international analysis and commentary

Realism and the Coming Dilemma of the Obama Administration


Despite remaining a minority view in both major American political parties, realism has enjoyed a surprising comeback during the early days of the Obama administration. We’ve seen the remarkable example of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a confirmed Wilsonian, going to China and beseeching Beijing to continue to buy American Treasury Bonds, rather than reflexively lecturing China about its Tibet policy. To put it mildly, this is hardly what one would have expected. What is going on here?

As smart, adaptable, people, the Wilsonians who dominate foreign policymaking in the Obama administration are idealists who have been increasingly mugged by reality. The problem is that most of those around the President and especially Secretary Clinton see the concessions they have been forced to make to China and others as just a little local difficulty – they are merely cleaning up the mess left by the failed presidency of George W. Bush – requiring a temporary change in tactics, rather than a full-scale reappraisal of America’s place in the world.

The embattled administration
It is this tension between the professed Wilsonian idealism of the Obama White House and its realist-flavored policies that has emerged as the most interesting characteristic of the new team. Realism is on the rebound because it acknowledges several primary truths that separate it from its idealistic competitors.

Realists believe that policies are rarely good or bad in and of themselves; what matters is the actual conditions of the world in which they are implemented. It isn’t that bombing a nuclear-arming Iran is intrinsically a bad idea; it’s that such a resort to military force would prove catastrophically counter-productive, as it would not destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but would instead allow the somewhat embattled mullahs to rally around the standard of Persian nationalism, prove a recruiting godsend to al-Qaeda, and radicalize the Arab street to the point that most pro-American Arab regimes would be in genuine peril. In other words, given our specific real world conditions, it’s a very bad idea indeed.

It is realism’s focus on the particular that gives it an advantage over more airy universalist creeds such as Wilsonianism and neoconservatism, which often have ungrounded one-size-fits-all approaches to global problems, be it to rely on the international community or make the problem evaporate through the silver bullet of democracy promotion.

In the present era, with great powers competing without having a shared democratic ideology, it is imperative, if we are actually going to get things done, to speak to the Chinese government and others in terms of shared national interests, as they are unlikely to be swayed by arguments calling on them to embrace our views of international solidarity or loyalty to a democratic ideal they simply do not believe in.  In other words, given the actual world we live in, realism, with its focus on interests, suits our times.

Of course actual policies are where the rubber hits the road. Iran remains the 800-pound gorilla in corner of the room for the Obama administration: the coming test.

Here the limits of the other two schools of thought become obvious. Neoconservatives would say that President Obama should do all he can to support the Iranian reformers against the mullahs, as this would diffuse the nuclear crisis. But it would not. In all the rush to praise him, it has been conveniently forgotten that former Prime Minister Mousavi was an early champion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program. Neither he nor any of the other presidential candidates in the recent election disagreed about Iranian nuclear ‘rights.’

This consensus at the top is mirrored throughout Iranian society. In fact, it is hard to think of any other issue that unites the mullahs and the reformists other than Iran’s nuclear program. Nor is it likely that Israel would feel particularly secure if the reformists were to win the power struggle in Iran and then continue on their way to developing a nuclear weapons capability. Once again, neoconservatives are tripped up by the fact that countries can be democracies and still reach foreign policy conclusions not in the interests of the United States.

For the Wilsonians, the problem is the puniness of international efforts to stop the mullahs from acquiring nukes. Despite a barrage of UN resolutions, does anyone in their right mind think that the sanctions in place are enough to convince the mullahs or anyone else to desist from acquiring nuclear weapons?

The reason for the anemic response is that, beneath the veneer of agreement, countries on the UN Security Council gauge an Iran with a bomb very differently. For Russia and China, while in a perfect world they certainly do not want Tehran to have nuclear weapons, such feelings are more than offset by coveting closer ties with a country with vast natural gas holdings (in China’s case) and a nation that might prove an ally in the vital Caspian Sea region (in Russia’s case). Both Beijing and Moscow will go along with international pressure, but not very far down the road.

Nor are they the only ones to have conflicting interests over Iran. European countries, especially Germany, have close economic ties to Tehran. And no one I’ve talked to in Berlin believes that Iran is about to launch a nuclear weapon in the direction of Europe. In other words, while nettlesome, Iran is not a primary threat; it is certainly not worth ratcheting up sanctions to the point that they might actually bite, because an investment freeze would maim European banks just beginning to recover from the great world recession. Again, while an Iran with nukes is not optimal, international solidarity over the issue is the ugly stepchild to retaining close economic ties. So Wilsonianism takes us nowhere here.

But realism just might. A core realist tenet is to always choose the least bad policy option, without getting hung up about the fact that it may well be far from any sort of ideal. And Iran is a minefield of bad policy options.

A realist Iran policy
All of these facts lead to a series of very unsettling conclusions for American policy-makers. It is the power brokers in Tehran, and not Washington, who will ultimately decide whether Iran acquires nuclear weapons; given the history of the program, and its importance to both the public and the regime, they probably will. 

America must prepare for this likely eventuality, without making it a foregone conclusion. While Washington waits for the mullahs to respond to their offer to talk, intensive discussions should now be taking place among the permanent UN Security Council members (plus Germany) as to how far they are all willing to go in terms of sticks should Iran spurn the offer. Only by privately putting the other great powers on the spot can the administration know the cards it truly has to play, for any form of additional sanctions will require international agreement.

If Iran agrees to talk, offer greater carrots (a nonaggression declaration from Washington, a process to normalize US-Iranian diplomatic relations, greater investment opportunities) and significant sticks (an investment freeze that would quickly bite down on the mullahs), and then leave it up to Tehran, hoping they agree to the Japan option, having the capacity to weaponize their program within days, but stopping just short of formally acquiring a nuclear capability, thus not undermining the nonproliferation treaty. That’s about the best we can hope for.

But, while never formally saying so, we must prepare for the likelihood of worse. We must make it privately clear to Israel that, while we understand that for them a nuclear Iran is far more of an immediate threat than for the rest of us, any Israeli bombing of the sites would not be condoned or supported by America, and would have real consequences for our relationship. This should all be done quietly and privately, so as to not back our allies into a corner. But averting this worst-case scenario, which would lead to instability in the region for at least another generation, must be a painful priority.

An Iran with nukes would be easy to ostracize, but that would be precisely the wrong thing to do. Instead, the world must again rely on both the balance of terror of nuclear deterrence (remember this did stop both Stalin and Mao, who must be considered more bloodthirsty and dangerous than the Islamic Republic), as well as the hope that a program of nuclear engagement with Iran (similar to the Nunn-Lugar initiative with Russia) would make its nukes secure from rogue elements in the revolutionary leadership.

Few who study Iran see in Ayatollah Khameini (who is specifically in charge of the program) a madman who desires the destruction of Persian civilization, the inevitable result of any nuclear attack on Israel. Rather, the danger comes from a loose Iranian nuke commandeered by some fanatic in the Revolutionary Guard, who hands it over to Islamic Jihad or some such group, who then destroys an Israeli city. A Nunn-Lugar program would put paid to this genuine threat; nuclear deterrence, unpalatable as it is, would take care of the rest.

This is not a very glorious policy outcome. But such a realist course would remove the threat of an airstrike on Iran and also take the possibility of a nuclear attack on Israel effectively off the table. It is the best we can do in a flawed and imperfect world, which is characterized by real limits on American and global power to tell others what to do. Just to accept this sobering thought might be the beginning of wisdom for the new administration.