the accomplishment side of the ledger, credit Barack Obama with a very smart
policy in Asia. By taking advantage of China overplaying its hand in the South
China Sea and generally unnerving most of the region, the Obama administration has
reconfirmed the central role of the United States in East Asia. The opening of
a new base in Australia is a powerful symbol of America's enduring strategic
presence in the region. The opening with Burma obviously has both strategic
motives and strategic implications.
also has a fairly good record in responding to the Arab Awakening. The Obama
administration has fortunately ignored the "realists'" call for standing by the
collapsing dictatorships in the Middle East. (How people can call themselves "realists"
when advocating such hopelessly unrealistic policies is a source of
wonderment.) In Egypt, especially, while the reaction to events has sometimes
been slow, the administration has generally moved in the right direction. Obama
deserves particular credit for not joining in the general panic at the
electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. The operation in Libya was a
success. The growing international pressure on Basha al-Assad in Syria is
encouraging -- but eventually the United States will have to do more.
generally, Obama has made steady moves in support of democracy. After treating
it like a dirty word in its first year and a half, the administration has
returned to a pro-democracy posture not only in the Middle East, but also in
Russia and Asia. Given that the political evolution of countries in these
regions will have a direct bearing on the international strategic situation and
on the nature of world order in the coming years, this has been an eminently
for setbacks, topping the list is Obama's failure to work out an agreement with
Iraq to maintain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of 2011. This has been a
disaster and may prove to be one of the gravest errors of Obama's first term,
for which either he or his successor will pay a high price. If Iraq unravels
into sectarian warfare, it could easily suck other regional powers into the
conflict -- especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Just as importantly, it would set back
democratic progress in the region. Iraq is almost as much an anchor in the Arab
world as Egypt. The decision to give up on the admittedly difficult
negotiations with the Iraqis was clearly motivated by White House's desire to
run on "ending" the war in Iraq. This was as unnecessary as it was unwise.
decision to allow deep cuts in defense spending -- rather than addressing
entitlements -- is equally irresponsible. Here the Obama administration and
Congress are both to blame. But the Obama team has compounded the problem by
elaborating a budget-driven defense strategy that is not commensurate with
American strategic goals and interests. It is ironic that Obama is adopting
Donald Rumsfeld's defense strategy -- high tech, light footprint. We will find,
as we did in the Bush years, the Clinton years, and in many previous decades,
that drones and missiles can only go so far in preserving American interests.
If not reversed, the deep cuts looming in defense will go a long way to
undermining the U.S. position in the world. They will even undercut the Obama
administration's efforts to make the United States a more reliable player in
Asia, despite its unconvincing protestations to the contrary.
Robert Kagan is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His new book, The World America Made, will be published next month.
Overall, Barack Obama has had a very good run on
foreign policy, aided by his superstar secretary of state.
His greatest accomplishments are the successful
intervention in Libya under the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine; the institutionalization
of the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific through membership in the East Asia
Summit and much more active regional diplomacy; the creation of the G-20 as a
permanent leaders' forum, thereby broadening the circles of decision to include
many non-Western powers; the killing of Osama bin Laden and the decimation of
al Qaeda; the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and a firm commitment to
withdraw from Afghanistan; the elevation of development (including food
security, global health, climate change issues, and economic growth) as a much
bigger part of U.S. foreign policy; the restoration of trade as a meaningful foreign-policy
tool by passing three trade agreements and setting up a framework for
trans-Pacific free trade; the global defense of Internet freedom (assuming
SOPA/PIPA do not pass in anything like their current form) and the
transformation of the highly politicized debate about degrees of
democratization into degrees of transparency, accountability, and citizen participation
through the Open
Running through all these successes is a larger
meta-achievement: The president has repositioned the United States to be a far
more nimble, flexible, responsive and effective leader in world affairs. He is
systematically divesting the burdens that weigh us down (two major wars),
expanding the range of tools at our disposal (diplomatic, economic, developmental,
environmental. and energy -- e.g. a new energy bureau at the State Department), and reorganizing and consolidating the parts
that work (see his proposal for the Commerce Department and associated small
agencies and the reorganization taking place at State).
The administration has also worked to establish and strengthen
regional and global institutions that allow the United States to leverage its own
efforts and to cooperate much more efficiently with others. Reinforcing a norm
of global and regional responsibility for following international rules allows
the United States to broker and support coalitions of nations in which other, more
directly involved regional powers take the lead -- not only in Libya, but also
with respect to France in the Ivory Coast, Turkey in Syria, the African Union
in Somalia, and ASEAN nations in Southeast Asia. Call it the private equity
approach to American foreign policy: nimble, flexible, adaptable, and responsive
are all essential characteristics for success in the continually accelerating,
complex system we call international affairs.
Obama's biggest failure has been the management of
Israel -- not the failure to achieve a peace agreement, which is a serial
failure on the part of many presidents -- but in framing the entire issue in
such a way that once the United States had demanded an end to the settlements
and Israel refused, any subsequent U.S. accommodation of Israel looks like
capitulation to the very Muslim world that Obama set out to court. As a result,
it is still not clear that Obama will accomplish one of his own top goals: resetting
the U.S. relationship with the Muslim communities around the world.
He has also failed to establish a consistent
strategy for Pakistan, alternating between embrace and embarrassment in ways
that often make our policy as inconsistent and frustrating as the Pakistanis
are themselves. But at the moment it's hard to figure out even what our stated
policy is, much less to implement it.
A third failure is harder to discern but potentially
very damaging over the long term. In pivoting to Asia so publicly, without a
counterbalancing emphasis on the enduring and indispensable U.S. partnership
with Europe, he has created an opportunity for China to re-establish itself as
the pivot power between the U.S. and Europe and once again become the Middle
Kingdom. China and Europe are already each other's largest trading partners. Now,
individual European countries such as Britain, Denmark, and Germany are
actively courting Chinese investment and offering access to strategic minerals.
China may yet become a principal banker for the eurozone (which is unlikely to
give China direct leverage over European leaders any more than Chinese holdings
of U.S. debt gives them leverage over us, but could open the door further to economic
and even political relationships that could complicate U.S. diplomacy). It
would have been far better to have pivoted toward Asia from a position of
trans-Atlantic strength, deepening and intensifying ties across multiple
continents throughout the Atlantic Basin.
Finally, for all of Obama's success using drones,
the ultimate light, nimble and adaptable weapon, many of the precedents the United
States setting with drone attacks will come back to haunt us. Now is the time
to begin to develop an international consensus around rules governing drones
and other means of individualized 21st-century warfare. Exulting in
victory over the killing of individual terrorist suspects may feel good, but
this is precisely the issue on which we need less celebration and more of the
cool, cerebral analysis that the president is known for.
Slaughter is the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and
International Affairs at Princeton University. She served as director of Policy
Planning at the U.S. State Department from 2009-2011.
Obama came out early and strong on nuclear policy, with initiatives that
worked. A new treaty cut U.S. and Russian arsenals and restored critical,
mutual inspections. Scores of nations agreed to lock up and even eliminate
uranium and plutonium that terrorists could use to build weapons. Dozens of
countries cooperated to pressure Iran and North Korea, slowing the nuclear
programs of both. All strengthened U.S. national security.
the Iranian and North Korean programs have not stopped; the materials are not
yet secured; and U.S. and Russian arsenals still number in the thousands, with
no new agreement in sight. The combination of competing crises, a resistant
bureaucracy, political opposition, and reluctant partners has slowed progress
to a crawl.
best chance to restore momentum is through
series of options the Pentagon
has prepared on nuclear policy. He could choose the more ambitious path,
cutting requirements to reduce Russia to rubble and, in so doing, save billions
by cutting obsolete nuclear programs and strengthen his arguments against new
states getting these weapons. Or he could punt, squandering his credibility,
weakening his alliances, and increasing nuclear dangers.
Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund.
short analysis of Barack Obama's successes and failures in foreign policy must
necessarily be incomplete. Is it enough to weigh his undeniable good judgment
in ordering Navy SEALS to take out Osama bin Laden against his vacillation when
faced with the Arab Spring? His willingness to face reality vis-à-vis Iran
versus his paralyzing missteps in promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?
at the heart of what must, by the standards the president set for himself, be
judged a failure, is what seems to be Obama's worst sin: The president's
foreign policy lacks a guiding set of principles. Why surge troops into
Afghanistan only to draw them down before the mission is complete? Why condemn
Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya for his crimes against his own people and remain
almost indifferent to the same crimes when committed by Bashar al-Assad in
Syria? Why knock off a dozen al Qaeda terrorists from the air, and release
another group from Guantánamo?
answer, of course, is politics. Politics matters to any sane politician; but
when politics suffers no competition from principle, the nation's foreign
policy is rudderless. It is
why our allies mistrust us, our adversaries underestimate us, and why we no
longer seek to shape a better world, but instead to retreat from it.
Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Aaron David Miller:
about learning," Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang in one of their better songs. Barack
Obama has sure learned a lot of about foreign policy over the last 3 years, and
nowhere more so than the Middle East.
convinced that antipathy toward his predecessor and his own powerful persona
would position him well to transform the trajectory of the nation's foreign
policy, he quickly learned the limits of engagement and the challenges of the
cruel and unforgiving world he inherited.
in many ways Obama has morphed into a less reckless and certainly less
ideological version of Bush 43 in the final years of his presidency: surging in
Afghanistan, toughening policy toward Iran (and Syria), whacking more bad guys
with predator drones in his first year than his predecessor did in his first
term, and keeping the Guantánamo prison open.
first president to inherit a shooting war in 40 years, Obama actually inherited
two: He has been a wartime president from the get-go, and, like Woodrow Wilson,
is the only other sitting American president with a war and a Nobel Peace Prize,
however unearned. One reason the Republicans now have such a hard time
attacking him on foreign policy is that the public knows his record on national
security has been tough and effective enough.
has been competent on foreign policy, with no spectacular achievements (save
killing Osama) nor any galactic failures. And he's stayed out of trouble (see:
his light-footprint Libya intervention). Obama has wisely gotten out of Iraq
and unwisely gotten deeper into another quagmire in Afghanistan, where victory
will sadly be determined not by whether we can win, but by when can we leave.
On Iran, he deserves credit for toughening sanctions, but in the cruelest of
twists, may still end up being the American president on whose watch Iran gets
the bomb. His policy toward the Arab-Israeli issue is marked by more enthusiasm
than clear-headed thinking, and it shows.
balance, Obama has been credible and able in foreign policy, but neither the
brilliant foreign transformer nor transactional negotiator and crisis manager he
wanted to be. He shouldn't take it personally; it's a cruel world
Aaron David Miller is public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published by Random House in 2012.
Ted Galen Carpenter:
President Obama has amassed a decidedly mixed
record on foreign policy. He can boast of several worthwhile achievements
during his first 3 years. He fulfilled the commitment to withdraw all U.S.
forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, repaired much of the damage that the
Bush administration had caused to America's relationship with the European
democracies, and put the United States -- at least rhetorically -- on the right
side of history regarding the Arab Awakening. His campaign to eliminate al
Qaeda's leadership achieved numerous successes, most notably the killing of
Osama Bin Laden. Relations with Russia, which had become quite tense
during the Bush years, modestly improved.
Unfortunately, there were also major
mistakes and disappointments. His worst blunder was the decision to expand
the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and intensify the futile
nation-building mission in that pre-industrial, tribal society. Obama's
policy toward Iran, despite an encouraging initial effort to establish a
meaningful dialogue with Tehran, has resumed the same counterproductive,
confrontational path of his predecessors. Tensions with Pakistan have risen
sharply, as have tensions in America's most important relationship, with
China. The Obama administration has also been slow to respond constructively to
the mounting drug violence next door in Mexico, continuing instead to pursue a
failed prohibitionist policy that enriches the drug cartels.
