Three years ago, I wrote a piece for The American Interest grading President Barack Obama’s foreign policy performance after one year. I gave him a poor mark as I believed then that in assessing Obama, only Iran mattered and not much constructive had happened on that track. Stanford University realist and former George W. Bush administration State Department Policy Planning Director Stephen Krasner wrote much the same.
Today, I feel differently about Iran and Obama.
When he entered office, Afghanistan and the collapsing global economy were the challenges of the day. There were a lot of other messes out there as well — including what looked like a collision setting with Russia over Georgia and the deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe; a tumultuous Iraq; a complicated dance with China; and an eroding global commitment to keeping WMD and nuclear materials from spreading. The successful topping of Saddam Hussein after a US invasion removed Iran’s most serious national security challenge and awoke in the Islamic Republic pretensions of regional hegemonic dominance, a return to empire Persian style. Israel had just flexed its military hardware muscle after border skirmishes — attacking both Gaza and Southern Lebanon.
When he got the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania, Obama and his national security team had a lot on their foreign policy plate.
Any President, weighing the contending challenges both domestic and international competing for his time and attention, must make priorities, setting some things aside, delegating portfolios, personally delving into others.
I don’t think Obama started out that well as a national security President. Intoxicated perhaps by the energy that comes from being elected to the most powerful position in the world, Obama tilted towards the “I’m my own best national security adviser” part of his personality, self-righteous in the belief that he knew better than others.
One example early on was that Obama failed to heed the counsel of former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski who tried to get him to lay out the broad outlines of his vision for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine before the Israel elections in February 2009. They argued that Obama needed to show leadership, to ‘make the weather’, and have the political order in Israel respond to him. Instead Obama became the one who reacted after the fact to Israel’s political currents — ultimately outmaneuvered and shoved around by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the toxic issue of Israeli settlement expansion.
Obama bifurcated his Middle East peace effort appointing two competing helmsman wrestling for control of the portfolio in the appointment of George Mitchell as Envoy stationed at the Department of State and Dennis Ross on the National Security Council staff at the White House. Without going through the painful detail here, Obama inflicted loss on himself with miserable management of one of the challenges that he considered solving a vital U.S. national security objective.
Similarly, Obama made Afghanistan worse — allowing some generals to pull him more deeply into a quagmire, committing more US military lives (and those of allies) and dollars into a situation that would require a level of adoption of the Afghan state by America that would have been extreme even for the most ardent of America’s neoconservatives, who ought better to be titled neocolonialists.
Obama started badly — but then he has corrected course, and done so smartly.
After getting his sea legs, Obama realized that America’s stock of power was being eroded in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and that this appearance of military over-reach and exhaustion was compelling allies to doubt American resolve and also emboldening rivals.
Thus, Obama and his team, particularly under the direction of his second NSC Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, began to focus on shrinking the footprint of US vulnerabilities and moving attention and resources to strategies that would yield large benefits to the country.
In other words, with Joe Biden leading the ‘Iraq political stabilization effort’, the Obama administration was able to maneuver Iraq’s internal dealmaking to a point where American forces could be extracted and that chapter closed. After over-investing in Afghanistan, a black hole into which resources and lives were poured, Obama made the decision to target a departure date, to punctuate the end of what has been a costly and frustrating conflict.
Obama, at least for the time being, has taken his chips off the table on Israel-Palestine peace and diminished the handles that Benjamin Netanyahu has to manipulate him. Obama has shown the world that he has a more sensible strategy on Iran that the pugnacious Israel Prime Minister and is pushing a combination of both sanctions and diplomacy. Iran is standing by, watching the US enhancing its diplomatic position and power, as well as its military tool kit with withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Iran sees US power on the rise — rather than paralyzed in the military and political quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq. And thus it is not surprising that the New York Times‘ Helene Cooper and Mark Lander have reported that after the election, there will be a shift to bilateral US-Iran talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama has, for the most part, responded to the Arab Spring cautiously, refusing to allow the liberal interventionist or neoconservative ideology to trip America into yet another costly war. America’s intervention in Libya was relatively successful and relatively inexpensive in terms of lives and dollars — though the costs may not be fully in. We don’t know what will come next in Libya, and the US, France, and England as well as the UAE, Qatar and Italy will bear some responsibility for outcomes there. But more importantly, regimes will be less likely in the future to forgo the nuclear weapons programs they are considering as shields to protect themselves from the kind of assaults the US helped unleash against Moammar Qaddafi.
Obama has managed the China portfolio well — particularly after Tom Donilon took over the portfolio from others inside the administration after a ‘reset’ meeting in September 2010. And yes, Obama killed bin Laden; has taken down others in the global al Qaeda terror network; and deployed Navy SEALS to nail pirates.
Barack Obama has not turned out to be the kind of President who feels comfortable making the kind of strategic leaps that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger engineered — but he does have a good sense of what the stock of American power can afford. He knows what enhances America’s mystique as a super power and what undermines American credibility.
I do take serious exception to President Obama’s over-reliance on drones and the disregard for international law in their deployment. I think Obama doesn’t fully understand that the blowback caused by his drone policy will continue to hit America and its allies for a generation.
It’s not a perfect picture — but there is a real effort on Obama’s part to move America into to the black in foreign policy and out of the crusades that undermined America’s position of respect in the world.
Mitt Romney’s foreign policy outlook seems inchoate. I’ve listened carefully to the speeches he gave at the Citadel and Virginia Military Institute as well as to his comments on foreign policy during the GOP Convention and debates. There is not much of a design, not much vision. I’ve tried to compare a Romney and Obama 2nd term approach to the Middle East in this Chatham House paper and didn’t have that much to work with. I gave Romney as much credit as I could and tried to assume coherence in his views.
All that said, it’s clear that Obama — both the good and bad dimensions — has more of a coherent plan for the US and leveraging its power in the world than Mitt Romney does.
That then makes the strategic choice at the ballot box easy today.
— Steve Clemons