We all know by now that, whenever Obama promises a “major speech” in response to some “inflection point” in public affairs, we're in for a parade of gaseous generalities. So anyone who listened to Obama’s speech about the Arab Spring yesterday expecting to get a clear idea of what he proposes to do has only himself to blame for his disappointment. That's why a lot of liberals couldn't manage even to feign much interest in what he said (see, e.g., Michael Tomasky here).
But if the speech didn't tell us much about what Obama will do, did it tell us something important about what he thinks? Conservatives have been acting as if it did, but they can’t decide whether to be gratified that most everything Obama said would have sounded natural coming from George Bush or appalled by Obama’s indifference to Israel’s security interests (see, e.g., Charles Krauthammer here). I can’t tell conservatives what to think about Obama’s commitment to Israel, but I do have some thoughts about whether the speech represents some sort of ideological capitulation relative to positions associated with George Bush.
That depends on which Bush you’re taking about. Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric has always been marked by the continuing effort to reconcile two seemingly foundational themes: first, that he's an unsentimental foreign policy realist in the mold of the H.W. Bush administration; and second, that we as a nation owe the world restitution for the W. Bush administration’s transgressions against international standards of legitimacy.
The marriage of realism and restitution in Obama’s foreign policy always had the look of a shotgun wedding. If you want to be mean, you could call it magical realism.
"Foreign policy realism" means nothing insofar as it strays from the idea that the international system is an amoral state of nature among nation states that generally do, and should, act to improve their position according to their own definition of their national interests. Pious thoughts about international morality, on this view, aren't reliable guides to action. A realist is therefore ready to engage in dialogue and negotiations with unsavory regimes whenever there’s a prospect of mutual advantage relative to the prevailing balance of power even if that's a morally deplorable state of affairs. There’s no denying that the Obama administration’s realism has been more than merely rhetorical in the past. Its decision to keep trying to engage the Iranian regime in the summer of 2009 when it was slaughtering demonstrators in the streets of Tehran is a case in point.
Yet how does the realist outlook square with the notion that we owe other nations restitution for W’s cowboy antics? This is where the magic comes in. The underlying idea seems to be the emphatically anti-realist notion that W’s readiness to pursue regime change through military means without the consent of the U.N Security Council upset a moral equilibrium in the world order that has to be restored as a precondition of mutually advantageous interaction among self-interested nation states. Once we've rebalanced the world’s moral books, however, the international system is supposed magically to revert back to the self-interested competition among nation states that realists regard as its normal state. The recipe for sound foreign policy-making according to Obama seems to be moralism today, realism tomorrow.
That makes some sense, I guess, insofar as you’re prepared to regard what the UN Security Council says as an expression of the prevailing balance of power. On that assumption, W.’s indifference to its deliberations respecting Iraq and other things represented an anti-realist flight of fancy that was bound to provoke enough resistance to be self-defeating. By the same token, Obama’s restitutional gestures are hard-headed signals that America is again open for business as a realist power among other realist powers.
To believe that, however, you'd have to be oblivious to changes to the world balance of power after 1948, when permanent Security Council membership (and therefore veto power) was allocated to every permanent member except China. And you have to buy into the internationalist fiction that states have political obligations to each other under the international order that are comparable to the political obligations that citizens of a legitimate polity have to each other. Moreover, you have to be prepared to operationalize your moral disapproval of W. Bush's unilateralism while you repress any moral queasiness you may feel about the fact that, by any reasonable measure, a lot UN member states lack the legitimacy to speak credibly for their subject populations.
If we take Obama at his word, he's either renounced realism or the pretense that it ever was an integral part of his foreign policy outlook. Once he decided that it’s more important to engage restive Middle Eastern populations hungering for democracy than established Middle Eastern regimes, he dispensed with the last vestige of H.W. Bush's foreign policy worldview. But so long as Obama's commitment to democratic regime change in the Middle East is subordinate to his commitment not to promote it without the imprimatur of the UN and other international organizations, he's a long way from embracing anything like W. Bush's neo-conservatism. Obama may talk a big game about democracy-promotion, but he's also signaling to everyone paying attention that the most he's prepared to do about it is participate in half-hearted ventures like the current NATO operation in Libya.
If there’s been any ideological capitulation on Obama’s part, it’s a reversion to something like the foreign policy worldview that Bill Clinton brought to the White House in his first term, before people in his administration started explaining why America is the "indispensable nation." That's may be a good or a bad thing, but it's not the ideological capitulation conservatives have in mind.