Did Andrew Sullivan eviscerate Obama's foreign policy critics?

Andrew Sullivan has a Newsweek cover story designed to best allocate Tina Brown's resources or to wave a big red flag at conservatives make the case that Obama's tortoise-like strategy of slow but steady, focusing on the long haul, has left his excitable hare-like critics on the left and the right launching fantasy-based and not reality-based critiques of his administration.  Or, as he puts it:  "The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong."

This has triggered the predictable reactions around the blogosphere, as well as Sullivan's responses.  One of the biggest perks of blogging at FP is that I rarely wade into those shark-infested waters anymore.  I have more than a passing interest in Obama's foreign policy, however, so I'm going to focus only on the foreign policy portions of Sullivan's take and see if they hold up to empirical scrutiny.  Here are the key excerpts on his pushback against the right: 

On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement. Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest—but most ambitious—plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further. If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.

Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.

OK, so how did Sullivan do?

He has the facts on his side with respect to the BS about Obama apologizing for America.  This has been a standard line when the GOP candidates talk foreign policy and it's total horses**t.  Sullivan's comparison of Obama to George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower on foreign policy also makes sense.  The emerging strategic narrative of this administration is a shift in foreign policy resources from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, and realist-friendly presidents like Bush 41 and Eisenhower would approve. 

That said... arguing that George W. Bush "ignored" bin Laden seems like a gross exaggeration -- even if many of Bush's anti-terrorism policies were counterproductive.  More importantly, the notion that Libya somehow "counteracted" Iraq is a problematic formulation.  It's far from clear whether Obama has been "winning the broader propaganda war" in the Middle East.  Don't take my word for it, however -- here's PIPA's Steven Kull:   

The picture is mixed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is weaker.  With revolutions in several Arab countries, frustrations with unpopular autocratic governments - a recruiting theme for terrorist groups - have been mitigated.  But one important contributing factor has not improved - widespread anger at America in the Muslim world.  While views have improved in Indonesia, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hostility toward the United States persists unabated.

This does not read like a victory in the propaganda war. 

OK, what about Sullivan's foreign policy rebuttal to the left?  Here's the key excerpt

This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game.... He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets.

Hmmm.... I'll be honest, I have no idea what Sullivan is talking about with respect to Israel.  Ironically, Israel is one of the areas where the left and right agree that Obama has made a hash of things (albeit for different reasons).  First, it's not clear to me at all how Obama's policies have made it more likely that settlement construction will be halted on the West Bank.  Second, stepping back further, one could argue that Obama's greatest strategic miscalculation was his belief that the Israel/Palestinian issue was the fulcrum through which one can understand the problems of the region.  Third, Israel/Palestine is precisely the area where a long-term, slow-game approach carries the biggest risks.  Long-term demographic and political pressures make a two-state deal less likely over time. 

Iran is a counterfactual question.  Indeed, it's the favorite counterfactual question of the GOP 2012 presidential candidates.  It allows the candidates to portray Obama as weak, claim he botched things without any proof that the United States could have influenced the outcome, and promise that they would have handled it differently, which we'll never know in a non-multiverse world.  Still, while Obama has succeeded in applying more economic pressure on  Iran than is commonly appreciated, I don't see this regime going anywhere

So, how does Sullivan do?  He makes some valid points, but he proffers some serious whoppers as well.  This is far from a slam-dunk empirical refutation of Obama's critics.  As a George H.W. Bush kind of foreign policy guy, I wanted Sullivan to empirically and logically eviscerate the more hysterical foreign policy critics out there.  He didn't. 

Am I missing anything?  [UPDATE:  I did miss parallel blog posts by Andrew Exum and Kevin Drum that buttress the points made above. Go check them out.]

Daniel W. Drezner

Realism Redux: The Realists Strike Back!

Last week I had a good rant about the persecution complex of realist international relations scholars. 

