Obama’s Foreign Policy: Progressive Pragmatist

Note: Martin Indyk. Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon are all co-authors of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (Brookings. 2012). 

The Republican presidential field has pilloried President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record. The candidates regularly assert that the president is too apologetic to America’s foes, too irresolute in regard to Afghanistan and now paralyzed over what to do about Iran. But are they right to attack Obama’s record as commander in chief?

True, Obama has not achieved the transformative results he promised on the 2008 campaign trail. There have been mistakes — on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and energy policy, in particular. And big choices loom in Iran, Syria and elsewhere. So there is ample room for a foreign policy debate in this presidential campaign.

But on balance, Obama has proved tough, disciplined and, overall, reasonably successful in addressing the nation’s immediate security challenges. One might call him a reluctant realist: Holding onto his idealistic visions and pursuing them where possible but adroitly shifting to tougher measures when necessary.

Obama’s early aspirations, as reflected in his campaign and his major speeches in Prague and Cairo shortly after becoming president, were big and bold. When it came to foreign policy, he promised to refurbish America’s image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars (but only after surging forces for the Afghanistan mission); offer an outstretched hand to Iran and even North Korea; reset relations with Russia as a step toward eradicating nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East. He also talked about battling global poverty and climate change.

It has not quite worked out that way. He has kept his grand visions. But as we explain in our new book, “Bending History,” he has not dwelled on them.

At times, this opens up a gap between promise and performance. Nevertheless, he has been disciplined and pragmatic — keeping Robert Gates, President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, at the Pentagon, for example; and hiring his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, at the State Department; working closely with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other top economic officials to cope with the urgency of the global financial crisis on taking office; tripling combat forces in Afghanistan; keeping U.S. troops in Iraq 20 months longer than originally promised; “rebalancing” toward Asia to reassure the region that the United States is reliable; and remaining resolute in the pursuit of terrorist leaders like the now late Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

In other words, Obama is a pragmatist. A progressive one, to be sure — since he sought, where possible, to make inroads in the pursuit of his bigger hopes. But a pragmatist just the same — and a hawkish one in many ways.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in regard to the rogue states, which Bush labeled the axis of evil. Obama has been careful not to get bogged down with bad actors of secondary importance — like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Fidel Castro in Cuba or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe — and he was wise to let the Europeans under Arab League and U.N. cover do the heavy lifting in Libya. He has focused, appropriately, on the threatening states of Iran and North Korea.

There have been no breakthroughs yet, and the situation with Iran in particular remains fraught. But the threats to U.S. interests have been contained to date, and Obama has successfully mobilized other key countries, beyond a tight circle of allies, to increase pressure dramatically on Tehran as well as Pyongyang.

During his campaign, Obama had conjured up hopes of a far more peaceful and amicable approach to shaping the emerging global order. By returning to diplomacy and countering the perception of Washington as prone to knee-jerk military interventionism, Obama hoped to find a way to restore U.S. standing internationally — especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds. As he noted in his 2007 Woodrow Wilson Center speech:

“The lesson of the Bush years is that not talking does not work. Go down the list of countries we’ve ignored and see how successful that strategy has been. … It’s time to turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action. It’s time to turn the page on Washington’s conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that Presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear.”

After trying to talk, and being perceived as, if anything, too anxious to build bridges to extremist actors, Obama was credible when he declared that these efforts had failed. So he could then embrace the tough sanctions that have increasingly ravaged the North Korean and Iranian economies. After reaching out a hand to those who would unclench their own fists, as Obama put it in his 2009 inaugural address, the president pivoted when Iran and North Korea responded with, respectively, a stolen presidential election and a nuclear test in the spring of 2009.

Some would say Obama’s expectations of improved relations were naive, but within six months of taking office, he completely changed course. That countries around the globe viewed Washington as offering both Iran and North Korea an olive branch improved Obama’s ability to strengthen the international coalition against them when this was rejected. No longer could other countries use the excuse of alleged U.S. belligerence to justify what the North Koreans and Iranians were doing to their own people and their neighborhoods.

The president who wanted new relationships with America’s modern nemeses has, ironically, proved most effective at confronting them. This is not exactly the foreign policy bumper sticker Obama sought four years ago. But it is probably the best he could do given the circumstances.

While Obama’s handling of rogue states and other issues makes for a generally positive assessment of his role as commander in chief, it remains an interim assessment — for the Iran and North Korea situations could well deteriorate. In addition, among other problems, continuing huge deficits and mediocre economic performance threaten America’s future global leadership role and demand more effective attention.

Yet, on balance, this president possesses an effective, even fairly strong, foreign policy track record to date — very different and far better than his Republican opponents are painting in their presidential campaigns.