In Search of Pragmatic Idealism

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Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

American foreign policy has always been seen as a battle between realists and idealists. Woodrow Wilson was the classic idealist; Henry Kissinger the quintessential realist. Realists say they deal with the world as it is, not as it might be. Idealists argue that American values and humanitarian interests are our strongest assets in the world as it is. I'd argue that the realist-idealist continuum is no longer useful. America's foray into Libya has been described by many as idealism in action, but if it is idealism, it is a very cautious and circumspect one. And if Obama is a foreign policy idealist, he's a very pragmatic one.

One of the problems with Washington is that people there only seem to think of the unintended consequences of policies that they don't support, not the ones they do. The Administration, as Fareed Zakaria notes in his powerful opening essay, hasn't really thought through the end result it wants in Libya. At the same time, as the accompanying story by Bobby Ghosh and Abigail Hauslohner demonstrates--with Abby continuing her terrific reporting from Libya--the rebels there are not exactly what we think of as Founding Fathers. The enemy of my enemy is not always the friend I want. Both stories, by the way, feature striking pictures from Libya by our photographer Yuri Kozyrev, and you can find Libya images by Christopher Morris this week on LightBox, our new photo blog on

We're learning again, in Libya, that foreign policy decisions are rarely if ever based on idealism or ideology. Decisions about going to war are, in the end, hardheaded ones. Leaders have to deal with what's probable, not what's possible. And even then, they won't always get things right.

Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR