The Supreme Court, this week, considers the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care reform, surely his signature contribution to America’s domestic policy. If its answer, expected in June, is yes, the reform legislation is constitutional and as such remains the law of the land. Obama will have notched a special place in American presidential history. Universal health care exists in many western republics, and now it would also exist, legally, constitutionally, in the United States. But if the court’s answer is no, then the president will have been repudiated, his health reform legislation scrapped for the moment, and his re-election campaign dealt a major blow.
A parallel question might be posed about Obama’s foreign policy: has the president accomplished anything of potentially similar consequence, an action or decision that will be discussed and written about 50 or 100 years from now? As the president makes a bid for another four years in the Oval Office, the answer at the moment would appear to be no. There is nothing of Obamacare importance that has been accomplished in foreign policy by this administration, though there has been an explosion of opportunity, the “Arab Spring” being one example, Iran’s dabbling with nuclear power being another.
The Obama administration takes pride in its “reset” policy toward Russia, even though Vladimir Putin sees little of merit in that policy. In fact, he sees one anti-Russian conspiracy after another being hatched by the U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, among her first actions, traveled to China and seemed to be setting up a new, more cooperative U.S.-China relationship; but lately she has been voicing deep suspicions about China’s approach to the oil-rich South China Sea and criticizing China’s trade policy as well as its expansion of cyber warfare operations. The upshot is that the U.S.-China relationship has sputtered along without any breakthroughs of note.
In the Middle East, President Obama quickly appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special negotiator to the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian problem, but then sabotaged the senator’s effort by lashing out at Israel for its settlements policy, which effectively killed the negotiation. After a while, the senator quit, and the Israeli-Palestinian problem remains deadlocked.
Obama inherited the Iraq and Afghan wars, and, as promised, he ended America’s combat role in Iraq and then withdrew all combat troops, ending that war. In Afghanistan, though, the situation was much more complicated. First, in 2009, he increased American troop strength in country by 50,000, bringing the total to 100,000; but then he started to pull them out of Afghanistan. There are now an estimated 90,000 still in Afghanistan, and, come September, that number will drop to 68,000, according to current plans. Clearly Obama would like to get out of Afghanistan, and at least end America’s role in this long and costly war; but he is stuck, unable to negotiate his way out but unwilling to get more deeply engaged. His policy has been reduced to kicking the can down the road, waiting to December, 2014, to end America’s combat role in Afghanistan, if that is possible.
Obama’s most difficult challenge appears to be Iran’s determination to expand its nuclear capacity, perhaps to the point of developing a nuclear bomb capacity. On the one hand, Obama is strengthening and expanding economic and technological sanctions against Iran, hoping that he will not have to use military power to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, he knows that Israel has been threatening to act alone, if necessary, in order to delay and possibly destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. Obama’s Iran policy hangs by a thread, uncertain and dangerous.
Finally, with respect to the “Arab Spring,” Obama’s policy has been to support moves toward democracy but to do so in different ways, depending on circumstances in each country—in other words, not to apply one course of action to every Arab country. Egypt was one case, Syria now another. What made sense in Egypt may not make sense in Syria.
Critics argue that Obama has been missing golden opportunities to transform not only the new world in the Arab crescent but the world beyond as well, to put America’s stamp on a new global revolution, to do now what President Truman did after World War II, when he established NATO and contained the Soviet Union. They say that the president has been “leading from behind,” using the quote attributed to a White House official. On the other hand, supporters of the president’s policy argue that, by being cautious, careful, measured, the president has been avoiding problems over which the United States has little control. More than that, they say that history will praise the president for sidestepping messy situations that could have escalated into unmanageable crises, requiring the introduction of American troops. And after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States ought not to be plunging recklessly into new wars but rather to be standing on the sideline and getting militarily involved only as a last resort.
Are you a critic or a supporter of the president’s foreign policy? Do you see insight and wisdom in his caution? Or would you prefer a more daring and adventurous leader? In November, the American people will give their answer. Meantime, what’s yours?
On grand strategy: A conversation with John Lewis Gaddis
There are areas where the French/American cooperation can be strong and immediate, especially when they share a common, precise goal like in the small, punitive strikes on Syria. But overall they won't have the same approach on a number of things.