President Barack Obama heads into the home stretch of the 2012 campaign in an unusual situation for a Democrat. On matters of foreign policy and defense, Obama enjoys considerably more public confidence than his Republican challenger. For decades, the public has seen Republican presidential candidates as better qualified to handle matters of national security. But Obama has bucked the trend and effectively cornered the market when it comes to fulfilling the role of commander-in-chief and conducting U.S. statecraft.
Our colleague and sparring partner Peter Feaver, in rebutting our recent critique of Mitt Romney's foreign policy, also offers a take-down of Obama's diplomacy. While Feaver claims to give Obama credit as due, it is at best stingy, couched, and caveated credit. Sure, he says, Obama did the right thing by orchestrating a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan -- but he then marred that decision by announcing an "arbitrary" timeline for withdrawal. Feaver gives Obama plaudits for unprecedented sanctions and other coercive measures against Iran -- but then says the White House just "went along with the British and French and the U.S. Congress," who really deserve the credit for the initiatives.
Feaver also claims that whenever the White House has gotten it right, it has done so by "following in the path of Obama's Republican predecessor." We take issue with this characterization. Obama's statecraft depends in important ways on its clear departure from the policies of George W. Bush. Nonetheless, it's encouraging that a leading Republican voice on foreign policy finds merit in Obama's foreign policy and asserts that, at least in some respects, it is "fully consistent" with what a Republican successor would do. If Feaver wants to credit Republicans for some of the policies Obama is pursuing, so be it; bipartisanship is very hard to come by these days and should be grasped whenever available.
We accept that Obama's foreign policy has had its shortcomings. We're both on the record, for example, expressing misgivings about some aspects of his approach to Afghanistan. But our net assessment is a very positive one. Obama has offered a brand of U.S. statecraft far more effective than what Bush had to offer, or what Romney promises.
Obama has enjoyed considerable success on three main fronts: managing the Bush legacy, renewing multilateral engagement, and affirmatively forging a long-term strategy geared to the emerging global agenda of the 21st century.
Managing the Bush Legacy: With draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with a deepening financial crisis, Bush handed Obama more than a full plate. The Iraq war was a huge strategic blunder that threatened to empower Iran and ignite a sectarian divide throughout the region. Nonetheless, Obama succeeded in implementing a responsible U.S. withdrawal, leaving behind a reasonably stable country. Iraq is not out of the woods, but it is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, in response to the growing threat from Iran, Obama has ramped up sanctions, increased the U.S. naval presence in the region, beefed up missile-defense capabilities, and tightened military ties with allies in the Persian Gulf. Iran is isolated in its own neighborhood and would face a powerful military coalition should it seek to stir up trouble in the Gulf.
As for Afghanistan, Obama sent an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers to finish dismantling al Qaeda, further degrade the Taliban, and help create conducive conditions for the Afghan government and its security forces to mature. He also increased the use of drone strikes on militants in Pakistan who have been aiding and abetting insurgents in Afghanistan. As Obama sticks to his scheduled drawdown of U.S. troops, the capacities of the Afghan government and its security forces have fallen short of expectations, and the Taliban have proved more resilient than expected. But coalition forces have accomplished their main objective -- effectively eradicating al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is past time to begin handing off increasing responsibility for the country to the Afghan people themselves.
On counterterrorism more broadly, Obama wisely toned down talk of a global war on terrorism and shrewdly focused on going after al Qaeda, taking out terrorist leaders (yes, including Osama bin Laden, but numerous others as well), and taking on al Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. He did not close Guantanamo, nor did he completely overhaul the legal procedures for handling detainees. As Feaver correctly points out, presidents often do find more areas of continuity than they expect. But these continuities do not compromise the fundamental and effective nature of the broader shifts in counterterrorism strategy orchestrated during Obama's watch.