Friday, October 2, 2015

Power cut

Too often the notion of political realism is simply reduced to amorality, deriving from a notion that states pursue their interests irrespective of what this says about moral values.

Even before he became president, Barack Obama made clear that he would act as a political realist in America’s foreign affairs. His aim would not be to pursue chimeras such as democratization, as George W. Bush had. He would reorient American priorities to regions of the world that mattered to America, pragmatically accept the country’s limitations overseas, and stray away from situations that might entangle America in costly involvement bringing few tangible benefits.

But even the most hardened neoconservative would not profoundly disagree with much of this. After all, which administration has not sought to advance American interests? Where the two visions differ, however, is in the use of power, particularly military power. Obama has been a reluctant warrior, even if he has not hesitated to use other military means, such as drones, that do not risk American lives.

But for all that, has Obama been a successful realist? Today in Syria the president is in a position to put his ideas to the test. For almost five years he has been a realist only in his readiness to ignore the widespread suffering in the country, to depict the conflict there in dishonest ways in order to justify American inaction, and to mislead repeatedly about his intentions. Other than that, Obama has been an absolutely abysmal realist.

A classic formulation of realism in international affairs is found in the first sentence of Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, a realist bible for generations of college students. “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power,” wrote Morgenthau, before going on to define power as “man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.”

To Morgenthau, power is not military power, but rather a “psychological relation” between those exercising power and those over whom it is exercised. “It gives the former control over certain actions of the latter through the influence which the former exert over the latter’s minds.”

Today, Russia is doing a full-court press in the Middle East to fill the large empty spaces left by the United States. In the regional struggle for power Obama is nowhere to be seen. Russia is intervening in Syria, it is now coordinating with Iran, Iraq and Syria through a “security center” established in Baghdad, and it has strengthened its ties with the Egyptian regime. That is not to say the Russians will ultimately succeed. Their plans are full of potential minefields, but they are acting as old-line realists in pursuing power at the expense of their main global adversary.

Should this matter? Many a US official will say that the Middle East no longer has the same importance to America that it once did. If the Russians want to play a major role there, let them. Perhaps, but that is the language of retrenchment, not realism.

And it’s not as if doing nothing has no political cost. The refugee crisis in Europe, the rising terrorism threat, the fate of old American allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention Israel, have all been affected by regional developments. What happens in the region cannot simply be tossed off as irrelevant. Under Obama, America’s regional alliance system in the past seven years has virtually collapsed, with two countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, having largely lost faith in the United States and embarking on independent paths. So much for Obama’s ability to exert influence over their leaders’ minds.

Nor can this situation be, persuasively, depicted as being in America’s interests. Surrendering, through lack of commitment, what the United States had spent decades building up in the region, cannot be justified by changing circumstances. The Middle East is too complex and volatile a place for one to seriously believe that the situation prevailing today will remain static; or to assume that what Obama has abandoned may not one day provoke a backlash that decisively harms America.

The fact is that Obama’s publicists have often deployed mediocre explanations to explain his disengagement from foreign relations. There is a difference between realism and non-intervention, and on too many issues Obama has allowed lethargy to rule. In countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, the Russians, realizing this, have rushed in to fill the void.

Today, Obama is playing catch-up, making statements about Syria that were perfectly evident years ago, but which the president refused to acknowledge at the time. The most notable of these was his remark on Tuesday that countries would not be able to defeat ISIS in Syria if Bashar Assad remained in office. That’s true, but last year, when the United States began bombing ISIS in Iraq, the president was completely unwilling to accept this logic and develop a cohesive strategy for Syria.

He still hasn’t. American criticism of Russian actions in Syria is justified. Russia has opened a Pandora’s box, one that it will not be able to soon close. Yet when Obama said before the UN General Assembly that Assad’s brutality had made a return to the status quo in Syria impossible, he was not really speaking as a realist. He was effectively making a moral observation that the Syrian leader, “after so much bloodshed, so much carnage,” was now so far beyond the pale that he could not remain in office.

It’s only when Obama happens to forget his political realist pretensions, it seems, that he begins to make sense.

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