Barack Obama is not a "realist"

To be clear, most realists agree that “nation building at home” is important to the prosperity that creates the foundation for America’s global power. But “nation building at home” is a goal, not a strategy, and it requires a foreign-policy strategy founded on engagement and leadership to succeed. Moreover, for all his criticism of “self-described realists” who don’t want to get too involved in other people’s problems, Obama himself is the one who is doing as little as is (politically) possible in international affairs. Obama’s response to security challenges usually appears intended to do enough to avoid severe domestic criticism while simultaneously avoiding doing so much that it becomes a distraction. Hence the surge in Afghanistan before the withdrawal, the “leading from behind” in Libya, modest support for Syria’s opposition, ineffective sanctions against Russia as a substitute for a real policy and a bare-minimum response in Iraq. The administration has tried to clothe all of these policies in realistic-sounding rhetoric, but in fact there was little realism involved because there is no serious strategy.

The president’s heavy reliance on drone strikes in combating terrorists—though attacks in Pakistan have slowed—is a clear demonstration and a direct result of his administration’s excessive political pragmatism that could come back to haunt the United States after Obama leaves the White House, if not sooner. Drone strikes have understandable appeal: when handled well, they can kill America’s enemies without putting troops on the ground or pilots in the air and with limited civilian casualties when compared to some other options. Yet, as a recent high-profile nonpartisan task force from Washington’s Stimson Center compellingly set out, widespread drone attacks also raise big strategic issues, including the risks of blowback among foreign populations, unintentional norm-setting for others possessing drones, a “slippery slope” to broader conflict and the lack of any clear standard for success. (On the last point, it should be obvious by now that Vietnam-style “body counts” tell us little. Another modern-day analogue, the number of Iraqi troops trained by the U.S. military, has evidently had very little to do with security and stability in Iraq.) Absent a well-defined strategic framework, narrowly focused pragmatism often leads to incrementalism, precisely as it has in the administration’s use of drones—and, for that matter, in its responses to Moscow’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. This is not realism.