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U.S.: Liberals, Realists Set to Clash in Obama Administration

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jan 17 2009 (IPS) - Just as the foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush was characterised 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 ideological lines.

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 "greybeards" 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 basis.

That range runs from hard-core realists epitomised 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 U.N. Amb.-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 sufficiently serious.

Because the realists, who are predominantly Republican, and liberal internationalists, who are predominantly Democrats, had a common enemy in the aggressive nationalists and the neo-conservatives and 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 issues.

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 sceptical 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 overstretch".

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 U.N. peacekeeping or peace-making 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 Southwest Asia.

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, favour co-opting those elements of the Taliban that are willing to break with al Qaeda and its allies in the broader interest of stabilising 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, ultra-conservative 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 neo-conservative 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 with which most neo-conservatives identify) 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 neighbours, 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 favour offering Tehran significantly more generous incentives to curb its uranium-enrichment programme than the liberals, some of whom believe that any enrichment programme – 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.

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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