call him a reluctant realist. Mearsheimer’s remarks, which you should definitely check out, were made before Obama gave his speech, and I would point to what came immediately after the above cited remarks to make the case for his reluctance:

"The fact is, that danger remains.  While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks. In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks. Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses, and combat new threats like cyberattacks.  And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform, and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions."

America’s global "war on terror" continues, even as we pull back from its worst excesses. This is typical Obama in that he takes a "centrist" stance, safely in between the all-out interventionism of his predecessors and what many voters thought they were getting when they elected him. Yet the realist aspect predominates, to wit:

"We have to remain vigilant.  But I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our military alone. As Commander-in-Chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.  But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.  We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us – large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism."

So much for the neocon crusade for a war with Iran: if any possible military adventure would be necessarily open-ended, draining our strength and feeding extremism, then surely it is an attack on the Iranians.

I’m just as skeptical as the next peacenik that Obama will make good on his promise to impose "prudent limits on the use of drones," but just the fact he felt the need to make such a pledge speaks volumes about where we are as a nation.

Again, I have absolutely no confidence in his weasel words about how he’ll work with Congress to "reform our surveillance programs," but it’s a significant concession on his part to note that the Snowden revelations have resulted in a loss of "public confidence" that "the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated." No, he didn’t name Snowden, but then again he didn’t have to.

We all know how public outrage stopped him from bombing Syria, but Obama’s touting of the power of diplomacy as a necessary tool of American power is no less significant because of it. Sure, he pays tribute to the Israel lobby by declaring that "America will always be on [Israel’s] side," but not too far beneath the rhetorical boilerplate is the reiteration of the traditional American position in favor of the two-state solution to the plight of the Palestinians.

The President’s ode to the virtues of diplomacy is capped by pushback against the Israel lobby’s attempt to sabotage the Geneva talks with Iran – and a flat out declaration that he’ll veto any legislation that threatens to undo the interim agreement. You have to give the man credit: no sitting US President since Eisenhower has done more to take on the biggest and most powerful foreign policy lobby of them all.

Now that’s not saying much: Bush II was pretty much their sock-puppet until toward the end of his second term, and Clinton was worse. Reagan was a mixed bag, and if you go back and look you can see where Carter, Nixon, etc. had dustups with Tel Aviv, but not on the scale we’re seeing today, and never quite so publicly. Of course, that was before the Israelis went off the deep end and started electing rabid ultra-nationalists intent on creating a Greater Israel at the expense of their Palestinian helots – and their allies in Washington.

All of which goes to highlight my point: that President Obama’s decidedly realist policies are being driven by circumstances outside his control. As the chief executive of a global empire, one that has no rivals in world history in its scope and rapaciousness, an American president inevitably embraces what is the default foreign policy position of our political elites: e.g. an unsubtle interventionism that assumes America’s hegemonic role in world affairs. Unless, that is, he or she is forced to do otherwise – which is precisely the position in which Barack Obama finds himself.

Since foreign policy is just an extension of domestic politics, it’s easy to see – granted my premise – why Obama is signaling a grand retreat. Americans are sick to death of the "perpetual war footing" the President referred to in his speech, and he has no real choice but to at least appear to be backing off from America’s post-9/11 rampage. Support for the Afghan war has long since polled in the upper teens: failure to acknowledge this would have split his own party, marred his legacy, and distracted attention away from his domestic agenda.

Yet it isn’t just politics that is driving this President down a road no modern American chief executive has tread: economics plays a key role.

Empires are expensive propositions, and, as Garet Garrett, the Old Right polemicist and prophet, put it: ours is an Imperium unique in human history in that "everything goes out and nothing comes in." Instead of our client states coming to Washington bearing tribute, in the old Roman (and British) style, we pay tribute to them in the form of "foreign aid," military assistance, and diplomatic and political support. Bound by manifold "defense" pacts, we are held hostage by our allies under the rubric of "collective security." America is a sun unlike any other in the known universe in that we revolve around our own satellites.

Running head on into the political and economic limits of interventionism, this President cannot stop America’s slow retreat from empire: he can only hope to manage it. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office after Obama leaves it, he or she will have to contend with these objective conditions.

This is not to say that the subjective conditions – the question of who is going to be in the Oval Office come January of 2017 – don’t matter. The institutional bias of the national security state is always going to be tilted in favor of interventionism, and if we add to this the ingrained hubris of our political class that bias is even more apparent.

And yet as Washington’s globalist agenda continues to run up against its built-in limitations, the realization that our foreign policy is a failure – and a dangerous failure, at that – is becoming the conventional wisdom, at least as far as the electorate is concerned. This is the chink in the armor of American imperialism, and it is getting bigger by the day. As time goes on it will only widen – and the forces of peace should take every opportunity to pour through this breach in the walls of the national security state and take the castle once and for all.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].