Obama Says He's a Realist in the Mold of George H.W. Bush. What Does that Really Mean?

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Mr. Gardner's latest book is: The Long Road to Baghdad: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy from the 1970s to the Present (New Press, Oct. 2008).

Statements Senator Barack Obama made during the campaign offering praise for President George H.W. Bush’s realist approach to ending the Cold War and dealing with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait invite us to reconsider American foreign policy options past and future. Senator Obama was particularly careful to praise the first President Bush for limiting American war aims in Gulf War I to forcing an Iraqi withdrawal. He did not pursue Saddam Hussein’s Republican Army to Baghdad, or seek to overthrow him by direct military means. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney also famously expressed himself in public as unwilling to risk American lives in an unlimited campaign to achieve regime change.

But within the administration, nevertheless, some prominent policymakers felt the decision to end the war “prematurely” was a terrible mistake. In the 1992 presidential campaign the economy was the main issue, of course, but Bush’s decision to let matters take their course in Iraq was a reason floating around conservative think tanks for not supporting him with more than tepid enthusiasm. The attacks on Bush realism as a shortsighted outlook that only promised greater trouble in the future crossed party lines, and spurred intellectual debates.

Bush had put in place various restrictions, no-fly zones, economic embargoes, etc., that beyond making life difficult for Saddam Hussein were supposed to hasten his downfall. The Clinton Administration pursued these efforts with considerable vigor, and it was Secretary of State Madeline Albright who hit Bush the hardest in his Iraqi sore spot. In the aftermath of Gulf War I, various accounts of what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had supposedly said to President Bush right after the invasion of Kuwait to stiffen his Ivy League backbone emerged in the press and books about the war. Wagging her finger at the president, the story goes, the “Iron Lady” admonished him, “Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.”

In a speech at Georgetown University, Albright reprised Thatcher’s words to rebut critics of the Iraqi sanctions as misguided efforts that had caused terrible suffering without achieving any useful purpose in bringing about regime changes. After listing all the things the Iraqi Government must do to allow the sanctions to be lifted, she concluded there was no way Saddam Hussein could meet those requirements. As a university professor, she added, she had taught students that they must consider all possibilities. But as secretary of state, “I have to deal in the realm of reality and probability.” The United States did not agree, she said, with the nations that argued that if Iraq complied with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. “This is not, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, the time to go wobbly towards Iraq.”

Albright’s use of the neo-conservative bludgeon in such a specific manner was quite remarkable, and should raise questions about the commonly advanced narrative that draws a sharp distinction between realism and Bush II’s transformationist foreign policies. But there is more that takes us back – back, indeed, to the Vietnam War and the conviction that the American role in the world was defined by its ability to put history on fast-forward by the use of military force. Albright put it delicately this way, “We recognize that stability is not an import; it must be homegrown. But we also know that circumstances may arise in which active American leadership and power are required.”

During the Vietnam War, it was Walt Rostow who gave the fullest expression to such a credo. Indeed, Rostow has a better claim to the authorship of “creative destruction” than some later neo-con in Bush II’s administration or pundit writing in the National Review. History afforded some examples of major changes accomplished from internal sources, he argued, but the real push toward modernization more often than not came from without. From the time of the publication of his major opus, The Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow eagerly pursued this insight even when it led deep into the swamps of Southeast Asia. As national security adviser he worked hard to convince President Lyndon Johnson that although the way seemed confusing at times, and the goal obscured by mist, it would all come out right in the end. Americans must learn, he said in a memo to Johnson, “to understand the nature of the war; to understand the confusing but essentially constructive struggle of a democratic nation to bloom; and, above all, by the fact that the Communists are counting on us to despair and give up…. If our people really understand, I believe they would be quite tolerant of the birth pangs.”

Wars of national liberation, Rostow said in a speech at Leeds University in 1967, were really anachronisms; Vietnam was the last stand of the doctrine of guerrilla warfare, and was destined to prove the case for pragmatism and moderation. Even so, he cautioned, in somewhat contradictory fashion, failure there “could destroy the emerging foundation for confidence and regional cooperation in Asia, with further adverse consequences on every continent.”

Similar phraseology was used by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about Gulf War II and the stakes of the outcome. After the elections in the Gaza strip did not turn out the “right way,” Rice defended the transformationist policies of the administration in a press conference: “I’m going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we’re in an ideological struggle.” And, “What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing – the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.”

Now, is there a link-up between these visions that displays the difficulty for those who want to see a realist sensibility in foreign policy that is actually a useful distinction? Yes, as a matter of cautionary information, there is. George H.W. Bush sensed the difficulty in going to war, as one critic put it, simply because the name of the gas station had changed, and so began demonizing Saddam Hussein as even worse than Hitler. At one point in a press conference, the president said that even Hitler did not fail to respect and protect the “legitimacy of embassies.” And he did not stake out people as military targets, another of Hussein’s supposed crimes beyond the false stories of his troops snatching premature babies out of incubators and throwing them down on cold cement floors to die. After the war was halted short of Baghdad, it was hardly surprising, then, that Bush found himself the target of criticism for failing to remove the tyrant from power. In the midst of arguments over Gulf War II, the first President Bush was rediscovered as a realist who understood the limits of what could be achieved and what was adventurist. But would President Obama be wise to rely on a realist paradigm to guide him through foreign policy questions? Does such a paradigm exist at all, or are such distinctions between neo-con and realist something like an argument between the Smith Brothers over how much licorice to put in cough drops?

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Raul A Garcia - 12/8/2008

In the debates, I remember distinctly Obama excoriating the failed policy in Iraq(although by then things were "quieting down considerably) and exhorting an asap removal from there- and what was the substitution after condemning the wasteful expenditures in Iraq? A stepped up military venture in Afghanistan and strikes into Pakistan if necessary to take out Osama. Hardly words of peace or reversal of the status quo. I have yet to hear from any Saddam Hussein fan club or any reunion dinner of the same. Anybody miss Milosevic apart from Harold Pinter? The piggy bank remains the same though they are probably printing some money as I write.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2008

coming from the camp of the President-elect B.Obama does not instill a speck of enthusiasm into the majority of the folks who made him elected.
On the contrary, it looks very much like the new President is already defaulting on the most of the fundamentally important promises given to those folks during the recent election campaign.
Practically all his cabinet appointments and latest pronouncements strongly indicate his intention to govern from the right of Democratic party, i.e. practically, as
moderate Republican (of Bush-I-type) would. It basically means the following: forget about raising taxes on the rich and super-rich, forget about diplomacy v. imperialist military ventures abroad, forget about
taking care (of any kind) of common Americans - nation's majority - first, forget about any significant changes in the way politics is done in Washington, etc.
Thus, the latest news from President-elect camp gives Americans a clear warning that, perhaps, a single chance in a century for a real socio-economic change in this country, powerfully emphasized by current economic and financial crisis, will be lost beyond retrieve on Obama's own choosing.