Just as the foreign policy of President George
W. Bush was characterized by a continuous battle for control between hawks
led by Vice President Dick Cheney and realists based primarily in the State
Department and intelligence community and, in its last two years, the
Pentagon so the incoming administration may find itself split along
President-elect Barack Obama has succeeded in recruiting a remarkably broad
range of foreign policy advisers, some of whom are being placed in senior policy-making
positions, and others, particularly "graybeards" like former national
security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and Anthony Lake, and
former Rep. Lee Hamilton, will likely offer their advice on a more informal
That range runs from hard-core realists epitomized by Scowcroft, two of whose
protégés, Robert Gates and Gen. James Jones, will become Pentagon
chief and national security adviser, respectively, to liberal internationalists,
some of whom, including Vice President Joe Biden and UN Ambassador-designate
Susan Rice, have expressed strongly hawkish views. The latter camp also includes
Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, whose loss of the Democratic
presidential nomination to Obama was probably due as much to her initial support
of the 2003 Iraq invasion as any other factor.
In the last several years, and particularly since the Iraq war went south
in late 2003, the two groups have been united in rejecting the unilateralism
and virtually exclusive reliance on the threat and use of military force or
"hard power" that dominated Bush's first-term foreign policy in particular.
Conversely, they have shared a commitment to multilateralism and the use of
diplomacy and other forms of "soft power," at least as a first resort,
in pursuing U.S. interests abroad, although neither one would shrink from the
use of military power, unilaterally if necessary, if the provocation were deemed
Because the realists, who are predominantly Republicans, and liberal internationalists,
who are predominantly Democrats, had a common enemy in the aggressive nationalists,
the neoconservatives, and the Christian Right leadership that made up the Cheney-led
coalition of hawks under Bush, their own differences have often been blurred.
Indeed, the spectrum covered by the two groups should be seen more as a continuum
rather than as two entirely distinct worldviews; Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor
and a senior State Department and Pentagon official under Bill Clinton, called
early last year for a "liberal realist foreign policy."
Nonetheless, there are differences, and just as Bush had to decide which group
to side with, Obama is likely to face similar choices on specific foreign policy
Liberal internationalists, whose patron saint is former President Woodrow
Wilson, are much more inclined than realists to believe that the United States
is a morally "exceptional" nation and that the liberal-democratic
principles on which its governance is based should be actively promoted in
other countries, preferably through Western-oriented multilateral institutions
and international law. At the same time, some regimes, in their view, are so
odious that they should be isolated, even removed, unilaterally if necessary.
Realists tend to be more skeptical about U.S. "exceptionalism" (even
about the role of morality in foreign policy) and the universality of liberal-democratic
values and the ease with which they can be transplanted to foreign nations
and cultures. And they generally prefer to engage, rather than isolate, morally
questionable regimes, if doing so would advance U.S. interests.
Their support for multilateral institutions and international law to
the extent that nations will actually abide by it is focused more on
their role in fostering and protecting traditional U.S. national interests,
such as preserving stability in key parts of the world, preventing nuclear
proliferation, and preserving freedom of the seas, at the least cost to U.S.
blood and treasury, which is a special concern at a time of "imperial
An obvious difference of opinion between the two groups is likely to arise
over what to do about Darfur. While both groups will no doubt support strengthening
UN peacekeeping or peacemaking capabilities there, they are likely to part
ways over the direct participation by the U.S. military in such an effort.
Clinton and Rice have spoken about enforcing a no-fly zone over the region
to halt what they have called "genocide." However, Gates, Jones,
and other realists not to mention the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen are likely to oppose any such commitment
on the grounds that, among other things, U.S. forces are already too "overstretched"
and that Sudan is peripheral to core U.S. interests in the Middle East and
Similarly, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon and Obama appear
prepared to nearly double the existing U.S. deployment of more than 30,000
troops over the next six months, could provoke a serious source of contention.
Realists, led by the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus,
favor co-opting those elements of the Taliban that are willing to break with
al-Qaeda and its allies in the broader interest of stabilizing the country.
But how will liberals like Clinton, who stressed her commitment to women's
rights during her confirmation hearings last week, react to a scheme that may
effectively empower, at least at the local level, ultraconservative militants
opposed to the education of girls?
Similarly, concerns about the security of NATO's principal supply route to
Afghanistan via Pakistan will likely result in strong pressure from the Pentagon
to renew once-strong ties with the extremely repressive regime of Uzbekistan
President Islam Karimov. This, too, will pose a major problem for liberal policy-makers
in the administration.
It is notable in that connection that Biden and Clinton both opposed resuming
military aid to Indonesia after 9/11 due to its deplorable human rights record
in East Timor and elsewhere. The leading proponent of restoring the relationship
was none other than then-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Blair,
who is now Obama's nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI).
The liberal-realist split is likely to be particularly acute in the Middle
East, the same region over which the realists and the hawks clashed most fiercely
during the Bush administration.
Like their neoconservative cousins who also see the world through a moralistic
prism, many liberal internationalists have tended to be particularly protective
of Israel (if not of the Likud Party, which most neoconservatives identify
with) in major part due to the strong political backing the U.S. Jewish community
has historically provided to the Democratic Party.
Particularly since 9/11, on the other hand, realists have seen the Jewish
state or, more precisely, the failure to resolve its conflict with its
Arab neighbors, and especially the Palestinians as a major and growing
obstacle to such urgent U.S. goals as defeating al-Qaeda and containing Iran.
While the two sides are agreed for now that Obama must pursue more aggressive
diplomacy on all fronts, including direct engagement with Iran, realists will
be far more inclined to exert serious pressure on Israel to make major concessions
for peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians.
Worried about the possibility of having to fight a third war in the region,
the realists are also likely to favor offering Tehran significantly more generous
incentives to curb its uranium-enrichment program than the liberals, some of
whom believe that any enrichment program particularly one as far advanced
as Iran's at the moment poses an "unacceptable" existential
threat to Israel.
However these conflicts play out, they are unlikely to be nearly as poorly
managed as they were under Bush, whose intellectual insecurities, lack of knowledge
or curiosity about the world, or even the process by which policy was made
often resulted in victory for whatever side hawks or realists was given
the last chance to make its case.
For example, Jones, whose job it will be to ensure that the inter-agency process
runs smoothly and that all pertinent views reach the Oval Office, is reputedly
a much more imposing and experienced bureaucratic overseer than either of Bush's
national security advisers, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. And more importantly,
Obama, unlike his predecessor, is known to relish intellectual combat and aggressively
seek out alternative views.
(Inter Press Service)