Realism We Can Believe In

The left wanted a messiah, and the right believed it had found the perfect foil: a Democratic president with an exotic name and an alleged disdain for the largely mythic rural world of God-fearing gun owners. In truth Barack Obama—like the nation he leads and the world that is watching closely—eludes glib categorization. For a long time he believed that he was successful in elite circles (Columbia, Harvard Law) because other people, black and white, saw in him what they wanted to see, not necessarily what was there. Now no sentient person should be in much doubt about the nature of the 44th president. The -Afghanistan deliberations and the ensuing address at West Point give us, I think, the clearest insight into the real Barack Obama that we have yet had. He is comfortable with ambiguity and with tragedy, but believes, with Franklin Roosevelt's old Groton headmaster, Endicott Peabody, that "the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend."

As Fareed Zakaria sees it in this week's cover, the president announced a policy guided by realism, shorthand for the hardheaded assessment of costs and benefits to our national interests. James P. Rubin, the Clinton-era assistant secretary of state for public affairs, makes the case that the new administration has been too pragmatic, straying from an emphasis on human rights. To my mind, Obama's decision was driven as much by a philosophical vision of America as an exceptional nation as it was by the cold calculation of the realist tradition.

One realist course would have been to choose a counterterror strategy over the counterinsurgency option, sending fewer troops and arguing that he was going to wage a more targeted war on Al Qaeda through the Special Forces missions and drone attacks favored by Joe Biden. Such a decision would have comported with the polls that show American support for the war dropping. There are many problems with this -approach—so many that the president came down against it—but the domestic politics would likely have been fine.

Obama chose the more difficult course. By deciding to deploy more troops yet speak of a drawdown date, he found a way to carry his part of what he called America's "special burden in global affairs." For him, our modern role in the world began, as so many things in contemporary American life do, with FDR. "We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents…We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes," Obama said. "But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades."

We have done more good than harm, and while we cannot bend the world to our will, we can probably tug it in our direction. Here, then, is Obama's vision of America as a city upon a hill: we are an exceptional nation, but ours is an -exceptionalism that imposes as many burdens as it does blessings. This is not the rhetoric of those who see America as above judgment and beyond reproach. It is, instead, an exceptionalism of obligation—to whom much is given, much is expected.

"What we have fought for—and what we continue to fight for—is a better future for our children and grandchildren," Obama said, "and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity."

Note that: other peoples' children and grandchildren. Yes, he spoke mainly of nation building at home, but Obama is no neoisolationist, nor are we being governed by a Spock doctrine in which idealism is always trumped by logic and the balance sheet. Obama is indeed breaking from the vision of George W. Bush after September 11. Still, those who think there is only ice water in Obama's veins, or that we will now project power only in narrow instances of clear national interest, should reread the address. "We will go forward," the president said, "with the confidence that right makes might." Who decides what's right? Obama's implicit answer is that Americans do. It is, he believes, a right we have earned: "[U]nlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination." But we will fight in faraway places to keep violence from our own shores, and to make those faraway places freer and more secure than they were before they threatened us.