So no more regime change or nation-building. Now what? “You could call me a realist in believing we can’t relieve all the world’s misery,” Obama muses to Goldberg. True enough. It is also true that realism is about the economy of power, which dictates the cold-eyed distinction between peripheral and “direct” threats, as Obama has it. Keep soaring ends in line with inherently limited means; that is another unassailable principle.
The devil is in the execution. In Obama’s mind, the Syrian Civil War does not constitute a direct threat; nor does Vladimir Putin’s lunge into Ukraine. For Obama, as Goldberg paraphrases No. 44, “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests”; even if it were, “an American president could do little to make it a better place.” All told, in Goldberg’s words, Obama believes that the “the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction.”
Realism is more complicated. A realist knows that distant threats, if ignored, can turn into direct ones. Hence, the “precautionary principle”—better to act than wait in the face of risks not fully known—that is so dear to climate warriors like Obama serves as another pillar of the realist faith. A realist also knows that the international system, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So ambitious rivals will interpret inaction as invitation. Even that ur-isolationist Thomas Jefferson grasped the simplest rule of realism: Power calls for counter-power. “None of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia,” he wrote in 1814. “This done, England would be but a breakfast. ... It cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy.”
The Romans had a word for it: principiis obsta, meaning “resist the beginnings” to avoid an unpleasant end. Syria is a perfect case study. Obama drew his vaunted “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria before Bashar al-Assad massacred civilians with sarin, a nerve gas, in 2013. But instead of making true on the threat of an American military response, Obama pulled back and invited the Russians in, never mind that Henry Kissinger had essentially kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s—pushing them out of Egypt, Russia’s main stronghold in the region, by bringing then-President Anwar al-Sadat into the American camp. Mr. Putin was delighted to oblige Mr. Obama, and there went 40 years of American primacy in the world’s most critical arena.
Today, the Russians are back in force, posing a deadly risk to anybody who would dislodge them from the Levant. Today, Assad’s army is on a roll; millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring lands and into Europe.
When abandoning Iraq, the Obama administration pooh-poohed ISIS as a “flash in the pan.” Today, that “jayvee team” rules over a quasi-state athwart Syria and Iraq, from which it orchestrates mass murder in Paris. Thus, distant threats turn into direct ones, and so U.S. forces are returning to Iraq to fight an indecisive air war against the jayvees. Watch the Taliban regain power if the U.S. withdraws completely from Afghanistan.