Finally, Obama has shown little inclination to
adjust the overall U.S. security strategy to reflect America's increasingly
precarious financial position. The president seems as willing as his
predecessors to tolerate -- indeed, encourage -- U.S. allies to free-ride on
Washington's security efforts. Even more disappointing, there has been
little apparent recognition that U.S. power is limited and that there is an
urgent need to set priorities and prune less essential commitments. That is perhaps the biggest failure of Obama's foreign policy thus far.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs.
Barack Obama seeks reelection, he will likely tout the country's
counterterrorism successes under his watch and, in a sop to his base, his
ending of the war in Iraq and his efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
Although voters in 2012 will be focused primarily on the state of the economy,
they should consider who is best suited to defend the country and advance
America's interests as commander chief when choosing whether to reelect Obama
or bring in a new president.
Obama administration does have achievements to point to in the war against al
Qaeda and affiliated groups -- the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy
SEALs chief among them. But the war on terror must remain a focus for the next
president, whoever it is. Obama, by deemphasizing the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan in favor of deniable covert efforts, has put the country at risk of
being drawn back into both theaters because of his unwillingness to finish the
job begun by his predecessor.
too is the situation with rogue regimes that threaten America and its allies. The
West's confrontation with Iran is nearing a critical juncture as Iran
approaches a nuclear weapons capability. Syria, Iran's closest ally, is wracked
by what many observers now describe as a civil war. The broader Middle East is
in turmoil in the wake of last year's momentous developments. North Korea, under the new leadership of Kim
Jong Un, still challenges the stability of East Asia.
rising and resurgent powers such as China and Russia continue to undermine
American interests. Obama has rightfully begun to devote more American
diplomatic and military attention to Asia to deal with China's rise, but has
pursued a wrongheaded "reset" policy with Russia that does not reflect the true
nature of the Russian government, now facing its own popular uprising. On each
of these issues, the Obama administration has refused to take assertive action,
instead managing on the margins.
his first three years in office, Obama has made several correct tactical
decisions, but he seems to lack an appreciation of America's unique role in the
world and a coherent vision for the use of U.S. power and influence. What the
country needs from its next president is a leader who can shape world events
rather than be shaped by them. There is little to indicate that this is Barack
Obama's interest or aptitude.
Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Barack Obama's list of
achievements on foreign policy and national security is long, but also diffuse.
Many are good starts on works in progress. The misses, while smaller, are
specific and painful.
1. Winding down the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
2. Making counterterrorism quieter and more successful -- decimating
al Qaeda central, including Osama bin Laden.
3. Activating the G-20 and using it to keep the world economy out of
recession in 2009.
4. Resetting relations with Russia --even as we fight in public,
cooperation continues on Afghanistan overflights, nuclear arms control and
disarmament, and getting Russia into the WTO.
5. Steadying relations with Asia -- not just the much-ballyhooed
"pivot" but specifically building a new confidence among our core Asian allies
-- Australia, Japan, South Korea -- while managing a very challenging period
with China and making innovative moves in Burma and economic policy.
6. Moving U.S. military strategy and funding into the post-post-9/11
era with a considered strategic refocusing, a reconsideration of the role and
scope of U.S. nuclear and ground forces, while keeping our promises to
veterans, funding and defending the New GI bill, and undertaking the most
significant Veterans' Administration reforms in a generation.
7. Rebuilding U.S. multilateral credibility, at the United Nations
8. South Sudanese independence, which went off relatively peacefully
in no small part due to Obama and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice's intervention at
the U.N. last fall.
