With only four months to go until Election Day, silly season is upon us. In this hyperpartisan age, Democrats will feel pressure to describe President Obama as the great slayer of dragons abroad, whereas Republicans will argue that the incumbent has presided over America’s decline.
Voters deserve a deeper analysis that sorts the serious from the specious in campaign ads and speeches as we head toward November. How has Obama’s foreign policy gone so far? Let’s break it down:
• Big wars. Conventional wisdom now depicts Obama as a steely killer, deploying drones and computer viruses against America’s foes from Iran to Pakistan to Yemen, and using commandos to take down Osama bin Laden. This is part of the story, but Obama has also been a pragmatist, rejecting either reflexive dovishness or hawkishness. He promised to get out of Iraq in a little more than a year. He did get out, but took three. After nearly tripling combat forces in Afghanistan, Obama set deadlines for starting to bring those troops home, contrasting the prospect for peace with hawkish escalation. He has been cerebral and non-ideological — though it is not clear whether he will be successful.
• Peace efforts. On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a high priority from Day One, Obama has made his biggest mistakes. He issued demands to the Israelis that were perhaps unrealistic. When he relented, his indecision made it more difficult for both sides to negotiate. One year he raised hopes of a new Palestinian state at the United Nations, yet came back 12 months later threatening a U.S. veto on any U.N. action that would have sought to achieve exactly that. And his plan to pursue détente with dictators — never to negotiate out of fear but not to fear to negotiate, as Obama has paraphrased John F. Kennedy— produced no breakthroughs with Iran or North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela (though it achieved a lesser success more recently with Burma, also known as Myanmar).
• Rogue states. When North Korea and Iran slapped Obama’s outstretched hand, rebuffing his attempts at engagement, he led international sanctions that punished both of them more severely than George W. Bush had been able to — though it was Bush who had depicted them as forming, along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, an axis of evil. He succeeded in uniting the international community against them even if he has yet to persuade any rogue states to change course.
• Rising powers. China met Obama’s 2009 efforts to allow the nation a greater role on the world stage with some degree of distrust and even hostility. But as China became more assertive, Obama bounced back. In a classic display of realpolitik that might have met with approval from President George H.W. Bush, Obama refocused American military strength and diplomatic efforts on Asia, the region of greatest promise for the United States in the 21st century. Our alliances in that region have been reinvigorated, and China has been reminded that the U.S. remains a Pacific power.
• Smaller wars. Beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, Obama has wrestled with a number of smaller conflicts — more than the typical American president has needed to do — with mixed results. Libya appears, on balance, to have been a success; Sudan split into two semi-peacefully (so far at least); and Somalia seems a little better than before. But violence in Mexico has gotten worse on Obama’s watch, and conflict zones in Africa from Congo to Mali to Nigeria are unimproved.
• Arab Spring. Obama has done well in difficult circumstances. He helped push autocrats out of power when people rose up against them. Yet he also knew not to try to do too much, recognizing that America could hurt more than help if it tried to own the revolutions. But the descent into chaos in Syria, and the potential for things to fall apart in Egypt, are threatening American interests in regional stability at a time when election demands are distracting Obama. It could turn out quite badly in the end.
Martin S. Indyk
Former Brookings Expert
Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations
Michael E. O’Hanlon
Director of Research - Foreign Policy
Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy
• Grand visions. More than any U.S. president since Kennedy, Obama has cultivated big dreams and expectations, at home and abroad, about how the world could change under his presidency. He vowed to repair the breach with the Muslim world, move toward a nuclear-free planet, arrest climate change and dramatically lessen global poverty.
But delivering on his promises proved much more difficult, especially given the circumstances he inherited. Given the grandiosity of the goals, this is no great surprise. Yet Obama himself built up the expectations that reality has since dashed. Perhaps no great harm has been done, except that cynicism and disappointment have replaced hope, especially in the Muslim world.
• Adding it all up. On balance, Obama has done a good job protecting the nation’s interests — with a respectable record on the wars and counterterrorism, on handling China’s rise, on working with reformists during the Arab awakenings, on “resetting relations” with Russia and repairing them with numerous European allies, and on squeezing the rogue states. He has fallen short of his transformational promises on subjects such as climate and energy, Middle East peacemaking, and restoring good ties with the broader Muslim world.
There is certainly plenty for Mitt Romney and Obama to debate. In terms of ongoing crises, Syria and Iran loom large between now and Election Day. In terms of how history will remember Obama, or his successor, there is another crucial matter that is too often forgotten in foreign policy discussions — national economic recovery. Without a strong economy, America’s decline will happen whether we like it and admit it or not. Four straight years of trillion-dollar deficits, even if not primarily Obama’s fault, leave the country weaker than when he stepped into the Oval Office. Whoever sits in the Oval Office come Jan. 20, Obama’s foreign policy successes will matter little if the economy ultimately can’t support American power.