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Obama the Realist

1:57 PM, Nov 26, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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As President-elect Obama puts together his national security team, a narrative has emerged to explain the somewhat surprising continuity on foreign policy between President Bush's second term and the incoming administration. There will be a shift to the left, but not a big shift, and certainly nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term -- continued draw downs in Iraq, an increased focus on the Afghan-Pakistan border, greater engagement with Iran, and a serious effort to restart the peace process in Israel -- because Obama is a realist, as is Bush after the failures of his first term. Secretary Gates will remain at Defense. Jim Jones, another realist, will serve as National Security Adviser. And Hillary Clinton, who has been a consistent hawk, will head the State Department.

The always sharp Robert Kaplan explains:

For President George W. Bush did not just damage America's position in the world, he has also, over the past two years, quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy, and that, coupled with a bold new strategy in Iraq, known as the "surge," has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out.

Kaplan's larger point is that Obama will preside over a period of foreign policy (and economic) recovery, and will get the credit for policies that are little different from those of his predecessor. Obama will be in the right place at the right time. This is almost certainly true, but the way Kaplan describes the Bush administration's second term is revealing: with the exception of the surge, Bush has been a realist. Of course, the surge has been the signal accomplishment of the Bush administration's second term -- and the realists opposed it. The surge was, at its core, a doubling down on the notion that American foreign policy objectives could be achieved by force of arms. Yes there was more to it than that -- a greater emphasis on co-opting the local population and a new willingness to negotiate with reconcilable elements of the insurgency -- but this was a military solution to a problem that realists like Jones, and liberals like Obama, claimed could not be solved militarily.

So what did the realists of the Bush administration achieve in the second term? There is a functioning peace process in Israel, but the two sides are nowhere near a deal. The imbalance in the Taiwan Strait continues to grow, the realists having fought against Taiwan's efforts (supported by this magazine) for a massive purchase of American arms that was ultimately pushed through but without the more than 60 F-16s Taiwan had requested. President Bush did nothing in the face of Russian aggression in Georgia. Democracy activists were slaughtered in Burma. The administration has removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror in exchange for what exactly? The genocide in Darfur continues unabated. And while President Bush has tried to engage Iran, offering a long list of incentives for a halt to uranium enrichment and sending Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to deliver the offer in person, the Iranians continue toward a nuclear weapon -- perhaps because they will not be convinced to do otherwise through mere diplomacy.

The realist policies of the Bush administration appear to have been failures, while the surge, championed by the neoconservative wing of the party, has been an unbridled success. However, one can say that the realist failures of the Bush administration have, so far, been small. While they have not made any real headway on North Korea or Iran, the worst outcomes have, for now, been avoided as well. Realists focus on an incremental approach to solving problems, neoconservatives and liberal hawks tend to favor bold strokes -- with greater risk and greater reward.

Of course, none of this is to say that conservatives of all stripes shouldn't be pleased by the direction Obama is taking. As Max Boot says, "Only churlish partisans of both the left and the right can be unhappy with the emerging tenor" of the Obama administration. The realists may have opposed the surge, but they were not hostile to it -- they worked diligently for its success once the decision was made. If there is an emerging consensus on American foreign policy, it is that the players should remain the same even if the outcomes are different -- that the center should hold.