Capstones: The Unrealistic Realists

By Alan W. Dowd, 4.4.16

One of the most intriguing but least discussed aspects of Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent exit interview with President Obama is how often the two of them use variations of the words “realist” (it appears 11 times) and “interest” (it appears 31 times). On two separate occasions in the interview, Obama repeats the phrase, “This is not at the core of our interests.” Goldberg notes that Obama is an “admirer” of “foreign-policy realism” and believes in “realist-driven restraint.” Obama himself concedes, “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery.”

For those of us who were listening as Obama began his White House bid back in 2007, this comes as no surprise. As the AP reported in July 2007, “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.”  

His defense of this position sounded jarringly similar to that of isolationists, who always justify non-intervention somewhere by pointing out that America has not intervened everywhere: “If that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces,” Obama explained, referring to genocide, “then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now—where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife—which we haven’t done.” He continued, “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done.”     

An America detached and focused on “the core of our interests” is what Obama advertised, and that’s what he delivered. Syria’s civil war has claimed a staggering 470,000 lives—far more than the Balkan wars of the 1990s—and Obama has averted his gaze. Thousands of Christians and Yazidis are being targeted and murdered in Iraq, and Obama wouldn’t allow his administration to call it genocide until Congress effectively ordered him to do so. Iraq and Afghanistan needed a sustained commitment from Washington, and Obama pulled out and pulled back.

Regrettably, these are only the latest examples. When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 election, Obama responded to the “Twitter Revolution” with cold silence. The reaction was so bad that the protestors chanted, “Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?” No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne to support the Iranian protestors. But freedom-loving people—and their enemies—look to America for signals. And the president’s signals were loud and clear that summer.

The sad irony of the president’s inaction in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked in 2008. “Will we give meaning to the words ‘never again’ in Darfur?”

The Iranian people know the answer—and now, so do the Syrian people.

To be fair, the president did intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds. But it seems he was prodded—shamed—into acting by Nicolas Sarkozy. Even then, the president was content to “lead from behind”—the oxymoronic term coined by his staff to try to justify the president’s stand-off approach.

Interestingly, presidential candidate Donald Trump—generally considered Obama’s polar opposite—sounds very much like Obama. For instance, Trump recently huffed, “Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?” Trump has also said, “I look at Assad, and Assad to me looks better than the other side.” And Trump has noted, “My rules of engagement are pretty simple. If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest.”

Of course, this approach to foreign policy was in 2007—and is in 2016—sophistry. Just because America can’t intervene every place doesn’t mean America shouldn’t intervene in some places. And to make the threshold for U.S. military intervention “a direct threat to our interest,” as Trump puts it, or a threat to “the core of U.S. interests,” as Obama puts it, is to ignore the postwar foreign-policy consensus. Contrary to what the disengagers tell us, presidents from both parties have intervened militarily to address humanitarian problems:

  • President Truman launched the Berlin Airlift for a mix of humanitarian and strategic reasons.
  • President Ford deployed military forces to rescue orphaned Vietnamese babies.
  • President Bush (41) dispatched U.S. forces to help the friendless Kurds and the starving Somalis. President Clinton did likewise to end the bludgeoning of Bosnia and protect Kosovo from the same fate.
  • President Bush (43) intervened in Haiti and responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami on humanitarian grounds. President Obama followed suit in Libya after Gadhafi vowed to exterminate his opponents, and in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Nor is this a purely modern phenomenon: In the 1840s, when Ireland was ravaged by famine, the U.S. response included “two sloops of war, four merchant ships and two steamers” full of aid, as Robert Bremner writes in “American Philanthropy.” In the 1890s, Spain’s brutal treatment of Cuba sparked outrage from the American people. As Robert Kagan observes, “The fact that many believed they could do something…helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.” In the early 1900s, TR argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed,” concluding that even when “our own interests are not greatly involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies” and “action may be justifiable and proper.” In the 1920s, President Coolidge rushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Japan to aid its recovery from a devastating earthquake and hurricane.

In short, answering when the forgotten cry out for help is part of what America does. At least it used to be.

“Why do we care?” Because we’re Americans, because no one else has both the means and the will to help the Christians of Syria or the Yazidis of Iraq or the democrats of Iran or the Muslims of Kosovo or the starving of Somalia or the hungry of Berlin, because “to whom much has been given, much is expected.”

What the unrealistic realists and the “nation building here at home” caucus (see here, here and here to get a sense of how much of the political spectrum they now occupy) fail to tell the American people is that humanitarian intervention often promotes U.S. interests. Put another way: idealism can serve realist ends.

How can this be? The starting point is the liberal international order forged after World War II—an international order that favors free governments and free trade, an international order that benefits America more than any nation, an international order that America sustains, an international order that sustains America. It did not emerge by accident and does not endure by magic. Now, as in 1945, it depends on America projecting power into the global commons, supporting free government, promoting free trade, defending freedom of the seas and skies, deterring aggressive states, enforcing international norms of behavior, and serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense.

When America does not play this role, as history and the headlines remind us, the world grows less stable and more dangerous—and that’s decidedly not in America’s interests.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose