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Last chance! On Monday, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off on foreign policy. It will be the final debate and President Obama's last major opportunity to convince American voters to give him four more years.
He may not have an easy time of it. In 2008, Obama's principled positions on the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and interrogation policy helped motivate the Democratic base and send him to the White House with a decisive victory. But that was then. Now, Obama's approval ratings have plummeted, both domestically and internationally. For most of his first term, they have been well below the historical average for first-term presidents.
Despite some successes large and small, Obama's foreign policy has disappointed many who initially supported him. The Middle East initiatives heralded in his 2009 Cairo speech fizzled or never got started at all, and the Middle East today is more volatile than ever. The administration's response to the escalating violence in Syria has consisted mostly of anxious thumb-twiddling. The Israelis and the Palestinians are both furious at us. In Afghanistan, Obama lost faith in his own strategy: he never fought to fully resource it, and now we're searching for a way to leave without condemning the Afghans to endless civil war. In Pakistan, years of throwing money in the military's direction have bought little cooperation and less love.
The Russians want to reset the reset, neither the Chinese nor anyone else can figure out what, if anything, the "pivot to Asia" really means, and Latin America and Africa continue to be mostly ignored, along with global issues such as climate change. Meanwhile, the administration's expanding drone campaign suggests a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings -- we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.
Could Obama have done better?
In foreign policy as in life, stuff happens -- including bad stuff no one could have predicted. Nonetheless, to a significant extent, President Obama is the author of his own lackluster foreign policy. He was a visionary candidate, but as president, he has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture -- one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks. His national security staff is squabbling and demoralized, and though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.
It doesn't have to be this way. If Obama wants to fix his broken foreign policy machine, he can do it -- but conversations with numerous insiders, as well as my own government experiences, suggest that he needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.
Not sexy, I know. But just as a start-up company needs more than an entrepreneurial founder with a couple of good ideas and a nifty PowerPoint presentation, the United States needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.