Yesterday I had a post taking apart putative GOP foreign policy heavyweight Marco Rubio’s critique of President Obama’s action in this domain, and notably in the Middle East. So now I come across an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, by the journal’s editor Gideon Rose, on Obama’s foreign policy record, which, Rose argues, is very largely positive.
The piece begins with the inevitable sports metaphor
How should one judge a president’s handling of foreign policy? Some focus on what happens in a few lonely moments of crisis, casting the nation’s leader as Horatius at the bridge or Casey at the bat. But a better analogy would be a member of a relay team or a middle relief pitcher: somebody who takes over from a predecessor, does a hard job for a while, and then passes things on to the next guy.
In baseball, there are special statistics used to judge such players, the hold and the blown save, which essentially tally whether the pitcher’s team keeps or loses the lead while he’s in the game. Looked at in such a light, Barack Obama has done pretty well. Having inherited two wars and a global economic crisis from the George W. Bush administration—the foreign policy equivalent of runners on base with no outs—Obama has extricated the country from some old problems, avoided getting trapped in some new ones, and made some solid pickups on the side.
There have been errors, wild pitches, and lost opportunities. But like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office, ones that the next administration can build on to improve things further. Given how many administrations fail even that limited test, such an accomplishment is worthy of praise rather than the contempt the administration’s foreign policy often receives.
The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery. The president is variously painted as a softheaded idealist, a cold-blooded realist, or a naive incompetent. But he is actually best understood as an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament—somebody who felt that after a period of reckless overexpansion and belligerent unilateralism, the country’s long-term foreign policy goals could best be furthered by short-term retrenchment. In this, he was almost certainly correct, and with the necessary backpedaling having been accomplished, Washington can turn its attention to figuring out how to get the liberal order moving forward once again.
An “ideological liberal with a conservative temperament.” Tout à fait. I like that.
…looking at recent history, the president concluded that the region’s various domestic problems are neither easily solvable nor his to solve. After all, as the former administration official Philip Gordon has noted, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” And in Yemen, one might add, the United States relied on drone strikes and active diplomacy, and the result is a costly disaster. If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.
As for the administration’s signature diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, it exemplifies Obama’s broader approach to foreign policy. Having pledged as a candidate to be willing to talk to any country without preconditions to see if relations could be improved, once elected, Obama spent years doggedly pursuing a less conflictual relationship with Tehran. Judging that the Islamic Republic was not about to collapse, he gave a cold shoulder to the opposition Green Movement that sprang up after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. When the Iranian government rebuffed his initial efforts at reconciliation, he worked with other countries to craft a tightened net of economic and financial sanctions. And when Iran decided it did want to negotiate after all, he invested substantial effort and political capital in trying to make the talks succeed. The result was a solid arms control agreement trading sanctions relief for a decadelong pause in Iran’s quest for a bomb. No war, no appeasement, a team effort with other great powers to try to come up with a practical solution to a significant but limited problem, and the creation of conditions in which progress might be made on broader issues over time—all vintage Obama.
Listening to discussions of American national security these days, one would think the country were in truly dire straits. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” according to Senator Marco Rubio. “The world is literally about to blow up,” says Senator Lindsey Graham. Even people who are not running for the Republican presidential nomination apparently agree. In 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” In 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the threat from ISIS “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
To use a technical term, this is hogwash. The United States today may be richer, stronger, and safer than it has ever been; if not, it is certainly close to it. It has a defense budget equivalent to those of the next seven countries combined and together with its allies accounts for three-quarters of all global defense spending. It has unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a globe-spanning intelligence network. It has the world’s reserve currency, the world’s largest economy, and the highest growth rate of any major developed country. It has good demographics, manageable debt, and dynamic, innovating companies that are the envy of the world. And it is at the center of an ever-expanding liberal order that has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters
of a century.
Seriously, between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio—or any of the other GOP candidates—il n’y a pas photo, as we say in these parts.
Read all of Gideon Rose’s article here.