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Obama Practices Pragmatic Foreign Policy a la Eisenhower and GHW Bush

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Eisenhower and Obama - practioners of pragmatic foriegn policyThis week’s edition of The New Republic has two great articles explaining Obama’s policies, particularly in contrast with the sometimes hyperbolic rhetoric of Romney. The first article deals with how much businesses actually depend upon government, at all levels, to support and help them build and sustain their business. However, the second article, Love Classic Republican Foreign Policy? Vote For Obama by Jonathan Rauch, receives my attention today.

For me, this article deserves special attention because I grew up in the military and my ex-husband is a Vietnam vet. The first 25 years of my life were dominated by the military and national security, stretching back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. I was too young to remember Truman, but I do fondly remember Eisenhower.

As a result of being a military brat and wife, I hold a profoundly different view from Romney’s neo-con advisers, all of whom worked for GW Bush. Those neo-cons, none of whom served in the military or grew up in the military, express a hegemonic view of US foreign policy based on the US military war powers. Yet, that kind of militarism is fairly new in American foreign policy that only took effect after the end of the Vietnam War.

As Rauch writes, anyone who remembers and enjoyed the modesty and pragmatism of Eisenhower and GHW Bush should appreciate Obama’s foreign policy.

Two diplomatic officials, one current and one former, balk at calling Obama a realist; he is not coldly manipulative or indifferent to human rights. (For example: Obama has done more to stand up for gay rights internationally than any previous world leader.) But they concur that he is outcome-oriented, a pragmatist rather than an idealist or visionary. “He’s focused on the bottom line: what are our key equities and how do we protect them,” says the serving diplomat. At the Brookings Institution, Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former Obama State Department official, says Obama believes in bending the arc of history, but also believes you can’t bend it at right angles. “He’s playing a long game and doing it pretty well.”

The kind of realism Obama practices is founded not on Machiavellian amorality but on a theory about where peace comes from. For Republican hawks and neocons, peace comes from American strength and hegemony; for Democratic doves and internationalists, peace comes from international cooperation and transnational institutions. Obama’s realism, like that of Ike and Bush 41 holds that American strength and international cooperation both have their place, but that peace comes from equilibrium between contending forces. To realists, power may not be admirable, but it must always be dealt with; and, in dealing with it, conserving and effectively deploying America’s power, a scarce and precious commodity, is Priority One, for it is the commodity upon which human rights and U.S. hegemony alike ultimately depend.

A realist may choose to upset an equilibrium now and then, but never lightly. Power, like a floodtide surge, has its own hydraulics. Once equilibrium is gone, it can be very hard and costly to restore. For very different reasons, human rights activists and neocons deplore Obama’s slowness to jump into the fray when rotten and antagonistic old orders tremble in places like Iran, Libya, Egypt, and now Syria. Eisenhower and Bush, however, understood well the importance of looking before leaping, whether in Suez and eastern Europe in the 1950s or in Ukraine and the Balkans in the early 1990s. Obama is in their mold.

Obama’s quiet accomplishment, in foreign policy, has been to do just as he promised: take the best ideas from the other side, integrate them into his own party’s tradition, and put them to work to strengthen the country’s position. Being a dab hand at foreign affairs will not, it’s true, save him in 2012, any more than it saved Bush 41 from the soft economy 20 years ago. What it has done is kept him viable in a miserable environment, improved the Democrats’ credibility on national security, taken from the Republicans the foreign-policy real estate that they used to own—and left Mitt Romney standing in a puddle of his own shallow verbiage.

Nevertheless, I disagree about Rauch’s claim that Obama had little foreign policy experience or interest. After all, Obama spent several impressionable, youthful years in the Indonesia and as a young man hitch hiked his way from Indonesia to Pakistan.

In some ways, those experiences, living amongst and traveling with native residents, gave him more foreign policy experience than all those sitting in comfortable academic offices or discussing foreign affairs with high level diplomats. Moreover, Obama’s first Senate foreign policy mentor was the Senate dean of foreign policy, Senator Dick Lugar. Lugar said Obama peppered him with questions on their trips overseas and that Obama worked closely with him on the Soviet Arms Treaty. In fact, contrary to Rauch, Obama ran for the presidency on foreign policy. It wasn’t until the financial system crashed in 2008 that his primary focus had to change to domestic economic policy.

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