On the accomplishment side of the ledger, credit Barack Obama with a very smart policy in Asia. By taking advantage of China overplaying its hand in the South China Sea and generally unnerving most of the region, the Obama administration has reconfirmed the central role of the United States in East Asia. The opening of a new base in Australia is a powerful symbol of America’s enduring strategic presence in the region. The opening with Burma obviously has both strategic motives and strategic implications.
He also has a fairly good record in responding to the Arab awakening. The Obama administration has fortunately ignored the “realists’” call for standing by the collapsing dictatorships in the Middle East. (How people can call themselves “realists” when advocating such hopelessly unrealistic policies is a source of wonderment.) In Egypt, especially, while the reaction to events has sometimes been slow, the administration has generally moved in the right direction. Obama deserves particular credit for not joining in the general panic at the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. The operation in Libya was a success. The growing international pressure on Basha al-Assad in Syria is encouraging — but eventually the United States will have to do more.
More generally, Obama has made steady moves in support of democracy. After treating it like a dirty word in its first year and a half, the administration has returned to a pro-democracy posture not only in the Middle East, but also in Russia and Asia. Given that the political evolution of countries in these regions will have a direct bearing on the international strategic situation and on the nature of world order in the coming years, this has been an eminently “realistic” approach.
As for setbacks, topping the list is Obama’s failure to work out an agreement with Iraq to maintain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of 2011. This has been a disaster and may prove to be one of the gravest errors of Obama’s first term, for which either he or his successor will pay a high price. If Iraq unravels into sectarian warfare, it could easily suck other regional powers into the conflict — especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Just as importantly, it would set back democratic progress in the region. Iraq is almost as much an anchor in the Arab world as Egypt. The decision to give up on the admittedly difficult negotiations with the Iraqis was clearly motivated by White House’s desire to run on “ending” the war in Iraq. This was as unnecessary as it was unwise.
The decision to allow deep cuts in defense spending — rather than addressing entitlements — is equally irresponsible. Here the Obama administration and Congress are both to blame. But the Obama team has compounded the problem by elaborating a budget-driven defense strategy that is not commensurate with American strategic goals and interests. It is ironic that Obama is adopting Donald Rumsfeld’s defense strategy — high tech, light footprint. We will find, as we did in the Bush years, the Clinton years, and in many previous decades, that drones and missiles can only go so far in preserving American interests. If not reversed, the deep cuts looming in defense will go a long way to undermining the U.S. position in the world. They will even undercut the Obama administration’s efforts to make the United States a more reliable player in Asia, despite its unconvincing protestations to the contrary.