Is Barack Obama More of a Realist Than I Am?

This president isn't weak and waffling. He's calculating, coldhearted, and decisive when it counts.

I had a strange thought late last week, while chatting with a colleague about the various hot spots that are dominating the news and interfering with U.S. President Barack Obama's vacation. Is it possible, I wondered, that Obama is craftier and more ruthless than I've realized? I've been disappointed by a lot of his foreign-policy decisions, but have I underestimated him? Far from being indecisive or too easily swayed by hawkish advisors, might he be even more of a realist than I am?

An early hint came in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama was asked to identify his favorite movie. His answer was The Godfather. His second favorite? The Godfather, Part II. It was a revealing moment, borne out by subsequent events. He followed the Godfather's advice when he appointed Hillary Clinton secretary of state ("Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer"), and his style as president resembles Marlon Brando's Don Corleone and Al Pacino's Michael Corleone in many ways. They don't make many threats, they never bluster, and they rarely raise their voices. But when the time comes, they dispatch opponents with remorseless indifference and pay little attention to who might get hurt in the process. "It's not personal; it's strictly business."

At first glance, you might not see this approach in places like Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, or East Asia. For some commentators, the various upheavals and confrontations in these places are signs that a more restrained U.S. policy has opened the door to instability and even chaos. Pundits and policymakers from Roger Cohen to Frank Bruni to David Brooks to Robert Kagan to Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine now bemoan American malaise and complain that the pendulum toward disengagement is swinging too far. What these critiques lack, of course, is a convincing explanation of how doing more in all these trouble spots would make Americans safer or more prosperous.

In fact, because the United States is already so powerful and so secure, there is relatively little the United States could gain in most of these situations, even if they were to turn out well. Furthermore, diving back into the quicksand might easily make them worse. As Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer tweeted on Aug. 12, "If the US had provided more arms to the Syrian rebels, the most likely outcome would have been a stronger ISIS."

Equally important is that Obama's approach is causing more trouble for America's various adversaries (and for some of its less cooperative allies) than it is causing the United States, and at a rather low cost to the United States itself. That's not a bad definition of a successful foreign policy: If you can give opponents headaches without having to do very much, what's not to like? The only downside is that innocent third parties end up bearing most of the burden, which merely underscores the degree to which Obama's approach is based on coldhearted realpolitik.

Let's start with Russia and Ukraine. The United States and its European allies bear considerable (though not sole) responsibility for causing the crisis in the first place, but the United States has so far escaped any serious damage. Instead, the immediate costs are being borne primarily by the people of Ukraine. The escalating confrontation has also inflicted real pain on Russia and on the European Union, whose fragile recovery has been jeopardized by the punitive sanctions imposed by the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin's reputation abroad has suffered considerably (and with some justification), but the short-term costs to the United States and to Obama himself have been minimal.

To be clear: I still think everyone would be better off if the United States were pushing harder for a deal that guaranteed Ukraine's status as a neutral buffer state, and the standoff makes it harder to get Russian cooperation on other issues. But in the short term, Obama has succeeded in pinning almost all of the blame on Putin, and it is mostly the Russians, Ukrainians, and Europeans who are getting hurt in the process.

Next, consider how Obama is dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama took office in 2009 hoping to achieve that elusive two-state solution, which he believed was essential to ensuring Israel's long-term future. While pushing for an end to Israel's self-defeating settlements policy, he also reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel in myriad ways and bent over backward to be supportive. His reward for his efforts? He has been repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu, and his aides have been publicly maligned by Israeli officials. And his diplomatic envoys (George Mitchell, John Kerry, etc.) have gotten exactly bupkis for their time-consuming efforts to advance the cause of peace.

So what is Obama doing now? He's letting Netanyahu do pretty much whatever he wants -- including pummeling Gaza to no real purpose -- even when these actions damage Israel's legitimacy and hasten the arrival of the one-state solution that most Israelis oppose. In other words, Obama seems increasingly willing to watch Israel drive itself off a cliff, even though this policy necessarily entails further suffering by the residents of Gaza. He has to pretend to be sympathetic to Israel's plight in order to placate its lobby back in the United States, but I wonder whether what's really going on is a devilishly subtle form of payback. If so, Don Corleone would probably approve.

Which brings us to the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS). Unlike the reflexive threat-inflators who dominate the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, Obama didn't panic over the emergence of this lightly armed group of bloody-minded radicals whose new "caliphate" extends over a lot of mostly empty territory. He recognized that this group is brutal and that its recent advances need to be halted, but he also knew it wasn't the reincarnation of the Soviet empire, Nazi Germany, or even Baathist Iraq. In particular, Obama understood that the threat to the United States itself was neither large nor imminent and that a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. Instead of doing "the full McCain" and plunging back into the quicksand, Obama has done just enough to give the Kurds and the Iraqi government the opportunity to contain the problem themselves.

