Zakaria: Obama the Realist

If you take just one sentence out, Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan last week was all about focusing and limiting the scope of America's mission in that country. His goal, he said, was "narrowly defined." The objectives he detailed were exclusively military—to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taliban's momentum, and strengthen the Kabul government's security forces. He said almost nothing about broader goals like spreading democracy, protecting human rights, or assisting in women's education. The nation that he was interested in building, he explained, was America.

And then there was that one line: "I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan." Here lies the tension in Barack Obama's policy. He wants a clearer, more discriminating foreign policy, one that pares down the vast commitments and open-ended interventions of the Bush era, perhaps one that is more disciplined even than Bill Clinton's approach to the world. (On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly invoked George H.W. Bush as the president whose foreign policy he admired most.) But America is in the midst of a war that is not going well, and scaling back now would look like cutting and running. Obama is searching for a post-imperial policy in the midst of an imperial crisis. The qualified surge—send in troops to regain the momentum but then draw down—is his answer to this dilemma. This is an understandable compromise, and it could well work, but it pushes off a final decision about Afghanistan until the troop surge can improve the situation on the ground. Eighteen months from now, Obama will have to answer the core question: is a stable and well-functioning Afghanistan worth a large and continuing American ground presence, or can American interests be secured at much lower cost?

This first year of his presidency has been a window into Barack Obama's world view. Most presidents, once they get hold of the bully pulpit, cannot resist the temptation to become Winston Churchill. They gravitate to grand rhetoric about freedom and tyranny, and embrace the moral drama of their role as leaders of the free world. Even the elder Bush, a pragmatist if there ever was one, lapsed into dreamy language about "a new world order" once he stood in front of the United Nations. Not Obama. He has been cool and calculating, whether dealing with Russia, Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A great orator, he has, in this arena, kept his eloquence in check. Obama is a realist, by temperament, learning, and instinct. More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.

In 1943 the columnist Walter Lippmann defined foreign policy as "bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." Only then could the United States achieve strategic stability abroad and domestic support at home. Consciously or not, President Obama was channeling Lippmann when he said, "As president I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." In his speech he quoted only one person, a president of the opposite party, Dwight Eisenhower, who said of national-security challenges, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs." Obama added that "over the past several years, we have lost that balance." He is hoping to restore some equilibrium to American foreign policy.

"In the end," said the president last week, "our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms." He explained that America's economic and technological vigor underpinned its ability to play a world role. At a small lunch with a group of columnists (myself included) last week, he made clear that he did not want to run two wars. He seemed to be implying that these struggles—Iraq and Afghanistan—were not the crucial path to America's long-term security. He explained that challenges at home—economic growth, technological innovation, education reform—were at the heart of maintaining America's status as a superpower.

It is now clear that Obama is attempting something quite ambitious—to reorient American foreign policy to-ward something less extravagant and adversarial. That begins with narrowing the war on terror; scaling back the conflict with the Islamic world to those groups and countries that pose serious, direct threats to America; and reaching out to the rest. He has also tried to develop a better working relationship between America and other major powers like Russia and China, setting aside smaller issues in hopes of cooperating on bigger ones. This means departing from a bipartisan approach in which Washington's role was to direct the rest of the world, pushing regimes large and small to accept American ideas, and publicly chastising them when they refused. Obama is trying to break the dynamic that says that when an American president negotiates with the Chinese or Russians, he must return with rewards or concessions—or else he is guilty of appeasement.

And then there is that line. It might seem hard to reconcile a more targeted and focused foreign policy with the expansion of a war and the introduction of 30,000 troops. But it is not unprecedented. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger entered the White House in 1969, they inherited a war in Vietnam that they might have believed in at some theoretical level, but that they recognized was bleeding the country. Over their years in office, they focused on shoring up America's power position through diplomacy with the Soviet Union, China, Egypt, and Israel. But they also recognized that they had to deal with the crisis in Vietnam and said explicitly that they were going to try to scale back America's involvement there. In this they succeeded. By April 1969, soon after Nixon took office, there were 543,000 American troops in Vietnam. At the end of his first term, there were fewer than 20,000 left. But in between, in order to keep the enemy on the defensive, to gain momentum, and to create space for American troops to leave, Nixon and Kissinger ordered a series of offensive military maneuvers that were designed to hit the North Vietnamese hard. Surge and then draw down, you might say.