9. Infusing U.S. human rights policy with new credibility on
responding to mass atrocities, LGBT issues, women in conflict; using U.S.
activism in the U.N. Human Rights Council to improve its effectiveness
10. Keeping the United
States relevant to the Arab Spring. By choosing to ease out Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak, play a key enabling role in the Libya intervention, and work
hard if not so successfully behind the scenes in Bahrain and Yemen, Washington
kept itself relevant to the conversation in a changing Arab world -- no small
achievement, despite how far short it falls of hopes both there and here.
durable legal architecture for counterterrorism. Few in or out of the administration
foresaw the ferocity of opposition to closing the Guantánamo Bay prison or to civilian
trials for terror suspects. In response, the administration decided not to
expend political capital to finish cleaning up its inherited mess, or to
release advisory opinions and decision-making processes on drones, targeted
killings, and other features of the new counterterrorism approach. However
politically sensible these choices in the short run, they create both legal and
political vacuums that have allowed its opponents to put even torture back on
the table -- and may open the door for actions by future administrations that
we will all live to regret.
East peace. Nothing Obama did in 2009 and 2010 could have made Benjamin Netanyahu
or Mahmoud Abbas a different politician, but the United States did not have to
wind up in quite as deep a hole as we now find ourselves.
rebalancing. The time legions of good people took to write new diplomacy and
development policies, and staff up USAID, absorbed the moment where significant
resource and issue transfers to the civilian agencies were financially
possible. Sure, this is a boring bureaucratic issue, but, in a world dominated
by economic power, also a vital one.
of U.S. strength. As with Guantánamo, Congress must bear the lion's share of
the blame for last summer's embarrassing debt-ceiling posturing and the
even-more embarrassing failure of the "super-committee" set up to find budget
cuts palatable to both sides of the aisle. But given the black eye the fracas
(not to mention the too-small stimulus and its too-small results) has given to
confidence in U.S. leadership abroad as well as at home, the administration
must share the blame.
The Jury Is
North Korea, and nonproliferation writ large. Can the combination of pressure
now and promised inducements later pay off in peacefully moving either Iran or
North Korea off the nuclear track? Can a second-term president with a solidly
conservative Congress make good on the expansive promise of his 2009
global economy. The 2009 activism was major -- but can a second-term Obama
begin to enunciate a vision for globalization after the crash, and muster
domestic support for U.S. leadership in it?
change. Both international and domestic processes are in sore need of a new
spark -- can this administration provide it, or respond productively if someone
Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network.
Obama's achievements and setbacks can be roughly understood as ones of means
and ends, respectively. When it comes to pursuit of his foreign-policy aims, he
has proven himself a far shrewder and more efficient technocratic manager than
his predecessor. He has used diplomacy and covert sabotage to effectively
isolate Iran, managed alliances to overthrow Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi,
executed ruthless attacks to weaken al Qaeda, consolidated the power to wage
wars and to detain and kill without congressional (or judicial) interference,
strengthened ties with key allies in the Middle East (including Israel), and
has generally been much smarter and more subtle than George W. Bush about using
American power against the nation's perceived enemies and on behalf of its
the goals to which that shrewdness has been applied have been extremely
ill-advised. A core promise of the Obama presidency -- to improve America's
standing in the world -- has been thwarted, as the nation is now viewed as
unfavorably in the Muslim world, if not more so, as it was during the
Bush years. Obama's steadfast support for Arab dictators, his ongoing
subservience to the Israeli government, and his penchant for violence,
aggression, and civilian slaughter in that region are the culprits. The war in
Afghanistan, which he escalated, remains a disaster. Serious tensions with
Pakistan -- which even Bush was smart enough to avoid -- are more dangerous than
ever; along with the collapse of any prospects for an Israeli/Palestinian peace
agreement, that is probably his worst foreign-policy failure. One
achievement commonly credited to Obama -- the ending of the Iraq War -- was
actually negotiated by Bush and forced on Obama by
his failure to convince the Iraqis to let U.S. forces remain, and thus does not
belong in the success category. In sum, Obama has deftly and intelligently
pursued ignominious and ignoble foreign-policy goals.
Glenn Greenwald is a contributing writer at
Salon.com and author of three New York Times bestselling books.
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