Obama is a realist in style but not in substance. His realism is evident in how he approaches decisions, not in the decisions that he makes. This type of realist has what psychologists call “cognitive complexity” – they weigh the pros and cons of a multitude of different considerations before settling on the proper course. This was evident in the recent speech on Libya that has been proclaimed the new Obama doctrine. America will consider both humanitarianism and strategic considerations when it judges whether to use force, just like Wilson did. It will consider whether there are allies to shoulder the burden and how the international community feels, but will act unilaterally if there is a compelling interest. It is cognitive complexity that drives Obama’s favorite rhetorical “tic”, that of the ‘false choice.’ It is not one or another; it is both, when it comes to race relations, abortion, or diplomatically engaging Tehran. Others have called it being an “intellectual.”
If you've been reading this blog, you know I'm not the biggest Obama fan. But one thing I very much like about him is that he seems to ponder consequences seriously. His shift of the burden onto the EU in Libya is a great example of a correct policy carried out even though it goes against the American instinct, as developed in the last 30 years. His decision to implement in NFZ in Libya but reluctance to turn it into something else (let's hope that last) is another example of caution and willingness to implement limited goals.
It should be said, as Obama launches his 2012 campaign, that he should be held to account. There's no great sense of progress in Iraq (the US is still there?!?) and Afghanistan. One of the first thing he promised when he became president was to close Guantanamo, and he hasn't. He made grand statements on Israel/Palestine but then backtracked or was unwilling to push further. So perhaps he's learned to be more cautious. On these issues, he inherited a criminal presidency's problems — and his biggest failure was not holding his predecessoraccountable for his crimes. But if, come election day, US troops are in Libya and progress hasn't been made on the other issues, I don't think I would vote for him.