This leads to the second part: classic realist thinking a la Morgenthau focuses on the limits of power--that one must be prudent in the deployment of the resources of a country as getting others to do what they would otherwise not do (the classic definition of power) is not easy at all. Expecting significant victories in the relations with these four countries is pretty, dare I say it, unrealistic. It is not realistic in the sense that these are likely outcomes and it is not Realistic in the sense that the US has deployable power.
Why this oversight? Mostly because Realists tend to downplay domestic politics. Of the four countries, three have had elections that are the defining events of the past year and the fourth has a domestic political situation that produces behavior that is unfortunate to say the least. Let's take them in turn and consider if the US could have changed things much:
- Iraq: The US is getting out while the getting is good. Walt has no problem with that. But that the surge (which was Bush's, not to mention the war itself) did not produce a strategic victory. Why? Because Iraqi domestic politics is not something that the US can easily twist to its liking. And this is a country where the US had more than a hundred thousand troops and spent a trillion dollars or so. Because outside power may have its limits in shaping electoral outcomes. Oops.
- Iran: The Iranians are actually in somewhat of a corner, having lost much authority and legitimacy with their election. But again, it was their election, driven by domestic dynamics and the lack of real change (still the power rests in the theocrats, etc) is not something that can be blamed on Obama or any other outside.
- Afghanistan: The biggest event of the year was the election and Karzai's efforts to undermine any effort to develop institutions rather than personal power. Again, heaps of troops and dollars, but with few choices, there was little the US could do.
- Israel: No election, but coalition politics in that country limit how much outsiders can do to influence the situation.
I don't think that the Obama Administration has made all of the right moves, but given its own domestic constraints (a hostile opposition party that will sees any Presidential success to be a bad idea, budget deficits, a difficult economy, the protectionism of his own party), the President has not had heaps of freedom of action either.
So, to be realistic, we need to take seriously domestic politics and the constraints it imposes. We cannot expect the domestic politics of other countries to be easy to manipulate (or irrelevant), so we should try to avoid creating situations where we have to hope that we can. And for the IR theorists out there, it probably is not a mundane or irrelevant question about which matters more/first--domestic politics or international constraints.