The complete explosion of craziness in the Mideast, and Obama’s inconsistency with longtime allies like Mubarak and the leaders of Bahrain (where the US has a large military presence), suggests he’s torn. But he’s torn between two equally ineffective “idealistic” approaches to foreign policy. On one hand, he is like George W. Bush and supports democracy, as if it did not matter what type of leaders or government such democracies may elect. This is the old style FDR/Wilsonian liberalism that informs much of America’s 20th Century foreign policy. And, on the other, he is the leftist anti-colonialist of his youth, and thus finds it unseemly to criticize Third World movements of national liberation. So one minute he supports the protesters, but then he realizes this may appear like cultural imperialism, so he says they must move slowly. He has no idea what he really wants, nor does he know what to expect from his provocative speeches. His thinking is incoherent, and his policy incoherence is the natural result.
The last realist US president was George H.W. Bush. But he too had problems, as he was a realist, but believed strongly in US interventionism and the ideal of “unipolarity.” Nonetheless, at least such an approach has some natural limits, as it does not aim to create instability in places where we benefit a great deal from stability, such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Japan or South Korea.
America’s interests worldwide are narrow: primarily, our people benefit from friendly and pacific regimes that do not aim to harm us, and secondarily we benefit from regimes that are liberal (if undemocratic) insofar as they support property rights, markets, the rule of law, and trade. None of these goals are fostered by the two competing liberal idealisms that favor democracy alternately with Third World thugocracy, and nor too have these goals been well fostered by the do-gooder interventionism of the first Bush and Bill Clinton.
What is missing–what is always missing–from our national conversation is a sound policy of strategic disengagement. A policy that asks seriously why we have 50,000 plus troops in Germany? A policy that asks why we care particularly how Egypt and Bahrain picks its leaders? A policy that seriously questions if we are getting a good return on our enormous investment not in defense–though it is labeled as such–but rather military power projection and military presence worldwide?
Judging by Egypt’s unrest, the lackluster results in Iraq, and the relative lack of fallout from the departure of US troops from such varied locales as Iceland and the Philippines, it seems we can do without, and, indeed, would likely accomplish much more if we aimed for realistic, narrow, and achievable goals rather than messianic and idealistic policies such as “democratizing the Mideast” and “ensuring stability in Europe.”