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We will all come to miss Obama’s realism

The US president has spelled out that it was the botched invasion of Libya that cemented his cautious, realist view of foreign policy

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

You have to hand it to Barack Obama. Most presidents wait until they are safely out of office to launch their valedictories, summing up what they have learned about the world after years working at the most demanding job there is. Not President Obama. In an extraordinary series of long interviews with The Atlantic, he clearly spelled out that it was the horribly botched invasion of Libya that cemented his cautious, realist view of foreign policy.

The first admirable and all-too-rare thing about Obama—in contrast to the fantasies of George W. Bush—is his intellectual readiness to stare failure squarely in the face. When asked about Libya he could not be clearer. ‘It didn’t work,’ the president sombrely makes clear, the invasion was a mistake. As ethical realism morally depends on seeing the world as it is, warts and all, and then trying to make it better, Obama finds himself squarely in the philosophical tradition of Aristotle, Thomas Moore, and Edmund Burke.

Three practical foreign policy insights logically flow on from Obama’s ethical realism. First, he clearly acknowledges the real limits of American power to transform societies. Nation-building, an obvious failure from Haiti to Afghanistan, Libya to Iraq, must no longer be the fool’s gold that drives American responses to intervention.

At the time of the campaign to oust Gaddafi, Obama warned, “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa. That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.” Or as T.E. Lawrence (who was far better at working with local cultures than the Americans have proved) put it, work with local people, help them, but do not dictate to them.

The first admirable and all-too-rare thing about Obama—in contrast to the fantasies of George W. Bush—is his intellectual readiness to stare failure squarely in the face

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Second, the President is rightly annoyed at the lack of the French and British follow through in Libya, both during the military campaign and in its aftermath. Obama is still rightly angry with then French President Sarkozy, who seemed more interested in ‘trumpeting’ French military successes than in following through on the ground. Likewise, the White House gives Prime Minister David Cameron a hard time, noting that he seemed to be distracted by other priorities the minute the shooting died down.

While all this is true (the Franco-British bombing runs would have been far riskier had the US on its own not taken out Gaddafi’s air defences), the President perhaps misses the larger point that the West as global ordering entity simply does not exist anymore. France is suffering through endemic economic decline, falling ever further behind pacifist Germany, while the UK has to be begged by the US to spend a paltry two percent of its GDP on defence. There are no longer two pillars to the western alliance: There is America and a Europe in absolute decline.

Intellectually depleted Washington

Third, the President rightly reserves a good deal of his wrath for an intellectually depleted Washington foreign policy establishment, which never met an intervention that it didn’t like. I well remember from my own decade in Washington, the striking fact that---apart from myself—so often at high-level policy meetings the question was not whether there would be an intervention (that was taken for granted), but merely the specific tactics that would be used to carry the mission out.

It is almost impossible to explain to outsiders that—for all the supposed intellectual firepower in America’s capital—in reality an expansionist, interventionist, one-size-fits-all groupthink has dominated the place for years. In heroically ignoring the very people, both Democrats and Republicans, who are primarily culpable for the Iraq war (and astoundingly are still taken seriously), the present White House has done the world a huge service.

The world will come to greatly miss Barack Obama’s cautious, grounded realism, his steadfast ability not to shoot first, and ask questions later. But the political problem remains that his administration could well be seen historically as merely a brief interlude between the mindless neoconservative expansionism of George W. Bush and the garden variety crusading Wilsonianism of Hillary Clinton, who is a card-carrying member of the Washington foreign policy elite.

Obama has groomed no realist foreign policy heir, nor has he ideologically remade the Democratic party in his image: it remains a bastion of interventionist Wilsonians, with realism merely a minority view within its ranks. As such, a Clinton victory will presage a return to a more aggressive American interventionism around the world. Remember Secretary Clinton led the charge on Libya, is for arming the Ukrainian rebels (as though that would give President Putin pause), and wants the US to take a much more activist role in Syria, without exactly spelling out what that means.

It is over this political failure to remake the Democratic Party in his realist image that posterity may judge Barack Obama somewhat more harshly. But given what is likely to follow, I imagine that history will come to rate the Obama foreign policy far more highly than it is viewed at present. The bitter truth is that we will all come to miss Obama’s realism.
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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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