Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Fall 2012 issue of The Washington Quarterly.
Barack Obama has been a disciplined, pragmatic, and effective president on the urgent national security challenges of the day. His record is generally solid on matters such as managing the nation’s major wars, pressuring rogue states, rebalancing the U.S. national security focus toward East Asia, and carrying out the reset policy with Russia. On balance, I would personally rate his foreign policy record through most of his first term as much better than average, with perhaps only George H.W. Bush having done clearly better at this stage among all presidents of the last half century.
But those glowing words aside, Obama has had difficulty measuring up to the standards he set for himself on the big visions and transformational issues of the day—subjects ranging from addressing global warming and climate change to bridging the divide with the Muslim world to moving toward a nuclear-free planet (what might be called the Prague Agenda, named for the site of Obama’s big speech on the subject in 2009). Leaving aside the top-tier security issues of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Syria that merit their own attention (and generally receive it), he has also had considerable trouble with the chronic problems of weak, failing, or otherwise challenged states. This article briefly summarizes his record toward five disparate but important countries facing internal conflicts of one type or another—the African states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, and Sudan, as well as the Latin American states of Colombia and Mexico. Of the five, only one is generally moving in the right direction today, Colombia, and that is for reasons that have little to do with any new U.S. policy. These five countries are not chosen randomly: the two in this hemisphere have major direct importance for American security; the three in Africa have suffered perhaps the world’s worst wars of the modern era, as measured by lethality and duration. They are also places Senator Obama had addressed before winning the presidency, making it appropriate to contrast what he once advocated on Capitol Hill with what he has been able to do in the White House.
As the presidential election nears, it is important to understand why this part of the U.S. national security agenda what one might loosely term the ‘‘soft security agenda’’ has remained so difficult to address even for Obama, with his longstanding interest in such challenges, and to identify what he or a new Republican president could do beginning in 2013.