Gas prices and bad news from Afghanistan aside, the presidential gods seem to be looking more favorably on Barack Obama these days. Not only are job numbers rising, but as the campaign debates have revealed, the U.S. president's Republican opponents are having a hard time finding a sweet spot on which to attack his foreign policy. And here's why.
Almost four years in, Obama's approach to the world might seem like the poster child for dashed hopes, deflated dreams, and unrealized expectations. Yet the president's foreign policy also reflects a pretty impressive tale of competence in the rough and tumble world in which America now operates.
Despite some tactical blunders and far too much Panglossian rhetoric early on, Obama has gotten the big issues just about right, and like the unnamed English general who claimed that some of his greatest victories were the battles he never fought, Obama has managed to stay out of trouble too.
With the exception of killing Osama bin Laden, the president has had no spectacular victories -- but no spectacular failures either. Indeed, on balance, he has crafted a policy suited to his times and to American interests. Not too cold, not too hot on key issues, Obama has defined a mix of "just right" policies that would make Goldilocks proud.
It certainly didn't start out that way. Obama has always fashioned himself a transformational political figure destined to alter the arc of America's domestic and foreign policies. He came into office with the economy as his most important priority, which meant some retrenchment with regard to expending his time and America's resources abroad.
Still, as an internationalist by temperament and experience, Obama was a man of the world committed to improving America's image. Just as on the domestic side, where fixing the economy was to be accompanied by transformative social change, Obama wanted to do big things abroad.
If George W. Bush had sought to transform the world through regime change, preventive war, and the division of the world into Manichaean poles of good and evil, right and wrong, Obama set out to produce his own countertransformation -- largely through engagement, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, high-sounding rhetoric, and the symbolic power of his persona.
Either it was a very smart approach designed to substitute words for deeds at a moment when resources and political capital for an active role abroad were in short supply, or it was a naive ideal out of touch with the realities of the cruel world the president had inherited.
Within days of his inauguration, the president would announce the first of two special representatives (for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan) in what was to become an empire of envoys, and he set a high bar for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a higher one for a settlements freeze. In June 2009, he would drive the Arabs and Europeans wild with excitement and expectation with his speech in Cairo, raising their collective hopes that, finally, American policy toward the region would be fair and tough (toward Israel) and that the Arabs would finally get a hearing from a man who understood them. To America's adversaries, Iran and Syria, he seemed to offer serious engagement. And to the international community, in a 2009 speech in Prague, he offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Back on Planet Earth, Obama's foreign policy 1.0 proved long on good intentions and nice-sounding words but very short on strategy and results. It didn't last long. Within two years, the transformer-in-chief seemed to have been transformed himself: He proved unwilling to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, stepped up the drone war (over a three-year period, the president has approved at least 239 strikes, more than five times the 44 approved by his predecessor), stepped back from the settlement freeze and his fight with Israel over the peace process, toughened sanctions on Iran and kept them on Syria, and surged in Afghanistan. The president's 2.0 seemed a lot tougher and far less transformative.
That Obama took on some of the policies of a less reckless, less ideological, and much smarter version of Bush is indisputable. And the reason was pretty clear: In inheriting two wars (three, if you count the so-called global war on terror), the new president had very little room to maneuver.
Between the generals invested in a win, the Republicans waiting to pounce, and the deep commitment in American lives and treasure, not to mention the always present concept of U.S. credibility, early extrication was never an option. So Obama surged and doubled down on the good war in Afghanistan and got out of the bad one as quickly as possible in Iraq. Not much room for bold, transformative action here. Best to concentrate on fixing the economy and color between the lines.