Friday, November 13, 2009

Obama: Between Idealism and Realism


Obama: Between Idealism and Realism

Ali Asghar Kazemi

November 2009


Less than a year in the White House, Obama is caught in a perplex situation: the Wilsonian ideals of peace, democracy, self-determination etc on the one hand; and American prestige, power and hegemony in the world on the other. There is no doubt that Obama is personally and by nature a decent man with many good human traits. But, as president of the United States, he is supposed to follow the Machiavellian advices in order to preserve “Prince’s” power and interests.

Perhaps, it is normal that when one begins to exercise in some fresh field, at initial steps the element of wish and purpose is overwhelming strong and the inclination to ponder upon facts and means are weak or non-existent. Realism is based on the assumption that the key concept in politics is interest defined as power; and everything else in the realm of ethics and morality is at the service of those interests.

Obama’s idealistic stand during his presidential campaign with respect to foreign policy and defense strategy was a natural position of a democrat candidate vis-a-vis a republican president who became the most detested leader in US history. But, he was enough conscious not to let him-self mired by illusion. Thus, in his initial speech after the election he touched to concrete facts on the way of the United States when he said: “the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime, two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” In fact, the troubles that Obama inherited from his predecessors were so profound and beyond reach that nobody could deny their existence and complexities.

About ten months in office has given enough experience to Obama that war in Afghanistan is not leading anywhere and public diplomacy with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a wishful illusion. Constructive realism dictates on the one hand that sole use of hard power cannot protect US interests anywhere in the world. On the other hand, relying on public diplomacy alone for the purpose of settling perennial disputes with Iran is merely a waste of time.

In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are gradually loosing face and credibility and Taliban “freedom fighters,” as they like to be labeled, are gaining ground and becoming stronger and more violent against the NATO forces. Obama’s recent decision to revise American strategy in this respect is indeed a realistic approach to the problem. But, as we said previously, the issues of Taliban and Talibanism in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be addressed on their own merits.

“Fighting Taliban with hard power, i.e. force of guns, artillery and fighter planes will surely not solve the problem; neither in Pakistan, Afghanistan nor anywhere else. Americans and their allies should realize this bitter fact that they are fighting an idea and not a group of devoted people who could regenerate itself through time and more ferociously. They must search for avenues to cope with intolerance and fanaticism in this hostile region. They should find appropriate ways and means to neutralize that idea through education, cultural change and economic development. Otherwise, the world will experience much worse condition in the future.”

With regard to the American entanglement in Iraq, Obama kept his promises during the presidential campaign by withdrawing forces from cities, but the situation there is still very vulnerable. The Middle East peace process too is in a fragile deadlock, despite earnest attempts by the democrats to bridge the gap between Israel and Palestinians.

In Iran, the situation is not better than what it was in the past. The Islamic regime is now more determined in its nuclear ambitions and more aggressive in its attitude towards the West and the United States. Hard-liners in Tehran seem to have reached the conclusion that neither the UN Security Council, nor the 5+1, including the US, are in a position to do anything tangible against them.

Swinging between idealism and realism by the new president has induced the impression of perplexity and indecision to Obama’s administration. His observation in a statement after the elections reflects that point: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…. America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” He recalled that “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” But, he is not quite clear as how he intends to put into practice these convictions to tackle with terrorist groups in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Concerning nuclear challenges ahead, he assures the world that the United States will work tirelessly “with old friends and former foes… to lessen the nuclear threat ….” But again, he falls short of explaining how this objective will be achieved. He has shown that he is very lenient to “those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents.” North Korea is still blackmailing the world with its nukes and Iran is simply showing deaf ears to military threats and economic sanctions.

As we said in our previous comments, change in “agency” will not necessarily bring about change in “structure.” This means that Barack Obama is before anything the president of the United States and is duty bound to protect American national and world interests. This fact may eventually work to the detriment of other rivals or opponents. But, what is important for the United States and its leaders, whether republicans or democrats, is to secure American interests at all cost and not to rectify any wrong or unjust situation in other countries. History bears good witness that this argument is quite true in the case of Iran. Therefore, we should not expect much from president Obama or any other leader in the world for that matter.

During recent months, Obama has tried to please both the Islamic regime and the people of Iran, especially the progressive groups who seek to change the situation in a peaceful and democratic manner. Outside the usual political rhetoric, if this proves to be the actual American strategy with respect to Iran, it is inherently contradictory and self-defeating, not producing positive result. Obama wants to show to the world that he really deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. But, he is still much perplexed as how to demonstrate this sentiment. He is trapped between his personal tendency to idealism and the collective American expectations to face realities of our time.

Idealist leaders have done more harm to the world than realists. Political realism is based upon a pluralistic conception of human nature. That is, human being is a composite of political, economic, moral and religious man. Hans J. Morgenthau once said: “a one dimensional political man would be a beast lacking total moral constraints; and a man who was nothing but “moral man” would be a foul.”

Whether Obama is an idealist, realist or a pragmatist, Iranians should not expect much from him in the fulfillment of their legitimate cause and aspirations. They are in fact learning by experience that in the final account “Obama is neither with them nor with the regime,” but he is and will remain with American long-run interests. /


Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See:

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