Everyone, it seems, has been weighing in of late with a “report card” on President Obama’s management of foreign affairs. So I decided to overcome my initial reluctance and offer my own assessment too.
Why the initial reluctance? First (and speaking as a journalism professor for this semester at Princeton University) because I find the idea of mid-term grading a pointless exercise. Trying to assign a grade to, or even assess, a president’s foreign policy mid-way through a second term has an artificial feel, sort of like the fake “100 days” stories that ask; what has been accomplished in the first hundred days?
Also, and more to the point, it’s almost impossible to assess a president’s overall foreign policy while they are still in office and still implementing it. Conservatives love to repeat the mantra that Ronald Reagan single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall and toppled Communism in Europe, but they conveniently leave out that the Wall actually came down in 1989 after Reagan had left office, and the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, well into George H.W. Bush’s term.
Which is to say; who knows now what fruit the Obama foreign policy of today might bear once Obama himself has left the scene and handed off the White House to his successor, whoever she may be?
But with those caveats in place, let me proceed with my own broad assessment of Obama’s approach, and what I think he’s done right — and excuse me for skipping the letter grading part.
Columnists on the right seem to be hyperventilating about Obama’s supposed weakness in foreign affairs. “Stinks of failure,” proclaimed Ross Douthat. “Obama has psychologically demobilized the country,” proclaimed Charles Krauthammer. To this crowd, Obama has shown weakness because he pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, because he doesn’t immediately bomb Iran, because he didn’t bomb Syria and send more arms to Syrian rebels after setting a “red line” on chemical weapons use, and because he could not somehow deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from annexing the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine.
To the Intervene Everywhere, All The Time crowd, let me offer this; I think Obama has handled these complicated issues just about right, refusing to get pushed by the neoconservatives’ white-hot rhetoric into deploying American military muscle in places where we either have no definable national interests (other than a vague idea of “looking strong”), and where we cannot in any event predictably shape the outcome.
The Obama haters also like to say that supposed American “weakness” has emboldened China and made China’s regional neighbors concerned about a U.S. retreat. To me, as a China watcher, that charge is the most nonsensical of all. First, China is being more aggressive about its maritime territorial claims because China is now a wealthy and more confident country, with longstanding historical grievances and a growing sense of its own power — and none of that has anything to do with what the occupant of the White House says about Crimea or Syria.
And, second, China’s aggressiveness has only made America’s position in East Asia stronger, not weaker. More countries now want to be under the American security shield — think Vietnam, with whom we fought a long and bitter war, now openly asking for American military backing against a resurgent China. China’s has only one strategic ally in East Asia — North Korea, which is a deadly, oddball hereditary dictatorship. So China’s belligerent approach is not exactly winning it any friends in its region. (See my previous post on the Asian Pivot for more).
Obama is regularly chided by the chorus of usual critics for being cautious in foreign policy. But I say caution is precisely what we need right now, after eight years of cowboy tough talk damaged America’s standing all across the globe, and dragged us into the Iraq mess.
By resisting more foreign entanglements — after 13 years of war in Afghanistan and a decade in a senseless war in Iraq — Obama stands certainly where I do, and where I also believe the vast majority of the country stands too. Don’t believe that? Then look at how much traction Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is getting on the right, much to the horror of the neocon crowd, for his extreme non-interventionist foreign policy stands.
Ahhh, but I know some of you are saying; what about Iran? Isn’t keeping a nuclear bomb out of the hands of the ayatollahs a vital American national security interest? Couldn’t such a weapon be turned against Israel, our ally in the Middle East? Certainly, is the answer. And isn’t bringing Iran to the negotiating table a better solution for now than some indiscriminate bombing campaign that would likely enflame Middle Eastern Shiites, embolden Iran’s anti-American hardliners, and probably miss the mark, since the Iranian facilities are dispersed, hidden underground and protected? A recent New York Times piece about how Rand Paul’s foreign policy is unnerving Republican hawks caught my eye for this wonderful absurdity in the very lead anecdote. At a meeting last fall of Republican policy big wigs, former Senator Phil Gramm asked Paul: “Let’s say you knew for certain that by May 1 of next year that Iran would have generated enough highly refined uranium to build a bomb. Would you support attacking?”
According to the article, Paul demurred, saying he would not answer a hypothetical question. A better answer may have been; “What? Knew for certain? And exactly where would this certainty come from? The intelligence community, perhaps? The same intelligence community that told us Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction was a — direct quote — slam dunk? You want me to support an attack on a very large and important Muslim country that may or may not be close to building a bomb — an attack with unknown consequences for the region and the world — because we think we know things for certain because our track record on these things is so great? Give me a break.”
Former top U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill, who served as the nuclear negotiator with North Korea and the American ambassador to Iraq, recently gave an insightful talk at Princeton’s Wilson School, and he was asked about Iraq. He expressed the sentiment — with which I strongly agree — that the neocons who goosed up the intelligence reports about Saddam’s weapons and led us into the disastrous Iraq war, and then tried to shift the blame to faulty intelligence, are, in Hill’s words, “contemptible.” As for blaming the analysts for the war that was launched inside the White House, he said; “Words cannot describe the contempt with which I hold those people.”
Those very same hawks and neocons are now out on the speaking circuit, on Fox News, and writing newspaper columns, all decrying the Obama administration’s supposedly “weak” foreign policy and demanding new interventions. As Hill said at Princeton; “I wish at the very least they would shut up.”
Great advice. Too bad the Intervene Everywhere neocon crowd won’t shut up long enough to heed it.