Obama and Realism, Continued

Yesterday on the NDN Blog, Simon, Sam, Dan, and I wrote quite a bit about Obama’s foreign policy philosophy, and I’d like to present a couple more takes on the subject. First, TNR’s Peter Scoblic applauds the Obama Administration’s response to Iran, and their ability to craft a middle ground between realism and idealism:

I don't accept the suggestion that if one is not an idealist, one is necessarily a cold-blooded realist. Although there are certainly those who believe that the internal affairs of other countries are irrelevant or unimportant, it is possible to care about human rights while questioning America's ability to influence the internal affairs of other countries and while doubting that our values and our interests are always synonymous. The United States has other priorities as well. Thus one can be skeptical of the efficacy and wisdom of diplomatic and military pressure in the name of human rights without being amoral. Moreover, although realism may be "cold," its ideological opposite, which puts the nature of regimes at the center of our foreign policy, is even more problematic. In this view, one espoused chiefly by conservatives and neoconservatives, the fact that a regime is good or evil becomes not simply a moral observation but a strategic guide. Idealism's concern with regimes, in other words, can rapidly deteriorate into a dangerous Manichaeism.

I think it is possible to have a foreign policy that harbors no illusions about the nature of enemy regimes, but that recognizes our limited capacity to change those regimes and therefore our need to engage them. I think it is possible to have a moral foreign policy that is not moralist. But how, exactly, do we pursue our idealist instincts without sabotaging the security of the United States and our allies? How can we be appropriately self-interested without being utterly selfish? These are the questions we're wrestling with right now. At first glance, the answers may seem to differ only in balance and degree. (Does one speak loudly and decry the evil of the mullah-cracy in order to support the protestors, or does one hold back, recognizing that interference could backfire not only against Mousavi's backers but against American interests more broadly?) But these are not simply tactical questions…they are the manifestations of fundamentally different worldviews, which is to say they represent different assessments of our strategic priorities and our capabilities.

Also, Stephen Walt over at FP.com convincingly rejects Andrew Sullivan’s call for Western governments to refuse to acknowledge Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, asking how far we would have to apply that standard. He is also (not surprisingly) pleased with Obama’s response to Iran:

Obama's measured response to the events in Iran strikes me as more sensible: we can and should deplore the abuses of basic rights and the democratic process, while making it clear that the United States is not interfering and remaining open to the possibility of constructive dialogue. Given our long and troubled history with Iran (which includes active support for groups seeking to overthrow the current government), any sense that we are now trying to back Moussavi is likely to backfire. Trying to steer this one from Washington won’t advance our interests or those of the reformists.  

Here's a hypothetical question for you to ponder. Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all? 

This is hypothetical, of course, and almost certainly does not reflect the likely policy alternatives. But your choice of which world you'd prefer probably reveals a lot about how you conceive of the national interest, and the degree to which you think foreign policy should emphasize concrete security achievements on the one hand, or normative preferences on the other.

Finally, I hesitate to even link to this, but Robert Kagan embarrassed himself this morning in the Washington Post. Jonathan Chait at TNR does a fine job of dismantling his argument.