Obama the Realist

Obama the Realist

The interviews with Goldberg also indicate a commitment to careful, rigorous analysis of policy decisions—also essential to sound foreign policy—and a rejection of more emotional approaches. What this means, in the president's words, “is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you're not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don't produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”

Goldberg writes that part of what he wanted to find out in his interviews with the president was stimulated by an early speech by Mr. Obama opposing the Iraq War. “I wanted to learn,” says Goldberg, “how an Illinois state senator, a part-time law professor who spent his days traveling between Chicago and Springfield, had come to a more prescient understanding of the coming quagmire than the most experienced foreign- policy thinkers of his party...not to mention, of course, most Republicans and many foreign-policy analysts and writers, including me.” The workings of the mind revealed in these interviews—a dispassionate, well-informed, realist mind—are enough to provide the explanation Goldberg was seeking.

Impressive though that mind is, we are quickly led to seek explanations for the connection, or what some may consider a disconnect, between the mental processes in the presidential head and foreign policies over the past seven years that have been subject to so much criticism. Criticism has come not only from the purveyors of attitudes and habits that Mr. Obama explicitly and with good reason rejects, but also from some who would not necessarily disagree with what he is saying but would argue that many of his policies do not reflect what he is saying.

One obvious explanation is that the United States is not a presidential dictatorship. The most glaring current limitation on Mr. Obama's ability to implement policies as prudent as he would like them to be is control of Congress by a political opposition determined to oppose virtually his every move. Even in the instances where he somehow is able to overcome that opposition, such as with the survival (so far) of the agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program, the president has to expend much political capital and to offer “compensation” that goes directly against some of what his realist perspective would say is an unwise way of handling “allies” in the region.

The resistance comes from more than just the reflexive obstructionists. The realist perspective Mr. Obama holds is contrary to a conventional wisdom that is more widely and deeply held, across both parties, in the Washington foreign-policy establishment. The president describes this conventional wisdom in his interviews with Goldberg as a “playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow.” The playbook “prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” The effects of the playbook have been felt within Mr. Obama's administration and among his own advisers, most noticeably in the influence that some advisers had in leading to the intervention in Libya.

Going beyond the establishment and to the general American public, most of that public simply does not subscribe to the realist perspective. Most of the American public oversimplifies foreign policy problems, has an exceptionalist faith in the American ability to solve the world's problems, sticks to traditional views of friends and foes, and does not delve into the intricacies of geopolitics. Most Americans also think much more in terms of why we can't get certain sets of bastards than in terms of Hobbesian interpretations of social order, and would quickly tune out any explanation that sounds like the latter. And most Americans are swayed more by emotion-rousing rhetoric than by careful, cool-headed analysis.

Given these attributes of the public mindset, there always will be opposition politicians eager and able to exploit that mindset to score political points and gain political office, and to frustrate the efforts of those who think differently. That is a political reality that even the most diligent and cool-headed realist must contend with. Any president, even in a second term, must constantly worry about how what he or she does on any one issue will affect the president's influence and ability to get things done on other issues. This means compromises inevitably are made. It also means the president must pick which battles to fight and which not to fight. In that respect a realist president's perspective in dealing with conflict in Washington must parallel the perspective applied to conflicts abroad.

The president does, of course, have the ability to use the prominence and prestige of the office to try to educate the public and to change the public mindset. One is entitled to ask why, as we read the wisdom that President Obama dispenses in his conversations with Goldberg, we haven't been receiving more of a steady diet of such wisdom, featuring as much candor and directness, in a series of presidential statements from Mr. Obama's first days in office. Part of the answer lies with this particular president's strengths and weaknesses and comfort levels; he acknowledged to Goldberg that “there are times when I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we're doing and how we're doing it.” Part of the answer concerns the political necessity of doing the sail-trimming, compromising, and battle-picking to cope with conflict in Washington.

Also pertinent is that the persuasive potential of even a communication-skilled president is less than sometimes assumed to be, and probably less today than it has been in the past. Particularly given the reach and variety of modern mass media, today's president has a harder time commanding attention than Theodore Roosevelt with his bully pulpit or Franklin Roosevelt with his fireside chats. For FDR's listeners, huddled around the radio in the parlor or the kitchen, the president's words were apt to have been about the only thing relevant to public affairs that they heard that evening, despite some competition at other times from communicators with a following such as Father Coughlin. For many listeners and viewers today, a presidential speech may not claim much more of their consciousness than a commentator on Fox News.

The Goldberg interviews reveal a president who, certainly for anyone with a realist perspective, is a wise steward of U.S. foreign policy—wiser than the American political system and political milieu will ever allow him to get credit for.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to the National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image:Flickr/White House.