Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Realism Kicks In

[First, let me apologize for the absence of posts lately. I am currently working on a book project, and I've been writing like a fiend lately. The book is entitled Restoring the Balance: War Powers in an Age of Terror, and is under contract with Praeger Press. The book presents the argument about presidential war powers that I have made multiple times on this blog: Namely, that the declare war power of Congress is not about the power to send troops into battle, but rather about control of legislative powers).

Now that Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic Party nomination to run for president of the United States, it may come as a surprise to some that he already seems to be moving away from some of his foreign policy statements made during the campaign. Following the hubbub over Obama's statement that he would negotiate with Iran without preconditions comes this report that he has "no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking." Obama went on to say that while he "would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States," he deemed the danger posed by Iran as "grave" and that he will do "everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything."

But this tough talk shouldn't be surprising for two reasons. First, Obama's foreign policy statements don't necessarily match up with the liberal image he has a domestic lawmaker. His essay in Foreign Affairs had very much a neo-con ring to it, as he wrote of expanding the military and "using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability -- to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities."

The second reason we shouldn't be surprised is that, as realism predicts, domestic politics is a poor driver of international politics. Presidents tend to behave in international politics as presidents, not as Republicans or Democrats. While one's political affiliation has some impact on how national interest is perceived, international politics is a very macro level phenomenon that forces states to behave in certain ways. Thus, looking at their foreign policies, many of the most interventionist presidents during the Cold War were Democrats.

What this means is the job of being president is very different than the job of running for president, and if Obama wins, he will realize that many of the campaign promises he made are very unwise. As I have predicted in my classes, for example, it is hard to imagine that Obama will, as he has promised, "remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months." Doing so would not only undermine all of the recent progress that has been made in Iraq, but could also lead to genocidal bloodbath. Indeed, Obama seems much more realistic in Foreign Affairs where he writes that the withdrawal of US combat troops "could be temporarily suspended if the Iraqi government meets the security, political, and economic benchmarks to which it has committed." It is also difficult to imagine him reopening NAFTA, as he has pledged to do. Doing so would undermine the credibility of every international agreement that US has created and will seek to forge in the future. The damage it would do to US interests is inconceivable.

As a theory of international politics, realism has its many, many flaws. But one thing it does get right is that the person running a country matters less than the country itself. The US will behave as a state in its position should and does behave. And it won't matter if the president is Obama or McCain.

1 comment:

Bill Reidway said...

Good post Seth. I agree that Obama's most well-known foreign policy pronouncements are unpractical, and that he probably knew that all along. But surely there will be some difference between an Obama foreign policy and a McCain one, yes? How do you see the options shaking out?