Misguided Realpolitik

This is the second in a series of four articles trying to come to terms with Obama’s foreign policy. Click here to read Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4..

Less than a year into President Barack Obama’s administration, the fundamental assumption on which his foreign policy hinged has already been challenged and proven erroneous. That assumption – that the United States would be able to talk its way out of the various and sundry messes which the Bush administration allegedly left it – died on the streets of Tehran this June, along with scores of Iranian citizens protesting the regime’s blatant rigging of the country’s presidential election.

To the amazement of many in Washington – even those who had been counseling “engagement” with the Mullahs – the administration has continued to offer up the olive branch of normalized relations in exchange for an agreement on the part of the Iranian government to desist any nuclear weapons program, all while that regime has imprisoned, tortured and murdered its domestic critics. This diplomatic posture sent the unmistakable message to Iran that it could respond as brutally as it wanted, and the regime naturally has acted with utter impunity. President Obama has ignored his own well-put aphorism, holding out his hand even while the regime clenches its fist ever more tightly.

As the riots in Iran continued and the clampdown increased in intensity, it became woefully clear that the administration viewed these dramatic events as something of a bothersome sideshow in its quest to strike a “grand bargain” with the regime. This Holy Grail, which the President and his “realist” supporters have long believed to be attainable, proved elusive for the Bush administration, whose alleged belligerence and stubborn refusal to “talk” with America’s adversaries prevented the attainment of such a rapprochement. The cruel absurdity of the administration’s obsession was made apparent when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs asserted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the “elected leader” of Iran, a statement he did not retract until the following day, and something that could have only dampened the spirits of the millions of Iranians who valiantly asked, “Where is My Vote?”

The contrast between the “hardheadedness” of the Bush administration and the fresh look approach of Obama is predicated on the claim that the former twiddled its thumbs while Rome burned; that out of pride or pique, it refused to roll up its sleeves and delve into the necessary diplomacy that could have averted the crisis we’ve found ourselves in today. This is perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about Bush’s foreign policy. That the Bush administration “did not talk” with the Iranian government – one of the most frequent criticisms one hears about its policies– is a lie. According to the Middle East Forum, there were more than 28 meetings between Iranian officials and American diplomats of Ambassadorial rank. The first of these meetings occurred in November of 2001, as the United States was waging a war against the Afghani Taliban, which had long been an enemy of the Iranian regime. The United States government made numerous approaches towards Iranian interlocutors with a view towards discussing Tehran’s nuclear program, but was constantly rebuffed.

That President Obama has had no more luck than the man who preceded him has not diminished the hopes of the “realists.” If anything, it has made their calls for a lessening of tensions and the increase of inducements all the more self-assured. Their faith seems to be invested in a conception of this president as a man uniquely qualified to improve America’s relations with regimes that are historically and inherently antagonistic to our own.

But there’s no reason to believe that the president will be luckier than he already has. Various Iranian officials have made it abundantly clear – both before and after the fraudulent June 12 election – that they have no intention whatsoever of forgoing the country’s nuclear program, and, furthermore, that talks about the future of such a program are not even an option. The insurrection which brought the regime to power 30 years ago was predicated upon a revolutionary anti-Americanism, and that is the only crutch on which the regime can prop itself. Every rationale that the government in Tehran has offered for its continued existence has been shown up as deficient, and a paranoid fixation on the machinations of evil outsiders is all it has left. And thus it must be noted that the Second Iranian Revolution – a repudiation of the first – died on this president’s watch.

President Obama has disappointed on other fronts and in other regions, in ways both large and small. His reaction to the “coup” in Honduras – in which the country’s military ousted the president on the orders of the Supreme Court, Attorney General and Congress – was a sign of his inclination to be led rather than lead. In this case, Obama did not side with the democratic forces in Honduras resisting the attempts of their leader to follow in the footsteps of Hugo Chavez; rather, Obama parroted the same position on the matter as Chavez and Raul Castro.

The administration’s early announcement that it would press a “reset” button with Russia, as if something so complex as the relations between two nations could be fundamentally changed with the entrance of a new president in Washington, might have been intentionally gimmicky, but it does represent a sort of wishful thinking about international affairs. The thinking here, like nearly everywhere else, seems to be that the United States is at least equally culpable for the frayed relationship, due to our needless provocation and lack of sensitivity to Russia’s sense of itself as a major world power.1 Yet Russia’s continuing attempts to threaten European oil supplies and meddle in the affairs of its independent neighbors – whose independence it neither really recognizes nor respects – will bring some of the administration’s lofty expectations down to earth.

In its dogged pursuance of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Obama administration is very much like its predecessors, who all – with the sometime exception of George W. Bush – saw the resolution of the decades-long dispute as within their reach. If only the Palestinians were to have their state – the conventional wisdom goes – many, if not most, of the difficulties we face in the region and the world, for that matter, would wither away. That the Palestinians are currently neither interested nor capable of peacefully running their own state alongside Israel has no effect on this overly sanguine line of thinking. But where this White House differs is in the degree of pressure it is exerting on Israel, making demands of it that are not equal to those being asked of the Arabs, who have always been the more recalcitrant side in this dispute.

The president must be commended for his responsible handling of America’s commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. That these policies, more so in Iraq than Afghanistan, stand in contradiction to his campaign rhetoric does not make them any less welcome. A clear-eyed assessment of the consequences of withdrawal persuaded Obama to ignore the calls from the left of his party to abandon the democracy-building project in Iraq; the test now is whether he will see the endeavor through to success, especially if conditions on the ground worsen.

It’s a cliché that governing is different from campaigning, and the President and his most hopeful supporters must surely realize the magnitude of resistance that is building against many of his domestic initiatives. Most Americans seem not to be paying as much attention to foreign affairs, which is in part attributable to the president’s decision to manage – rather than transform – the world. He has focused his transformative passions at home. This passivity towards challenges overseas is the most striking difference between this president and his predecessor, and it remains to be seen what will become of the new American indifference.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic and a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.


1 In one of his more candid moments (and there have been many), Joe Biden ridiculed these pretensions, one of many statements that the White House had to later clarify. By the end of the first term, it is almost guaranteed that a small war will break out in some misbegotten locale due to the verbal snafus of our vice president.

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