What is Obama's foreign policy? He was a realist. He's becoming an idealist.

What is Obama's foreign policy? He was a realist. He's becoming an idealist.

What is Obama's foreign policy? He was a realist. He's becoming an idealist.

The thinking behind the news.
May 24 2011 4:27 PM

What Is Obama's Foreign Policy?

He was a realist. He's becoming an idealist.

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This lack of an articulated philosophy has been frustrating at times to both of the two principal camps in his administration—call them the realists and the ethicists. The realists—who predominate at his National Security Council and have been led by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates—did not see fundamental American interests at play in Libya. The ethicists, who are centered at Hillary Clinton's State Department (though Samantha Power is at the NSC), support intervention on the basis of a "responsibility to protect." They favor more aid for the Libyan rebels, advocacy of human rights, a push for Internet freedom, and stronger promotion of democracy around the world.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged what he described as the "tension" between a foreign policy based on interests and one based on values. Lately, he has expended many words trying to square that circle. But his pragmatic, split-the-difference approach has enmeshed him in a series of contradictions.


The United States has encouraged the revolution in Egypt and intervened on behalf of the one in Libya while calling upon the regimes in the Gulf to reform rather than abdicate. Obama has issued no call for democratic transformation in totalitarian Saudi Arabia, where the American interest in stability is greatest. With a virtual Berlin Wall messily collapsing in the Mideast, he has pitched his response somewhere between the idealist Ronald Reagan ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall") and the realist George Bush senior, who said nothing to agitate the Soviet Politburo when it finally did fall.

In his response to the Arab revolutions, the realist Obama is in eclipse, the humanitarian Obama ascendant. In his 2009 Cairo address, the president had spoken against any nation imposing its system of government on any other. In last week's speech on the Middle East, he declared democracy in the region as American policy and concluded with the words: "We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just." It is ironic that Obama seems to be following the trajectory of the younger Bush, who ran as a foreign policy realist like his father but in office turned into an idealist zealot.

A version of this piece appeared in the Observer.