Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is co-author of the forthcoming book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
As the GOP primary season continues, criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy have become increasingly intense. One recent strand of attack, magnified of late by the Afghanistan Quran burning incident, is his supposed inclination to apologize too often for America. Others claim he is weak or irresolute. Of course, the ongoing crises with Iran and Syria remind everyone of the stakes involved in current world affairs and crises.
I hope that the new book on Obama’s foreign policy by Martin Indyk, Ken Lieberthal, and myself can contribute constructively to this debate. It is entitled Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy after the famous Martin Luther King quote that Obama likes and uses so much - to the effect that history’s arc is long but that it also bends in the direction of justice. This title conjures up the high hopes Obama conveyed to the world back in the heady days of 2007 and 2008 and early 2009, and surely held himself at some level, about what his presidency could accomplish.
Alas, it has been difficult to bend history for this president, like so many others before him. On the big foreign policy subjects where Obama had transformative aspirations - repairing relations with the Islamic world, moving towards a nuclear-weapons-free planet, restructuring the architecture and membership of institutions like the United Nations, reducing global poverty, mitigating climate change - Obama’s efforts have been largely frustrated.
He has not fundamentally failed, in the sense that these intractable issues have been around a long time and will remain around for him and his successors to go after again in the future. And on some, he’s made modest progress. But on balance, for these matters, his grade has to be "incomplete" at best.
That said, a fuller review of this president’s overall track record, as we attempt in the book, leads to the conclusion that he has been a pragmatic, disciplined, and moderately successful president on many core matters of war and peace, and on the crucial subject of preventing a global economic meltdown during his first year in office as well. Specifically:
- As evidenced, for example, in the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has been strong, pragmatic, and nonideological - not an apologist for the country, not weak, and not naïve.
- His policies towards al Qaeda embody that most clearly, not only due to the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki but due to the broader decimation of much of al Qaeda’s top leadership.
- He has also toughened his initial approach toward the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. After offering to reach out his hand should they unclench their fists in his inaugural address, by the summer of 2009 he had concluded in both cases that such efforts were pointless and pivoted to much tougher approaches. Having tried and failed to improve relations, he was well positioned to convince other countries to tighten sanctions thereafter - arguably becoming more effective than George W. Bush in pursuing much of the core Bush agenda. Of course, sanctions are not an end in themselves, and Obama has not been any more successful than previous presidents in rolling back either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs.
- Overall, Obama has done best on the major foreign policy problems: the “Russia reset” policy; progress towards a realistic and balanced partnership with China; further improvement in relations and India (building on the work of Clinton and Bush); and improving relations with most major allies. His nuclear nonproliferation record and defense records are good so far as well (though the specter of sequestration hangs over defense budget, and indeed budgetary and economic policy more generally).
- Obama been generally prudent with the Arab awakenings including in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya - not because he wished to “lead from behind” but because he sought to work with coalitions and let others step up where American vital interests were less engaged. Clearly, Syria remains a work in progress.
- There have been major mistakes, most notably in his handling of the Arab-Israeli peace process. His efforts to lead on climate change via adoption of cap-and-trade legislation at home failed abjectly. While his Afghanistan policy was well thought through, execution has been marred by inconsistent approaches by members of the Obama team.
- And while the financial crisis of 2008/2009 was managed competently, the American economy is still in such a perilous place that repairing it has become priority #1 for the president. Importantly, the United States cannot sustain a role of global leader without shoring up its economic foundations. The world still very much wonders if it can accomplish that. On matters such as deficit reduction, Obama has not yet been successful. Relatedly, partisan acrimony has not been mitigated on his watch as he had hoped.
This is on balance a better foreign policy record than most presidents have attained at their three-year marks. Generally speaking, it represents the triumph of pragmatism over ideology and reflects a reluctant realism that this president has come to personify in office.
Still, one senses that it is not what Obama exactly expected out of his time in office, and that it leaves him feeling unsatisfied in many ways. Because of the enduring economic crisis, it also leaves the country weaker in some ways, though the cause here has hardly been entirely Obama’s doing.
The 2012 presidential campaign thus has much to consider. Many key issues remain in flux and the best U.S. policy options to address them remain unclear or in need of improvement. One hopes the campaign will unfold on such terrain and not dwell on the canards that somehow this president has been weak or apologetic or incompetent in his foreign policy.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.