Obama Abroad: Democratic Realism

WASHINGTON — It was gratifying to hear a despotic leader blame the United States for the rise of a democratic protest movement against his regime.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, wants his people to think that those who have taken to the streets to express their rage over rigged elections are nothing but tools of American foreign policy, put to work by none other than Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“She set the tone for some of our public figures inside the country, sent a signal to them,” Putin said, offering a conspiracy theory straight out of a bad thriller. “They heard this signal and launched active work with the U.S. State Department’s support.” Did the former KGB guy who runs Russia discover this among his old Cold War memos?

The first week of December was an extraordinary time for Clinton. Not only did she declare that the Russian elections were “neither free nor fair” and criticize governments that “fail to prosecute those who attack people for exercising their rights or exposing abuses.” She also gave what will be seen as a historic speech to a United Nations group in Switzerland describing gays and lesbians as “the invisible minority.”

Who thought an American leader would ever say the following? “It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

Her words made me want to stand up and sing the refrain of that song they always play at Republican conventions: I’m proud to be an American.

Something important has happened to President Obama’s foreign policy. For some time after he took office, he only rarely spoke out for human rights or used the word “democracy.” In the wake of the George W. Bush years, he was focused on rebuilding alliances and moving toward both a more measured and prudent use of American power. It was an approach much closer to the old-fashioned realism practiced by the first President Bush.

Overall, it was a change for the better. But for a while, it seemed that the administration decided that because the second President Bush used democracy promotion as a rationale for a mistaken war in Iraq, too much democracy talk might be a bad thing. This was the wrong conclusion. Those who think of themselves as progressives should never avoid their obligations to democracy — even if there are both prudential and moral limits to America’s capacity to impose it on others.

This is evolving, as Clinton’s excellent week brought home. Like the elder Bush, Obama remains a foreign-policy realist, but the Arab Spring may have encouraged him to speak ever more forcefully about democracy and human rights. The intervention in Libya — careful, limited, but effective — was a signal moment.

What the president is pursuing might best be described as “democratic realism,” although it is perhaps ironic that this term was first popularized by my Washington Post colleague Charles Krauthammer, a conservative who is a sharp Obama critic.

In a 2004 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Krauthammer defined democratic realism this way: “We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity — meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.”

That is not a bad formulation, even if Krauthammer and I might disagree over its implications for our intervention in Iraq and the connotations of that word “existential.”

What Obama is definitely not practicing is “appeasement,” the shameful charge that came from a Mitt Romney prepared to say anything to appease a Republican right wing that so far has spurned him.

Obama offered a devastating reply: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement.” Say what you will about Obama’s foreign policy, it has been rather clear about who the enemy is. If we want a constructive foreign policy debate, let’s drop the appeasement nonsense and argue instead about democratic realism, what it means, and whether it’s the right idea to undergird American policy.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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