Barack Obama: Rating Him on Hard Power Issues

How well is President Barack Obama doing with the hard power questions of national security? Even his GOP critics acknowledge the president’s successes in the killings of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Qaddafi — but that is about where the agreement ends.

The debates get intense over how much credit Obama really deserves for this hat trick of battlefield successes. How much do these successes matter in the broader war on terror? How is Obama doing in other aspects of the nation’s military operations and national security activities writ large?

On the immediate issues of handling today’s conflicts, it seems hard to contest the overarching argument that this president — and our country under this president — is doing fairly well.

That said, the record is far from perfect. It is possible that things will look worse a year from now — just as voters prepare to go to the polls. The right call now would seem to be two cheers for Obama — but there’s a lot more history to be written before the 2012 elections.

Start with the high-profile cases. On the successful commando raid against bin Laden, drone strike against al-Awlaki and support for the Libyan opposition as it pursued Qadhafi, things have worked out well.

Obama showed good strategic judgment and political backbone in authorizing the Special Forces raid on bin Laden. True, he could authorize the attack only because of all the preparatory work done for years by the U.S. intelligence and special operations communities — much during the Bush administration.

Beyond that, while it appears a gutsy decision, it would have been risky to resort to a bombing campaign. Among other things, we might never have had conclusive proof of bin Laden’s demise, and innocent Pakistanis could have been hurt.

So while Obama was steel-nerved, it is possible to make too much of his courage here. He made the right call — even if it was not a Churchillian decision for the ages.

Killing al-Awlaki in Yemen was not a tough decision for the commander in chief, given how much the imam had become a top-tier threat to the U.S. But still, it clearly was a success.

The Libya campaign has also been handled well — despite concerns that Qadhafi may have been executed by his foes. He had ample opportunity to surrender, so the main responsibility for the nature of his demise was his own. Obama’s decision not to have the U.S. take the lead in this has been vindicated so far.

There are two key caveats though. First, this indirect approach was possible only because Libya was a second-tier national security matter for Washington. Second, it ain’t over.

Among other things, Washington may face tough decisions about possible involvement in a temporary international stabilization mission in Libya. It probably won’t be necessary. But if international action becomes the only alternative to chaos, and the Obama administration remains adamant that no American GIs put boots on the ground in Libya, this assessment of Obama’s performance there may have to be revisited.

What about the broader campaigns against terror and the administration’s various decisions about deploying U.S. troops in harm’s way? These questions require a more comprehensive assessment of how Obama has handled Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan on his watch.

Here, the record is again reasonably good — if mixed and, of course, provisional.

Start with Iraq, where the president has just declared that virtually everyone in uniform will come home by New Year’s Day. This is too bad. But it appears to be primarily an Iraqi decision.

Some suspect that, subliminally at least, Obama never wanted to stay in Iraq. S0 he is glad for the excuse to pull everyone out — created by the Iraqi government’s inability to offer U.S. troops legal immunity from Iraqi courts. But I have seen no evidence that this is true.

Obama also was slow to acknowledge the surge’s success, and the need to revise his own campaign promises to bring one to two brigades out of Iraq per month as soon as he became president. But he was pragmatic enough to delay the drawdown when he took office. Indeed, he will have kept almost 50,000 GIs in Iraq through most of 2011 — taking about twice as long to pull main U.S. units out of Iraq as he initially promised.

That was a wise and sound revision of his initial position for which he deserves considerable credit. Vice President Joe Biden has also been constructively engaged, coaxing Iraqi politicians into various compromises they previously did not favor. Iraq’s future remains in jeopardy, to be sure, but there is no way we can blame Obama for the departure of U.S. troops.

On Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama’s record is pretty good — though far from perfect.

In his June 2011 policy decision, Obama did accelerate the initial U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan beyond the pace recommended by commanders or his own campaign plan. But he has, on balance, been muscular and resolute there. Even after next year’s drawdown, twice as many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of 2012 as when he entered the White House.

His decision to speed the redeployment of U.S. forces, while regrettable, seems understandable as a way to defuse the growing domestic protest here against the war.

On Pakistan, he made a genuine effort to give Islamabad more reasons to cooperate with us. The commitment to Afghanistan was strengthened, aid to Islamabad was increased and the intensity of personal diplomacy and strategic dialogue in the bilateral relationship was ratcheted up a notch or two.

But there have been big problems with his Afghanistan and Pakistan policy nonetheless. This is highlighted by the dissension in his own team, as well as their public dealings with President Hamid Karzai and top Pakistani leaders. Too many arguments in public, too many mixed messages.

Obama’s efforts to have his cake and eat it too — promising troop buildups and troop build-downs simultaneously in key speeches — created confusion as well as hedging behavior in the region.

It is too soon to size up Obama’s overall record because the trajectory of policy in all these theaters is still too hard to predict. But on balance, the president has been resolute, focused and nonideological in his foreign policy — a very pragmatic and fairly impressive record.