Today's date:
Spring 2009

Obama's Realist Idealism

Madeleine Albright is a former US secretary of state. She spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in March.

NPQ | You've just returned from the Middle East, where you attended a conference about relations with the Muslim world. Has the advent of the Obama presidency changed anything in terms of the image of America?

Madeleine Albright | There is no question that there is a different sense about America and an appreciation that President Obama understands the "Muslim world"—a term I don't like since it is so diverse and not monolithic—much better than the previous administration. The fact that he mentioned the word "Muslim" in his inaugural address was unprecedented and not lost on those looking for a new relationship with the United States.

For our part, we Americans need to learn more about Islam and strengthen ties, as Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton's visit to Indonesia demonstrated, to the large Muslim nations. But, as the former deputy premier of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, has said, it is a two-way street. Muslim nations must also seek reform within and also try to find ways to improve links to the US as well.

But there is an understanding on all sides that things aren't going to change overnight. Our fraught relations were a long time in the making—we are at war in two Muslim countries—and it will take a while to get it right.

NPQ | Did the recent Israeli-Gaza battle cause doubts that Obama might not be so different from the previous administration on the Israel-Palestine issue?

Albright | I didn't pick that up at all. It is a very big issue, of course, as it has long been. There are those who think the Israeli-Palestinian issue is central to everything, and they found promise in the early visit of George Mitchell to the region as Obama's special envoy. I understand the importance of it, but it is much more complicated than that. There are, after all, other aspects of our relations with the Islamic world that range from Afghanistan to the rights of women.

NPQ | We are now beginning to see illustrations of the new pragmatism of the Obama administration in foreign policy and its retreat from the Bush-era ideological crusade to bring democracy to the world.

Already, critics have charged that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused more on T-bills than human rights on her visit to China. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear the new administration will not seek some "Central Asian Valhalla," meaning a democratic paradise, in Afghanistan, but only "a stable Afghanistan that is not a haven for terrorists." Gen. David Petraeus has hinted that we must cut deals with local Taliban and warlords as long as they are not associated with al-Qaida.

The critics see this as a Realpolitik accommodation that forsakes America's idealism. Is that so, or is Obama just recognizing the limits of American power?

Albright | I don't agree with the critics at all. Before Obama, there was a sense in the world that the US was out there pushing an ideological agenda. There is a turning away from that, but it is not Realpolitik that somehow forsakes human rights. It is a blend of idealism and pragmatism that seeks to balance our values and our interests.

I have always said that I was neither a realist nor an idealist but an idealistic realist. I think this is what we are seeing here. We don't want to have the Bush-style imposition of our views on everybody else, which gave democracy a bad name. I personally would like to see the good name of democracy restored, but in a realistic way.

What we are really talking about is a rebalancing.

NPQ | The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in February that Iran has achieved a "breakthrough capacity" of enough enriched uranium for one bomb. Doesn't this suggest that the policy of sanctions to avoid this outcome has now failed, and that we are headed toward a policy of "containment and deterrence" of Iran—perhaps with a new alliance of moderate Arab Sunni states and the explicit extension of the US nuclear umbrella over Israel? During the campaign, Hillary Clinton already said that the US would "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel with nukes.

Former CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid has said he thinks "Iran is not a suicide state" and would be susceptible to deterrence.

Albright | At the moment, we don't know. Obviously President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said we need to talk to Iran. There is the IAEA report, but also President Ahmadinejad has sent a letter to Obama and talked about "mutual respect." There are also political shifts taking place in Iran, with former president Khatami challenging Ahmadinejad in the next elections.

The US also has a new ambassador at the United Nations, Susan Rice, who wants to make the UN effective in world affairs.

What the Obama administration has said is that there must be a package of incentives and disincentives to stop Iran from going down the path to a nuclear weapon. Now, Dennis Ross, the Middle East expert, will be taking on the task of seeking a regional solution.

NPQ | The aim of sanctions was to stop Iran from enriching enough uranium to make a bomb. But that is now a fact. Doesn't that mean the sanctions strategy has failed?

Albright | The IAEA is clearly signaling a great deal of disappointment with Iran. Whatever has been happening there has not been going in the right direction. That is a very important fact, since it is the watchdog. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say sanctions have failed, but so far they clearly haven't worked.