from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama the Realist?

March 3, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In the current issue of Politico, Fred Kaplan argues that President Obama is the consummate realist in foreign policy.  Politico asked me to comment, and my response can be found here, entitled "Obama the Ideologue."

I argue there that Kaplan has it all wrong:

Obama emerges as an ideologue—not a realist. His policies have weakened America’s sway in the world, as our Arab and Israeli friends in the Middle East—and more, recently, the Russians—are all saying quite publicly. The “pivot to Asia” has no substance. Our military power is being deliberately reduced. While China and Russia seem to have growing influence, ours is diminishing. Relations between Obama and our closest allies (from Japan to Britain to Israel, for a few examples) are frosty at best. All this seems to be the goal of Obama policy, not an unexpected and unwanted byproduct. His is the early Jimmy Carter view (before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan), basically the George McGovern take on America’s role in the world: We’re a bully, we push people around and that’s got to stop. We need to “engage” and “reset” instead; we need to do less.

That’s not realism, and it can be called pursuit of our national interest only if you believe that having diminished power and influence is good for us—as Obama apparently does.

In The Weekly Standard today I discuss the President’s remarkable interview with Jeff Goldberg of Bloomberg. The full interview bears a close reading, for it reveals a lot about Mr. Obama’s view of himself and of foreign policy--and none of it is encouraging.

Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to Iran, Obama shows an attitude that can only be described as solipsistic: what’s in his mind is reality. And any other reality is just plain silly. Here is the key exchange:

GOLDBERG: So just to be clear: You don’t believe the Iranian leadership now thinks that your “all options are on the table” threat as it relates to their nuclear program -- you don’t think that they have stopped taking that seriously?

OBAMA: I know they take it seriously.

GOLDBERG: How do you know they take it seriously?

OBAMA: We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well….

GOLDBERG: So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?

OBAMA: Well, I don’t think this is personal. I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard. I think change is always scary.

It’s pretty obvious to all analysts that Iran does not fear an American military strike much these days, especially after Mr. Obama’s failure to act in Syria last summer. But Obama denies it, referring to himself in the third person as someone “who has shown himself willing to take military action.” Drones, sure; a quick raid as well. But in Libya and Syria, he showed himself extremely reluctant to take military action. Remember “leading from behind?” If he genuinely thinks he is viewed as a scary guy with his finger near the trigger, we all have a problem.

Goldberg pushes him, asking why (as is obvious) no one in the Gulf believes Obama. “I don’t think it is personal,” says the president; the problem is them, not him, and his analysis is therapeutic: change is always scary, and they are having trouble catching up with it.  But talk with Gulf Arabs and one finds quickly that it is in fact quite personal: they don’t trust Mr. Obama. They believe his handling of Iran and Syria and for that matter of Russia have made the world a more dangerous place.


The full text is here.

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