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Yes, Obama is a realist. And he's good at it too

Spencer Platt

A fascinating paragraph in a David Remnick profile of former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul pronounced Barack Obama's foreign policy leanings mysterious, inscrutable, and almost hypocritical:

Obama’s advisers and the Washington policy establishment have all spent countless hours trying to square the President’s admiration of George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft—classic realists—with his appointments of interventionists like McFaul, Rice, and Samantha Power. In the end, one leading Russia expert, who has worked for two Administrations, told me, "I think Obama is basically a realist—but he feels bad about it."

This goes to show mostly that the Washington policy establishment engages in a lot of tedious conversations. It's pretty clear to me that Obama is a realist and senior officials in the administration don't feel bad about it at all. Nor should they. Obama's actually quite good at it — as this months' opening with Cuba and simultaneous collapse of Russia's economic and strategic situation shows.

To its detractors, realism is a policy of cynicism — one that, in the name a cold-hearted national interest, leaves on the table a bounty of humanitarian gains ripe for the plucking.

The more generous view is that realism is a policy of limits. A recognition that for a moral foreign policy to do any good in the world it must be feasible, and that even the mightiest empire the world has ever known faces daunting challenges when it attempts to remake the domestic politics of foreign countries. A recognition that the long-term ability of the United States to do any good for anyone hinges on maintaining domestic strength and advancing foreign goals in cost-effective ways.

In Ukraine, for example, Obama has not opted for the path of maximum punishment for Russia. He has opted instead for the path of punishing Russia as hard as possible at minimum cost to the United States. Russians are paying a far higher price for the conflict than are Europeans, and Americans are paying a lower price still. Putin hasn't had a change of heart, but Ukrainian forces have the upper hand and Russia is becoming both a pariah and an economic basketcase. Steady gains at minimal cost don't make for great speeches, but they do put American influence on a sustainable basis.

Meanwhile, the rapprochement with Cuba is already paying dividends in terms of America's relationships with Mexico, Brazil, and even Venezuela with no conceivable downside to American interests. All it took was an ounce of political courage. If we manage to muster more and end the embargo, we'll see even more in the way of concrete economic and political payoffs.

In the Middle East, things are of course messy.

But it's a mess that is not incompatible with our main objectives in the region. Israel is more secure than ever. Not just beneath its Iron Dome but because Hamas has been cut off from Iranian patronage, and Hezbollah is too busy fighting the Assad regime's enemies in Syria to open a northern front against the Jewish state. The Syrian civil war itself is a humanitarian disaster. But in a war between a vicious government and a rebel cause full of its own vicious jihadis, a brutal stalemate that sucks up resources is an acceptable outcome for the United States. The damage of the war, though real, has little direct impact on America and the costs of attempting to dive in and resolve the situation would have been prohibitive.

In the Persian Gulf, key US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are perfectly secure from external aggression, pumping oil in peace even as the progress of solar power and fracking reduces our long-term dependence on these questionable regimes.

Which brings us to Iraq. Obama's policies are unlikely to "destroy ISIS" but appear to be working in terms of the original mission of protecting Kurdistan and preventing the rest of Iraq from being overrun.

And that's good enough. The Kurdistan regional government is friendly to the United States, is viewed as legitimate by the Kurdish population, and has demonstrated considerable fighting skill in the past. A relatively small amount of American military assistance should be able to secure their continued autonomy, a useful and humane objective that is achievable at low cost. For the Iraqi government to entirely reconquer its lost Sunni hinterland, by contrast, would be considerably more difficult. It is also not entirely clear what the point would be, in terms of concrete American interests. It's far from obvious that a strong unitary Iraqi state is in the interests of the United States or reflects the desire of the Iraqi people.

As in Syria, stalemate between Sunni-held and Shiite-held territories could be ugly — but an acceptable form of ugly. Don't expect to hear it in a Rose Garden speech, but the main oil fields are down south near Basra in firmly government-held territory.

Meanwhile, democracy marches on. The Arab Spring has mostly been a disappointment, but the new regime in Tunisia is real enough. Indonesia is poised for its first peaceful, orderly, transition of power to an opposition presidential candidate. China is friendless in East Asia. "We'll do what we can, when we can do something useful on the cheap" doesn't quite have the glorious ring of JFK's vow to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship." But it does have the advantage of being a sustainable, sensible approach to 21st century world affairs.

And it's working.

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