The War on Obama's Realism

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The recent protests in Iran have revealed deep fractures in the ruling elite - and I'm not talking about Iran. Closer to home, a debate has erupted over whether President Obama should be speaking out more forcefully on behalf of the protesters on the streets of Tehran, or whether his rhetorical restraint is a mark of wisdom. The debate has given the president's neoconservative critics a chance to kill two birds with one stone - politically wounding Obama and denigrating realism all at once.

At first blush, it seems odd that the critics to the President's right believe dubbing him a "realist" would be a term of opprobrium. After all, foreign policy realism is typically associated with Republicans, not Democrats. Its most famous devotees include President Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President George H. W. Bush, and Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Some of America's greatest foreign policy successes - the cleaving of China from the Soviet Union and the peaceful reunification of Germany, for example - were the product of realist statesmen.

Of course, there has never been a strictly "realist" administration, just as there has never been a strictly idealist one. The two schools are always in tension, often in the same administration and even in the same Commander in Chief.

But as the conservative criticism of Obama suggests, the constituency for realism inside the conservative movement and Republican circles appears to have waned considerably since its Kissingerian heyday.

Indeed, during the primaries, when President Obama admitted that he looked favorably on the foreign policy decisions of the George H. W. Bush administration, neoconservatives began sniffing a realist rat. In his willingness to speak frankly about America's past sins, to his desire to engage with Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, neoconservatives have been complaining that the president was discarding his predecessor's soaring rhetoric and trampling on "American exceptionalism."

But it was not until the protests in Iran erupted that the critical damn burst. President Obama quickly indicated that while he was "deeply troubled" by the election results, he had no desire to be seen as "meddling" in Iran's internal business. He has since sharpened his rhetoric, claiming to be "appalled" by the recent violence.

But the President's overall restraint is understandable, particularly when the outcome of the protests remains unclear, and an American endorsement could tar the protesters as Western stooges. Perhaps the president was chastened by America's less-than-stellar record of finessing Iran's internal politics, from the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mosaddeq, through President Carter's tone deaf support for the Shah as his regime reeled in revolutionary tumult . Whenever, and however, the dust settles in the Islamic Republic, the U.S. will still have serious business to attend to. Iran will still have a nuclear program. It will still have extensive ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, and it will still desire a larger geopolitical role in the Middle East.

Obama's reticence has not set well with neoconservatives. In the President's restraint they detected the putrid scents of foreign policy realism. And so they pounced.

Senator John McCain got the ball rolling by criticizing Obama during a TV interview. "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election, and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights," Senator McCain argued. "We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime and they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics."

In the pages of the Washington Post, Robert Kagan (a former McCain advisor) went one better, accusing the president of secretly rooting for Ahmadinejad to crush the protesters so he could get on with the business of appeasing Iran. "What Obama needs," wrote Kagan, "is a rapid return to peace and quiet in Iran, not continued ferment. His goal must be to deflate the opposition, not to encourage it." Kagan went on to ruefully note that as disturbing as Obama's betrayals are, it's "what ‘realism' is all about."

Columnist Jonah Goldberg urged the President to insert himself into Iran's democratic struggles with high-minded rhetoric. What was stopping Obama? Only realism, Goldberg wrote, "the worst thing" about the Republican Party and the root of Obama's rhetorical reluctance. Writing on the website of the neoconservative journal Commentary Magazine, Jonathan Tobin decried the Obama administration as - horror of horrors - the second term of George H. W. Bush.

Despite the outrage, few of the President's critics have been able to muster any actual evidence that Iran's protesters want President Obama to use the bully pulpit more forcefully, or that the President could successfully direct the wave of Iranian dissatisfaction to our liking even if he did speak out. It is merely enough that he mouth the right platitudes.

It's clear why neoconservatives are launching this two-pronged assault on both Obama and his reputed realism. For eight years, neoconservative ideas were in ascendancy (particularly during the first four years of President George W. Bush's term). And while they wrap themselves in the mantle of American idealism, the actual results of their policymaking were, shall we say, less than ideal. President Bush did speak out boldly against North Korea and Iran. And both made considerable gains in their nuclear capabilities. From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush - egged on by neoconservative pundits and analysts - wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

While it makes sense that neoconservatives would fight hard to salvage their legacy, it's less clear why Republicans would want to join them at the barricades. The public, to date, has been supportive of President Obama's handling of foreign policy in general, and of Iran in particular. A majority of respondents approved of Obama's approach to foreign policy in a recent Times/CBS News poll - tracking similar findings this month from Pew Research. A plurality of likely voters surveyed by Rasmussen Reports support the president's handling of Iran.

Perhaps the public's mood will sour as the regime in Tehran continues to up its violent ante. Or maybe the American public is onto something. For all the sins of realism, real and imagined, it's worth asking if any supposedly realist president has led the country into the strategic cul-de-sac which is the Iraq War - where it is considered a victory when only 340 Iraqis died violent deaths in May. This neoconservative brain child has wrought a steep cost in American blood and treasure, to say nothing of immense Iraqi suffering. Key to early U.S. failures in Iraq were baseless assertions of how Iraqi society would respond when their dictator was overthrown. The same voices browbeating the President to intervene forcefully in Iran were heard in 2002 expounding on the virtues of Iraq's middle class, its strong nationalism (which trumped sectarian and tribal loyalties), the capacity of its oil wealth to facilitate reconstruction and - above all - the gratitude its people would show America's occupying force.

Is it any wonder President Obama is ignoring them now?

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