Although the Viet Cong were beaten back temporarily, ultimately the North took over the South in 1975. But it is instructive to think about why. First, our local ally lacked legitimacy and competence. The government of South Vietnam was simply unable to gain the confidence of its people, and the Viet Cong and its Northern allies were able to persuade or intimidate tens of thousands of Vietnamese to shift to their side. Second, the enemy had safe havens outside South Vietnam—mainly in North Vietnam and Cambodia—which provided them escape routes and supply chains. More significant, the insurgents had the active support of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, as well as some aid from China. Finally, the United States cut off all assistance to South Vietnam, abandoning a country it had lost 59,000 troops defending.

The picture today is more promising on all three fronts. In Afghanistan, for all its problems, the Karzai government has been elected and does have the support of significant sections of the population. More important, the Taliban is deeply unpopular almost everywhere. As for safe havens, it's true that the problem of Pakistan is perhaps the central challenge in defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both of whose leaderships are now based there and not in Afghanistan. But the United States has been getting better at attacking these safe havens using drones, while Pakistan's military is beginning, slowly and reluctantly, to accept that some action will have to be taken against militant groups that it has long supported. Perhaps because this war is seen as one of necessity and not choice by most of the American public, there is much greater support for such policies than there was for the very similar efforts to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.

As for the broader problem of great-power support, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are largely isolated, with a massive international coalition arrayed against them. That does not mean that they cannot prevail in a local struggle over some parts of Afghanistan, but they will be hard pressed to achieve their ultimate goal of ruling Afghanistan. It might be difficult for the United States to "win" in Afghanistan, but it will be impossible for the Taliban to do so. And finally, America has not abandoned Iraq and will not abandon Afghanistan.

Ultimately, however, one hopes that President Obama will keep another lesson of Vietnam firmly in mind. Withdrawing from a messy situation did not permanently damage America's national security. The United States suffered the most humiliating exit imaginable from South Vietnam in 1975, followed by reversals in Africa, Central America, and Iran. Yet within a decade, America had regained a commanding position internationally, and within 15 years its principal adversary, the Soviet Union, had collapsed. The key element in this resurgence was nothing that happened abroad—it was America's ability to revive its economic strength at home, the engine of its superpower status.

The history of great powers suggests that maintaining their position requires, most crucially, tending to the sources of their power: economic growth and technological innovation. It also means concentrating on the centers of global power, not the periphery. Throughout history great nations have lost their way by getting bogged down in imperial missions far from home that crippled their will, strength, and focus. (Even when they won: Britain prevailed in the Boer War, but it broke the back of the empire.) It's important to remember that in the coming century it will be America's dominant position in Asia—its role as the balancer in the Pacific—that will be pivotal to its role as a global superpower, not whatever happens in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Obama will need to maintain his focus come July 2011. Let me make a bold prediction. Afghanistan will not be transformed by that date. It will not look like France, with a strong and effective central government. The gains that will have been made will be fragile. The situation will still be somewhat unstable. But that should still be the moment to begin the transition to Afghan rule. By the end of 2011, the United States will have spent 10 years, thousands of lives, and $2 trillion trying to create stable, democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the most difficult, divided countries in the world. It will be time to move on.

Obama's realism is sure to be caricatured as bloodless and indifferent to human rights, democracy, and other virtues. In fact, Obama probably understands the immense moral value of an engaged and effective superpower. As he said in his speech, "More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades—a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty."

Stability, peace, prosperity, and liberty have all progressed in tandem over the past six decades. That is no accident. As Obama said, "We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions—from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank—that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings." Obama is said to admire the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. This approach—engaged in the world with a positive vision but cautious about overreaching—is Niebuhr in action.

This has always been the higher morality of American realism in foreign policy, as practiced by Franklin Roosevelt or Dean Acheson. By staying focused on the large objectives of peace and stability, by maintaining our vision of an open, free world, we help sustain positive trends in the world that are broad and deep and lasting. In other words, our role as a strong and successful superpower is to make it possible for good things to happen—not just for Afghan schoolgirls, but for millions around the world.