It’s something of an abstract debate about grand strategy, however. Where things get messy for realism is when concrete U.S. foreign policy actions look realpolitik. This is a world in which there are no permanent friends, just permanent interests. Alliances look more ephemeral than durable, and sometimes those alliances are with some pretty nasty actors.
In this world, even if Americans agree about the policies, they do not like the outcomes. And two small news items from Wednesday will simply reinforce this point.
On the one hand, the United States is providing air support in Tikrit for an Iraqi offensive, according to the New York Times’s Rod Norland and Peter Baker:
American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.
Now the story paints the U.S. action as a means to supplant Iran’s influence in Iraq, but don’t kid yourself: Iran benefits from an Iraqi victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit.
Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes early Thursday in neighboring Yemen, heading a coalition of Arab nations in an effort to dislodge Houthi rebels sweeping through that country. . . .The United States was not involved in the operation, he said. But the White House announced late Wednesday that President Obama had authorized U.S. forces to provide logistical and intelligence support to the operation. American forces were establishing a “Joint Planning Cell” with Saudi Arabia to coordinate military and intelligence assistance, the statement said. . . .Yemen represents a potential proxy battlefield for Shiite power Iran and the Sunni Gulf Arab states allied with Washington.
So in the past 24 hours, the United States has agreed to two new support missions in the Middle East. One clearly is designed to hurt Iran’s proxy; the other is designed to help Iran’s proxy. Or, as NRO’s Jim Geraghty tweeted:
"If you're an Iranian fighting ISIS, press 1 for assistance. If you're an Iranian fighting for the Houthis in Yemen, press 2 for targeting."— Jim Geraghty (@jimgeraghty) March 26, 2015
Now, this isn’t being completely fair to either American foreign policy or realism for a few reasons. First, this schizophrenia on U.S. policy has persisted ever since the Obama administration announced it would attack the Islamic State. For more than six months. Iran and the United States have been tacitly cooperating in Iraq and not-so-tacitly clashing in Syria. Events in Yemen just add another overt theater of operations to the mix.
Second, a lot of realists want the United States to simply get out of the region. But this holds realpolitik to rather severe academic criteria in a policy world that does violence to all academic international relations paradigms. Supporting different local proxies in different places without much in the way of multilateral support or international sanction gives a strong whiff of realpolitik to this entire enterprise.
Furthermore, it’s not like getting out of the region would make Americans feel any better. There’s always a bias toward activism when it comes to foreign policy. A world in which neither the United States nor anyone else does anything in Yemen, for example, simply feeds a “world is on fire” narrative that no one likes. This is true even if the conflict in Yemen has less to do with Iran and more to do with local factors.
I suspect that if asked a focused question about each U.S. policy, Americans would support the individual components. In both cases, the U.S. role is a supporting one, designed to assist allied forces in the region. Consultation with said allies appears to be taking place. The minimal threat to U.S. forces will be paramount in American minds.
It’s when you zoom out and look at the combination of U.S. policies that you begin to spot the contradictions. And as politicians highlight those contradictions, the outcomes of realpolitik will prove to be even more unpopular.