By Michael O'Hanlon, from GPS website, February 28, 2012
Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is co-author of the forthcoming book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.
(President Obama)... has been a pragmatic, disciplined, and moderately successful president on many core matters of war and peace, and on the crucial subject of preventing a global economic meltdown during his first year in office as well. Specifically:
- As evidenced, for example, in the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has been strong, pragmatic, and nonideological - not an apologist for the country, not weak, and not naïve.
- His policies towards al Qaeda embody that most clearly, not only due to the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki but due to the broader decimation of much of al Qaeda’s top leadership.
- He has also toughened his initial approach toward the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. After offering to reach out his hand should they unclench their fists in his inaugural address, by the summer of 2009 he had concluded in both cases that such efforts were pointless and pivoted to much tougher approaches. Having tried and failed to improve relations, he was well positioned to convince other countries to tighten sanctions thereafter - arguably becoming more effective than George W. Bush in pursuing much of the core Bush agenda. Of course, sanctions are not an end in themselves, and Obama has not been any more successful than previous presidents in rolling back either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs.
- Overall, Obama has done best on the major foreign policy problems: the “Russia reset” policy; progress towards a realistic and balanced partnership with China; further improvement in relations and India (building on the work of Clinton and Bush); and improving relations with most major allies. His nuclear nonproliferation record and defense records are good so far as well (though the specter of sequestration hangs over defense budget, and indeed budgetary and economic policy more generally).
- Obama been generally prudent with the Arab awakenings including in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya - not because he wished to “lead from behind” but because he sought to work with coalitions and let others step up where American vital interests were less engaged. Clearly, Syria remains a work in progress.
- There have been major mistakes, most notably in his handling of the Arab-Israeli peace process. His efforts to lead on climate change via adoption of cap-and-trade legislation at home failed abjectly. While his Afghanistan policy was well thought through, execution has been marred by inconsistent approaches by members of the Obama team.
- And while the financial crisis of 2008/2009 was managed competently, the American economy is still in such a perilous place that repairing it has become priority #1 for the president. Importantly, the United States cannot sustain a role of global leader without shoring up its economic foundations. The world still very much wonders if it can accomplish that. On matters such as deficit reduction, Obama has not yet been successful. Relatedly, partisan acrimony has not been mitigated on his watch as he had hoped.
This is on balance a better foreign policy record than most presidents have attained at their three-year marks. Generally speaking, it represents the triumph of pragmatism over ideology and reflects a reluctant realism that this president has come to personify in office.
Still, one senses that it is not what Obama exactly expected out of his time in office, and that it leaves him feeling unsatisfied in many ways. Because of the enduring economic crisis, it also leaves the country weaker in some ways, though the cause here has hardly been entirely Obama’s doing.
The 2012 presidential campaign thus has much to consider. Many key issues remain in flux and the best U.S. policy options to address them remain unclear or in need of improvement. One hopes the campaign will unfold on such terrain and not dwell on the canards that somehow this president has been weak or apologetic or incompetent in his foreign policy.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.
From the perspective of just slightly north of the 49th parallel, we are grateful to Obama for having kept an even, steady and predictable hand on the foreign policy tiller, without having precipitated another Iraq, in fact while bringing the troops home from that theater, and starting the troop removal from Afghanistan later this year.
Realism, while different from idealism, is more likely to constitute the stuff of foreign policy and the one thing the world can be grateful for is that, whatever else, Obama is an outstanding learner. And, only his re-election can provide even a limited assurance for the world that America will not pre-emptively strike ANY country, as the world endured in 2003, under another American president. All Republican candidates, except possibly Ron Paul, sound like "Rambo" compared with Obama, and Rambo has no place at the foreign policy discusssion tables.
Obama has proven beyond a doubt that he certainly does belong there.