Not only has he kept the United States off the slippery slope -- at least so far -- but this policy convinced Iraqis to rid themselves of divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pick someone who might govern more effectively. As he has done before, Obama, in short, was essentially buck-passing, a time-honored realist tactic. His measured response took advantage of the Islamic State's brutality and overweening ambition, which convinced local actors with far more skin in the game to get serious about dealing with the problem.

One can even see elements of this approach in Obama's handling of China. He has repeatedly emphasized Asia's importance to the United States, and the much-publicized "rebalancing" was obviously intended to signal to America's Asian partners that it wasn't abandoning the region. Obama reinforced these themes during his visit to Asia in April, but the administration has implemented this policy at a measured pace, content to let China's growing assertiveness do the work for us. Overreacting would alarm the local powers and let them continue to free-ride, while speaking softly makes present and future allies more eager for help and more willing to do what America wants to get it.

The common thread to these various responses is an appreciation not just of the limits of U.S. power, but also of the limited need to exercise it. "Limited" does not mean zero, which is why sensible people oppose a return to 19th-century-style isolationism. But this approach recognizes that the overwhelming majority of problems in the world do not threaten the United States directly and therefore do not require an immediate, forceful, and potentially costly U.S. response.

As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, Obama's greatest political genius has been his Road Runner-like ability to let enemies beat themselves. It would be even easier to do this if the Republican Party, the punditocracy, and some members of his own administration weren't constantly pressuring him to venture abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But I'm beginning to suspect that Obama understands America's privileged international position better than they do and that he also has a better grasp of where the public is on these issues as well. He's not running an especially noble foreign policy, but from a purely selfish U.S. perspective, it may be more effective than I used to think.



Frequent Flyer Diplomacy and the Plane to Pyongyang

Secretary of State John Kerry needs to pay Kim Jong Un a visit. Because North Korea is muscling up and the Obama administration's "strategic patience" isn't working.

John Kerry is often accused of "frequent flyer" diplomacy. Now, every secretary of state has been accused of relying too much on travel except for, of course, those secretaries who have been criticized for traveling too little. They can't win either way. Taking criticism for travel schedules is as old as Dwight D. Eisenhower telling his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles: "Don't just do something, Foster; stand there." There is a reason that the State Department publishes a "Travels of the Secretary" volume and modern cabinet memoirs are little more than limp travelogues masquerading as policy tomes. (Oh, really, you got past page 33 of Clinton's Hard Choices? Liar.)

But, even by modern standards, this sentence about the power of Kerry's mere presence to bring order to chaos is a real howler: "And you will notice," Kerry said in July, "since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter." The visit to which the secretary was referring is none other than his own April 2013 trip to Beijing. There are two wondrous things about this statement. The first is the causal relationship Kerry infers between a couple of meetings with senior Chinese officials and the regional security situation. Here is how Kerry described his face-to-face about North Korea with Chinese State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi:

"And what we agreed to do is immediately bear down with further discussion at a very senior level in order to fill out exactly what steps we can take together to make sure that this is not rhetoric, but that it is real policy that is being implemented. And then I asked him to pass the dumplings."

OK, I added the last sentence. But come on; adding that detail only emphasizes natural silliness of the statement: We're going to talk really hard about moving past talking really hard.

Beyond the inanities of diplomatic briefings, is Kerry right about North Korea being quieter? Well, I suppose compared to the bloodbaths in Gaza and eastern Ukraine, Northeast Asia is a garden spot. But quiet it is not. So far, 2014 has been an unprecedented year of missile-related provocations by North Korea that will only get worse.

North Korea has launched more than 14 Scud and Nodong ballistic missiles on seven or eight occasions -- as far as I can tell I am the only one keeping a running count. This is far and away the most intense year of missile testing conducted by North Korea.

To be sure, North Korea has not launched its Unha Space Launcher (which the United States calls the Taepodong-2 ICBM), as it did twice in 2012; tested a nuclear weapon, as it did in February 2013; or threatened to launch the new long-range Musudan missile, as it did throughout the spring of 2013. Then again, there are still four months to go.

While it is easy to focus on Ukraine and Gaza, North Korea is making a lot of noise -- and it may get worse. Since March, North Korea has been complaining about U.S.-led military exercises. In March, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned that U.S.-South Korean military exercises "would only compel the DPRK to develop all its steps for bolstering up its war deterrent and demonstrating it into more annual and regular processes." In other words, buckle your seat belts.

A partial list of significant launches from 2014 include:

  • Four Scud missiles on Feb. 27.
  • Four 300 mm artillery rockets on March 4.
  • Two Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles on March 26.
  • Two "newly developed cutting-edge ultra-precision tactical guided missiles" on June 26. Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles as part of an exercise to test "dispersion effect for striking individual and group targets of the enemy" on June 29. Again, Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles in a nighttime "combination of a sudden movement and firepower strike" on July 9. And, once again, guess who was there?
  • Five more "ultra-precision high-performance tactical rocket[s]" to greet Pope Francis on August 14. Guess who was there, too?

