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President Obama’s Moral Surge

David M. Anderson, Special to Roll Call

President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize provided a framework for understanding the surge of troops he ordered in Afghanistan that appealed to some broader concepts than America’s national security. Many people have already praised the president for presenting this wider framework. Still, the argument he gave at West Point has generated some misleading discussions about rival approaches to America’s foreign policy. The West Point speech is still the starting point for discussion about our new approach to Afghanistan and thus we are not through analyzing it.James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, has made the case that Obama’s rationale for the surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and indeed his foreign policy overall is based on considerations of pragmatism and not principle (Newsweek, Dec. 14, 2009). Pragmatic considerations, Rubin maintains, concern promoting the self-interest of the United States, whereas considerations of principle concerns promoting principles of democratic values throughout the world.Mr. Rubin’s account paints a stark picture of the old debate between realists and idealists in foreign policy. And although he calls for a balance between pragmatism and principle, he still associates pragmatism with an extremely narrow realism and he associates Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and all of his foreign policy with this narrow realism. Given the category he sets up in his taxonomy, it is therefore natural that President Obama’s foreign policy looks objectionable.The chief flaw in Rubin’s analysis and critique is that he makes the assumption that a foreign policy based on promoting national self-interest is not based on moral principles. It is true that the realism perspective revolves around the notion of power, but it does not follow from the fact that a country approaches foreign policy primarily in terms of using its power to protect its self-interest that the country is somehow devoid of moral principles.There are indeed some theorists in the realist tradition and some leaders past and present who advocate and/or practice a foreign policy that is based on aims of aggressively building up the nation or the city-state by dominating and exploiting other peoples and their natural resources. These realists are best regarded as power-abusers.Such an approach — and Machiavelli is the most notable realist of this mold — is essentially a self-interested power-seeking realism that is not based on any moral principles, let alone democratic values one seeks to uphold in one’s own nation or other nations.It is true that the primary rationale President Obama provided for the surge in troops in Afghanistan was based on national self-interest. Yet his argument was definitely based on moral principles, indeed democratic principles. President Obama essentially argued that the security of the country is threatened and that as commander in chief of the armed forces he was determined to take measures that would protect us against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

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