A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy. FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq. In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.
In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history. That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President. That is misguided and hypocritical.
The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:
1. Obama is not actively using American power. Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act. Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it. This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.
2. Obama is siding with the wrong people. In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition. Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism. Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions. They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.
3. Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness. Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration. While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region. Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault. The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.
The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will. That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values. The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly. Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.
Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd. Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych. Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine. He knows the US and EU have no interest in war. Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed. Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.
It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak. When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators. That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.
So the critics have a very weak case against the President. They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling. Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power. Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics. The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making. The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism. The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.
If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.
Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound. Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working. The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War. Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.
So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.” *shrug*