If President Barack Obama ever was a foreign policy idealist, he's not one now. The address he delivered Tuesday at the United Nations amounted to a realist manifesto for defending U.S. “core interests” — using force, when necessary — without trying to impose American values on unready or unwilling societies.
The speech laid out an Obama Doctrine for confronting a rapidly changing world full of dangers new and old. “I believe America is exceptional,” the president said, citing the nation's historic willingness to offer “the sacrifice of blood and treasure ... for the interest of all.” But his updated vision of U.S. leadership, although sweetly phrased, was tightly focused and unsentimental.
In the Mideast, Obama said, the United States will use military action if necessary to secure “our core interests in the region.” He identified these as defending allies against aggression, ensuring the free flow of oil from the region, dismantling terrorist networks and preventing “the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”
He specifically relegated democracy, human rights and free markets to a lower tier. We will continue to promote these ideals, he said, but with the knowledge that “we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action” and that “democracy cannot simply be imposed by force.”
Obama went beyond rejecting the “freedom agenda” that George W. Bush pursued with such martial zeal. The president specifically declared that “the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”
He cited Egypt as an example, saying he will maintain a “constructive relationship” with the new government as long as it respects the peace agreement with Israel and cooperates in the fight against terrorism.