Coming Up Empty

Ten reasons why Obama's foreign policy is not a success.

My FP colleague (and Zombie maven) Dan Drezner had an excellent post up a couple of days ago, defending Obama's foreign policy against various GOP challenges (most of them, as he points out, silly). The payoff pitch is Dan's fantasy of what an Obama stump speech on this topic might say:

As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Qaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.

Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress -- which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like subjecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.

As Andrew Sullivan points out, that last line is a killer. But is Dan correct to say (as he does at the beginning of his piece) that "it's becoming harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama's foreign policy is a failure"? Not if you consider some of the major items on his agenda when he took office. Even allowing for the fact that Dubya dug him a very, very deep hole, here are ten reasons why one might hesitate to label Obama's foreign policy a "success."

1. Climate Change. This was a major item in Obama's 2008 campaign, and he made a big show of attending the Copenhagen summit during his first year. But then he couldn't get an energy bill passed, and the whole issue -- on which the future course of civilization may depend -- has dropped off the radar screen almost entirely. Not good news if you happen to live near the coast.


2. Israel-Palestine. As Dan acknowledges, this is one issue where the administration has whiffed completely. Indeed, they may well have made things substantially worse, and hastened the moment when the two-state solution that they claim to seek is acknowledged to be impossible. And because new Arab governments are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment in the years ahead, the damage this situation is doing to America's position in the region is growing. We could argue forever about who deserves the blame for this failure, but it clearly goes in the loss column.

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3. Iran. Here, too, Obama began with some flashy gestures, but U.S. policy quickly reverted back to the status quo of Bush's second term: ramping up sanctions and demanding Iranian compliance with U.S. demands as a precondition for progress on any other issues. Iran's internal disarray and deep suspicions have made a tough task even more difficult, but the bottom line is that Obama hasn't improved U.S.-Iranian relations, hasn't halted their nuclear enrichment program, or didn't persuade other key powers (e.g., China) to support the U.S. position consistently. Nor has the administration managed to think outside the box and try a different approach, even though the policy we've been following has been failing for at least a decade.

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4. Afghanistan. We can still hope for a minor miracle here, but NATO has lost the stomach for the fight and it is increasingly clear that the United States and its allies will not be able to determine Afghanistan's political future. Obama's decision to escalate in 2009 may have created a fig leaf of progress that will make it politically feasible to withdraw in a couple more years, but we will have poured several hundred billion more dollars into Afghanistan, as well as the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers, without getting closer to ending the conflict on our terms.

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5. Pakistan. In the meantime, our relationship with Pakistan has gone from bad to worse. Afghanistan is largely a strategic irrelevance, but Pakistan is nuclear-armed, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and politically unstable to boot. Managing that relationship is a hell of lot more important than figuring out who gets to run Libya, and the administration wins no bonus points here. Getting Osama bin Laden is an obvious achievement, but no consolation if Pakistan goes south completely.

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6. Iraq: Dan's mythical speech puts this item in the success column, but Iraq is ultimately a defeat. The main failure is George W. Bush's, of course, but Obama failed to achieve even his own rather limited aims. U.S. leaders are deeply worried about what will happen after the United States leaves, and so are key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. That's why the administration wanted to keep a larger U.S. presence there, but they failed to convince Iraq's government to give U.S. troops immunity. That is the Iraqis' prerogative, of course, but the fact remains that we are not getting the outcome there that we wanted.

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7. Libya: Nobody is mourning Muammar al-Qaddafi's ouster or his death, and Americans can be pleased that this feat was accomplished without the loss of a single American life. But didn't the "Mission Accomplished" moment in 2003 in Iraq teach us about the dangers of declaring victory prematurely? We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the "Obama Doctrine" will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.


8. North Korea. Obama made North Korea a priority back in 2009, and even appointed one of his "special envoys" to handle that portfolio. Not only has there been scant diplomatic progress ever since, but North Korea engaged in one of its occasional episodes of belligerence last year, sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island. Pyongyang's nuclear program remains unconstrained, and China continues to provide North Korea with diplomatic protection. These developments have helped reinforce U.S. relations with our South Korean ally, but Obama has done no better than his predecessors at handling the prickly regime in the North.


9. The World Economy. Not only has Obama failed to get the U.S. economy going again, but the United States has done little to help the rest of the world get out of its present doldrums. There has been little progress in promoting trade liberalization, and European leaders have steadfastly ignored U.S. advice on how to deal with their own fiscal and financial problems. Bilateral trade deals such as the recent pact with South Korea are useful for cementing political ties, but will have modest economic impact. Obama hardly deserves all the blame here, but there's also precious little for which he can take credit.

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10. America's Standing. Dan is correct to note that Obama has resurrected the U.S. image from its Bush-era lows, but there really was nowhere to go but up. While it's true that the percentage of people with a favorable view of America has increased almost everywhere except the Middle East, the more important point is that fewer and fewer people trust Uncle Sam's judgment these days. Asian countries still want U.S. protection from a rising China (for good old-fashioned balance of power reasons), but does anybody respect our views on human rights after Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, or our increasing reliance on drone attacks? Who wants to follow our lead on how to run an economy, or regulate the financial sector? American democracy used to attract admiration, but not even Americans are wild about how our political institutions are functioning these days. Obama is obviously more popular abroad than Bush ever was, but the ecstatic hopes that greeted his election (and won him a pre-emptive Nobel Prize) have been dashed and his early charisma has faded. You might give him a passing grade overall on this broad subject, but he doesn't make the honor roll.

Where Dan and I agree, however, is the crucial role of domestic politics. For if you look at the failures listed above, what is striking is that most of them are heavily shaped by domestic constraints. Doing something serious about climate change would have real consequences for business and consumers, and that wasn't going to happen when we are teetering on the brink of another recession. Making progress on Israel-Palestine or on Iran would require bringing in a new Middle East team and taking on the Israel lobby (including the Christianist wing of the GOP), and Obama abandoned that course after the Cairo speech in June 2009. His decisions to escalate in Afghanistan and to try to stay in Iraq were clearly shaped by domestic political concerns, and especially the perennial Democratic fear of being perceived as "weak" on national security. Trade liberalization is always a contentious issue here at home, and especially tough to tackle with a weak economy.

In short, Dan's broader point about Obama's foreign policy successes is insightful: the president has done well in those relatively minor areas where domestic politics do not loom large and where he can exercise unilateral authority. But on the more important and more difficult issues where you would have to convince the American people to follow a new path, he's come up mostly empty.

There is one other "success" that Obama can claim, however, and it forms a revealing subtext to Dan's original post. By combining a center-right approach to foreign policy (akin to Bush's second term) with the inclusive and idealistic rhetoric of Clinton-style multilateralism, Obama has taken foreign policy entirely off the table for the 2012 election. It was never going to be a major issue anyway given the state of the economy, but the GOP simply doesn't have any foreign policy issues on which to attack him without sounding either ignorant or unhinged. That's good news for the president's prospects for re-election, but it won't give foreign policy mavens like Dan and me much to argue about during the campaign itself. Not that this will stop us, of course. 

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