Over at NRO, Elbridge Colby calls Barack Obama “our unrealist president” on foreign policy. It’s difficult to give justice to his piece with an excerpt, but I’ll try:
To be sure, Obama’s approach exhibits some elements of realism, most notably a caution about the overuse of force. Realists emphasize that force is an unpredictable and often costly instrument, and they tend to be conservative in their estimates about how well things will work out when nations reach for their guns.
But restraint is not what fundamentally characterizes realism. Rather, because realists see the international arena as innately competitive and often dangerous, they believe that strength is critical to a successful foreign policy. A domestic realist welcomes not only police restraint but also the appropriate vigorous application of police power; similarly, a foreign-policy realist knows that restraint alone is an invitation to chaos and peril. By this standard, Obama is neither an authentic realist nor a successful foreign-policy president.
But then comes the important question:
So what is the president if not a realist? Peter Berkowitz and Paul Saunders have persuasively described him as a progressive pragmatist. As the president himself has put it, his foreign-policy philosophy is “Don’t do stupid s***,” which would be a decent tagline for pragmatism. Consequently, the administration’s foreign policy has a distinctly ad hoc quality: It occasionally resembles realism but also sometimes looks like liberal hawkishness, as in Libya in 2011, or old-school progressive idealism, as in the president’s Cairo and Ankara speeches, which gave the impression that Obama believed he could talk people out of their interests, grudges, and hatreds.
I’d argue that progressivism and practicality are mutually exclusive, so either by accident or design, Colby has neatly encapsulated Obama’s wildly uneven foreign adventures.
To get a sense of what I mean, let’s look at one of the president’s foreign policy wins, even if it was a small one and we have to travel all the way back to 2009 to find it. For that, here’s David Ignatius reporting on North Korean freighter Kang Nam 1, which had been believed to be carrying proscribed weapons in support of the Burmese military junta:
The official told me that the Kang Nam 1, a North Korean ship bound for Burma with a mysterious cargo, had just turned back toward home — as a result of what he described as a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign from Washington. The official argued that the turn-around at sea was a sign the Obama administration’s firm stand had worked.
“The Burmese said no, we don’t want it,” the official said. He explained that Burmese authorities had contacted North Korea to refuse delivery using an open line — as if they wanted to make sure the U.S. got the message.
The Kang Nam 1 had embarked more than two weeks ago with a cargo that U.S. officials believed might include banned armed shipments. The U.S. Navy, operating under authority of a recent U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution, was monitoring the ship’s slow progress toward Burma.
Administration officials didn’t want to force an open confrontation by boarding the ship, especially when they weren’t sure what it was carrying. Instead, they pressured governments en route not to allow the Kang Nam 1 to dock at their ports. And the U.S. made clear it hoped that Burma would turn the vessel away if it tried to land.
Cool, patient, working behind the scenes, and not allowing himself to be drawn into an embarrassing overreaction — these are Obama’s best qualities. The problem is, they seem to be his only qualities. Even when he gets serious about going to war, the effort is either sluggish (think of the slooooow buildup of the Afghan surge), reactive (everything in the Middle East post-Libya), or resentful (“leading from behind,” getting called to account for golfing instead of strategizing). He can’t even be deigned to go to Congress first, as in the case of the Libya air campaign, and perhaps for whatever finally comes in the fight against ISIS. This behavior has invited aggression from Moscow, adventurism from Beijing, and encouraged whatever the hell you call it from wherever the hell it is headquartered in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq.
We have a fundamentally peacetime president in a wartime world.