Ross Douthat writes in today’s NYT (“Obama the Realist“):
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama played to two very different foreign policy constituencies. Often he presented himself as the tribune of the anti-war left — the only candidate who had opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, the man who could be trusted to civilize the global war on terror, and the perfect figure to smooth the transition to a post-American world order. To more bipartisan audiences, though, he cast himself as a cold-eyed realist — the rightful heir to George H. W. Bush, if not Henry Kissinger, who would pursue America’s interests without pretending (as the younger President Bush often did) that they matched up perfectly with America’s democratic ideals….
From the war on terror to the current unrest in Egypt, [Obama’s] foreign policy has owed far more to conservative realpolitik than to any left-wing vision of international affairs….
On nearly every anti-terror front, from detainee policy to drone strikes, the Obama administration has been what The Washington Times’s Eli Lake calls a “9/14 presidency,” maintaining or even expanding the powers that George W. Bush claimed in the aftermath of 9/11. (Dick Cheney himself admitted as much last month, effectively retracting his 2009 claim that Obama’s terrorism policies were undermining national security.) Time and again, this president has proved himself a careful custodian of both American and presidential prerogatives — and the most perceptive critics of his policies, tellingly, have been civil libertarians rather than Republican partisans.
Obama’s adoption of realpolitik is unsurprising to me. In the heat of the 2004 election, when Kerry had pulled even with Bush in the polls and it seemed that Kerry the anti-warrior might become president, I wrote this:
Assuming the best on the domestic front — that is, deadlock — what about the war on terror? All wouldn’t be lost if Kerry were to win the White House. He says dangerous multilateralist things about defense policy. But, in these times of clear and present danger, even a Democrat president will put defense above the trappings of internationalism. A massive failure to defend the homeland or to secure vital overseas interests would ensure a rout in the mid-term elections and a one-term presidency, if not impeachment.
It is good to know that Obama seems to take seriously his role as commander-in-chief. But I do wonder whether his new-found “realism” arises from a sense of responsibility or fear of impeachment. I would not rule out the latter.