Periodically, and almost from the day he became a serious presidential candidate, editorialists, pundits, academics, and reporters have described Barack Obama’s foreign policy as a return to “realism.” Essayist and self-described realist Robert Kaplan, to take just one example, argues that this is something like a natural recalibration, a return to geographic and historical inevitabilities.
The opposite of realism, in this straw-man structure, is “idealism,” or “Wilsonian idealism.” For realists, idealism is like a bad pair of eyeglasses, lenses that not only focus on impossibly utopian goals but also prevent a clear assessment of the balance of power. In its full political-science costume, realism is also supposed to be a description of the way power actually works. It’s supposed to be capable of predicting outcomes.
By those two measures, it’s hard to see Barack Obama as a realist. Many of his signature policies – charming Muslims, convincing the Chinese that they share a set of “global” interests with the United States (most notably climate change), “resetting” relations with Russia – reflect fundamental miscalculations and frustrated predictions. Last week, at his mission-accomplished press conference with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the president more or less admitted that his signature military initiative, the 2009 Afghanistan surge, didn’t go as planned, either. In response to a reporter’s question, Obama rhetorically asked: “[H]ave we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not.”
But Exhibit One for the prosecution in the case against Obama as a realist has to be the conduct of the Libya campaign. It’s not just that the intervention hasn’t “achieved the best of scenarios.” And while there were problems with embassy security, the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens was, to some degree, the unfortunate consequence of diplomatic service in a dangerous place. As former Iraq and Afghanistan ambassador Ryan Crocker has said, such risks are part of the price of admission.
No, what was and remains so unrealistic about the Obama approach to Libya is the troublesome follow-on consequences, not only in Libya but now in Mali. As the New York Times reports, where French forces, with lead-from-behind support from the United States, have now had to step in to keep Islamist rebels, reinforced and heavily equipped by Tuareg mercenaries who had gone to fight for Qaddafi.
The official line is that the recent collapse of Malian government forces, in which both the Obama and Bush administrations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars since 9/11, came to rapidly to be predicted, let alone prevented. “The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning,” claimed Col. Tom Davis, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command. “The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks, who ultimately overthrew the government, not at the senior leadership level where warning signs might have been more easily noticed.”
The Times also found a Special Operations Forces officer – and it’s been Army Special Forces teams who have logged the majority of assistance missions in Mali through the years – who didn’t buy it: “This has been brewing for five years. The analysts got complacent in their assumptions and did not see the big changes and the impacts of them, like the big weaponry coming out of Libya and the different, more Islamic” militias that have tipped the scales and compelled intervention in Mali.
The school of political science realism has, over the decades, undergone a number of theoretical modifications that were said to have resulted in a new and improved “neo-realist” model. But they still have trouble with facts that don’t fit, anomalous data. And the future remains, well, apparently hard for theory to predict. In that sense, President Obama might still be considered a realist. But at some point you have to question whether his calculations of the motivations and capabilities of our enemies – that is, the stuff that really makes the balance of power – is less than realistic. It’s not just that there are consequences for theory, but for America and the world.