This is a discussion that needs to continue, however -- see the responses by Justin LoganAlan Alexandroff and Steve Saideman, for example.  So, I invited two of the smartest and least-likely-to-whine realists I know to respond.  John Schuessler (an assistant professor in the Department of Strategy at the Air War College) and Sebastian Rosato (an assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame) offer their take below.  I will respond later in the week: 

Realists are Right After All

Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler

Dan Drezner claims that academic realists have a "strong, cultivated sense of victimhood." He is tired of what he sees as their unjustified griping that they are pariahs in the academy, among the general public, and in the foreign policy community. And he wants them to just come out and admit that they've failed to "popularize their own ideas."

As it happens, his post comes shortly after the publication of our article, "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States" (Perspectives on Politics), in which we have a different take on these issues.

Let's start with whether or not people like realism. In our article, we ask what kind of policy the United States can pursue that will ensure its security while minimizing the likelihood of war. We then point out that IR scholars have tended to dismiss the possibility that realism has anything to contribute to the debate. The charge comes in a variety of forms, from ‘realism causes war' to ‘realism prevents progress.' This prompts critics to label realists as irresponsible or even immoral and to call for more ‘enlightened' or ‘morally acceptable' alternatives. It is for good reason that Robert Gilpin has said that "no one loves a political realist." This hostility extends to the policy community. As we discuss in our article, U.S. policymakers have taken and continue to take their cues not from realism but from its main theoretical antagonist, liberalism. There is no need to take our word for it, however. John Owen, Colin Dueck, and Michael Desch, among others, have pointed out that American foreign policy has been guided by liberal principles since the Founding.

Our article describes and defends a realist foreign policy to guide U.S. decision makers. Our recommendation, which is logically derived from realist principles, is that the United States should balance against other great powers as well as against hostile minor powers that inhabit strategically important regions of the world, while otherwise practicing restraint. We then show that had the United States and other great powers followed our realist prescriptions, some of the most important wars of the past century-including the world wars, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War-might have been averted. Simply put, realism offers the prospect of security without war.

We wrote our article at least in part to popularize realist thinking. This would not count for much, and realists could still be accused of failing to spread their ideas, if we were the first realists to do so. But as we note, realists have been vocal contributors to the debate on U.S. foreign policy since World War II, even going so far as to oppose both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Since the end of the Cold War, realists have been some of the loudest voices calling for restraint, with John Mearsheimer, Chris Layne and Steve Walt all urging the United States to adopt an "offshore balancing" posture, which overlaps considerably with our own preferred policy. On the merits, such an approach, and the realism that underpins it, should be popular. After all, if the United States had abided by its precepts, it likely would have been involved in fewer wars than it has been over the past few decades.

We did not write "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States" with Dan's criticisms in mind, but if we had we would also have noted the following.

For one thing, we have cited only some of the evidence that Americans dislike realism. Dan argues elsewhere that the public is not unsympathetic to realism, but others have claimed that public opinion is essentially liberal. As for the foreign policy community, we share Justin Logan's sense that there's a dearth or even a complete absence of bona fide realists inside the Beltway. Realism's approval ratings in the academy are hardly better. Dan's concession that realism is not the most popular paradigm among IR scholars is an understatement-indeed, if you ignore Marxism, it's the least popular approach in the field. As a recent survey concludes, "realism does not have the hold on the field it is often thought to have" and, in fact, it never did. Realist research has never made up more than 15% of published articles, for example. And although we agree with Dan that realism commands a lot of attention in the classroom, it is typically presented as a crude, dated, unscientific, amoral approach that needs to be heavily amended or, preferably, jettisoned entirely. No other approach receives as much criticism.

This is unfortunate, as realists seem to turn up on the right side of history as often as not-the Vietnam and Iraq wars are prominent examples-and may do so again if the Obama administration stumbles into a foolish war with Iran (a war that prominent realists have opposed).

This is not to say that we feel victimized.  But as card-carrying members of an academic approach that is excoriated and ignored despite being regularly vindicated by real world events and providing a better recipe for peace and stability than the alternatives, we admit to being confused.

Note: John Schuessler's views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.