KCNA has continued the U.S.-South Korea incitement theme to justify the frequent test firings, arguing that recent tests "took place at a time when the dangerous war provocation moves of the U.S. and its allies have reached an extreme phase."

North Korea appears to be placing great emphasis on responding with its own demonstrations of artillery and rocket firepower. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once called artillery "the god of war"; recent propaganda efforts by the DPRK suggest that's pretty much how the North Koreans see it, too. Early in the year, before many of the launches had occurred, the DPRK released a propaganda film best known among defense geeks for its brief depiction of a sea-launched anti-ship cruise missile resembling the Russian-manufactured Kh-35. The general thrust of the film is firepower -- nearly an hour of Kim Jong Un watching rockets and missile firings. The most, er, unusual part is a two-minute sequence in which a squatting Kim Jong Un watches a sweat-soaked all-female artillery team launch rockets.

North Korea's most recent test looks like a new missile. (I told you so!) Although the South Korean press initially reported that the launches on June 26 and Aug. 14 were of artillery rockets, there is growing evidence that the weapon is a new solid-fueled missile. "We have a problem with this new system," a U.S. official explained a few years back, "because it is much more accurate and survivable" than Scud-type missiles. (Scuds are liquid-fueled, which is a drag if you have to fuel them during a war. Think how impatient you get at the gas station, and that's without the U.S. Air Force trying to kill you at the pump.)

It is not clear to me that Washington is paying any attention to the pace of missile launches in Northeast Asia. The only reference to missile launches in departing U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies's July 30 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee was to note that North Korea had initiated the provocations, despite U.S. offers for negotiations to improve the bilateral relationship. Japan leads the only diplomatic efforts underway with North Korea, which seek to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Seoul has its own diplomatic effort -- to persuade North Korea to participate in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon this autumn. (Or at least not to blow them up.) The United States has largely discouraged these efforts.

The U.S. policy, according to Davies, is "seeking to increase the volume" of the message that Pyongyang should knock it off. I have no idea what Davies means by that metaphor. But whatever he does, he might want to make sure to turn the volume up loud enough so Kim can hear it over the sound of all that artillery fire.

(Oh, and let's pause to remember the late Robin Williams, who, as usual, had the funniest observation on the sound of artillery, in Good Morning Vietnam.)

Things are about to get worse. For weeks, North Korea has been especially vociferous in demanding that Washington and Seoul cancel the next joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, scheduled to begin Aug. 19.

Washington and Seoul will not, cannot, and probably should not cancel the exercise. But they should be honest about what comes next -- the collapse of those limited diplomatic efforts by Tokyo and Seoul, followed by what pseudonymous North Korea expert James Church has called a "bad action-reaction cycle" culminating in "more artillery exercises, more missile launches, and possibly even a nuclear test."

(This seems really loud. Maybe Davies has an amp that goes to 11?)

There is something disconcerting about our allies negotiating with North Korea, when we will not. They surely aren't under the illusion that the North Korean leadership is filled with nice people or that the country is likely to change. But neither are they under the illusion that their neighborhood is "quiet" or that the current policy of scolding Pyongyang is working. It is clear that the administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- a term the White House hates -- has left a vacuum that Seoul and Tokyo are trying to fill. No one thinks this will change North Korea, but perhaps Tokyo and Seoul can advance their interests. Of course, we have interests, too. North Korea is holding hostage at least three U.S. citizens -- Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller, and Jeffrey Edward Fowle.

It's satisfying to say that we won't negotiate with such horrible people. It's certainly unpleasant to imagine sitting down to dinner with Kim's henchmen. But that's why we have diplomats (and, well, Dennis Rodman). North Korea is an egregious violator of human rights armed with nuclear weapons -- but since we are not willing to use force to fix that little inconvenience, we have to talk to them.

Which brings us back to our globe-trotting secretary of state. Here's the thing: This is one case where frequent flyer diplomacy can be very helpful. The North Koreans have long placed special value on high-level summits. That reflects both their desperate craving for legitimacy as well as a political system that centralizes decision-making. The United States and North Korea nearly reached a deal to limit the latter's ballistic missile programs following a high-level North Korean visit to Washington and a reciprocal Oct. 2000 visit to Pyongyang by then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright. It fell apart when then-President Bill Clinton would not commit to a summit in Pyongyang.

Although North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons or missile programs anytime soon, Pyongyang continues to crave high-level visits. That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to visit Pyongyang. Rather than prattling on about turning up the volume, it's time for Washington to offer something new: the prospect of a Kerry visit if North Korea resolves the abductee issue with Japan, participates in the Asian Games without incident, and is willing to release the American hostages.

It's long past time for Washington to put Kerry on a plane.

JUNG YEON-JE AFP / Getty Images