Saturday, June 20, 2009

Obama, The Realist

(image via swamppolitics)

Barack Obama campaigned under the influence of idealistic realism, an optimistic foreign policy philosophy that is deeply rooted in American tradition. Obama promised to bring sunshine back into government, negotiate with difficult regimes like Iran and restore the lustrous sheen to the ruffled feathers of the American eagle abroad. The President's fiercest critics to date have been, curiously, the quite-literally heartless former Vice President Dick Cheney and the equally unpalatable Rush Limbaugh (Axelrod, particularly, enjoys foisting those two sour, dumpy guys as titular heads of the Republican party).

Contrasted with the Bush administration's passionate liberal idealism in foreign policy, President Barack Obama's mandate of "Change" appears, ironically, Realist. Cautiousness -- even a certain conservatism -- is Barack Obama's chief psychological characteristic in the same way that the jittery metabolism of Dubya (Alcoholism? the unexpected Kierkegaardian leaps of Evangelical Faith?) led him to abruptly orchestrate a wildly transformative Presidency post-9/11. That, and the Daddy issues (Averted Gaze). Whatever the case, make no mistake about it -- President Obama's cautiousness, his realism, is a reordering of American foreign policy in reaction to Bush, 43's overly radical project. To right -- no pun intended --the trajectory of America's ship of state, Obama will have to put aside campaign mode promises. Obama's "Change" now operates, soberly, within the continuum of American Presidents.

Obama is now a part of that Great Conversation of Presidents. Perhaps this is a natural process for Presidents between Election Day and in the run-up to taking the oath of office: They are purged of any remnant of their Progressivism. Candidates run as Outsiders and become Insiders as soon they take residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For what is more indicative of The Establishment than the American Presidency? An American President in Washington is like the Sun King, dispensing everything from Ambassadorships to state dinner invitiations, as if they were delicious bonbons from the most powerful person on the planet. When was the last time we had a Progressive American president (Hint: not JFK). How many earnest liberal hearts were broken when Obama the Outsider picked the ultimate team of Establishmentarian insiders to head his economic team to fix the economy when they, in fact, were to blame for its brokenness? A similar percentage of left-tilting earnest hearts were broken when Jimmy Carter, who ran as a peanut farmer from Georgia, picket what, at the time, was one of the most Establishmentarian cabinets ever assembled.

Witness: Iran. Former Secretary of State Kissinger -- the ultimate Washington insider -- applauds President Obama's strategy in Iran. Henry Kissinger is a rara avis indeed. For the life of this blogger, we cannot divine whether Henry the K is a neocon or a realist. It is not inconceivable that that this ideological elasticity is the reason the liver-spotted "statesman" is still slithering through the halls of power, leaving a trail of ooze, influencing another generation of American and world leadership. Although Kissinger was a McCain '08 advisor who undertook some off-the-books diplomatic missions for uber-neocon President Bush -- Putin, tellingly, is a big Kissinger fan -- he will be remembered primarily as the American face of Machivellian realpolitik and an enduring figure in the gladiatorial fundament of the international arena.

The signal event that perhaps forecast then-Senator Obama's shift from campaign-mode idealism into the political realism of the American Presidency is his appointment of party rival Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. From The Economist:

"ONE of Barack Obama’s riskiest decisions, on winning the presidential election, was to choose Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. The Obama-Clinton duel was among the most vicious in Democratic Party history, and some of the sharpest clashes were over foreign policy.

"The Obama camp accused Mrs Clinton of Bush-like support for invading Iraq and shaking up rogue states (at one point she even threatened to 'obliterate' Iran if it attacked Israel). The Clinton camp retorted that Mr Obama was a soft-hearted neophyte who was too eager to talk to dangerous strongmen, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These ideological tensions were reinforced by personal animosities. Richard Holbrooke has had a running feud with Anthony Lake, one of Mr Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers. Samantha Power, another Obama adviser, described Mrs Clinton as a 'monster' and was fired for it.

"Mischief-makers have been trying to discover tensions between the two former rivals ever since Mrs Clinton moved to Foggy Bottom in January. So far they have been frustrated .."

Senator Hillary Clinton became, ironically, something of a Neocon Joan of Arc during and after the 2008 Presidential campaign. Neonservatives, sensing somewhere between 4 and 8 years in the political wilderness, powerless with the incoming Obama administration "surged towards Clinton." Clinton, who was more philosophically realist-hawkish on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- a committee, incidentally, she lobbied very hard to be on -- supported Bush 43's Iraq war resolution, a position that ultimately sunk her Presidential campaign within the dovish Democrat party. That decision -- not particularly "Realist" -- made her something of a folk hero within the neocnservative movement. Character, to paraphrase John McCain, is destiny: Clinton felt she needed to be hawkish on national security to safeguard her Presidential campaign against misogyny (and, to be sure, to buffer her lack of military experience, something that plagued her husband in '92) misread the antiwar sentiment of the party, but became a neocon martyr in falling because of her support of the Iraq war.

The pendulum swings. Obama, now President, has moved closer to the vital political center in taking on Hillary at State (traditionally the most powerful cabinet position) as he focuses on the economy, health care and, to a lesser degress, on a Middle East peace. As Clinton surmounts the vast learning curve at State, she has, according to The Economist, "seemed content to delegate the day-to-day management of some of the world’s most volatile regions to special envoys." Envoys like Mr Holbrooke at "AfPak" and Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell in the Middle East are testament to the growing influence of political realism in Obama's foreign policy.

Neoconservatives are predictably enraged. It's not personal, it's existential (To borrow some overbaked neocon rhetoric). The rise of Obama Realism signals the decline of neoconservatism proper, for, quite possibly, a generation (such are the vagaries of the cycles of American history). And they want President Obama to side with the Iranian protesters. Iran is bringing out the worst in the neoconservatives. The most able neoconservative thinker, Charles Krauthammer, said it best when he said it bitterly this week that President Obama thinks himself a philosopher king. Even President Bush, 43, who vowed not to criticize this President for the time being, sort of reneged on the subject of Guantanamo Bay, a neoconservative Waterloo of sorts.

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