Monday, March 03, 2014
Obama seems very good at foreign policy
Author: Noah Smith
I might as well talk about something I don't know that much about, because...I can! Because it's MY blog, suckaz! BUAHAHAH *pause to get up after falling over backward in my chair*
Anyway, on Twitter, I suggested that Barack Obama is the best foreign-policy president since Nixon, and therefore we should trust his instincts on Ukraine, at least for a little while. But why do I think Obama is so good at foreign policy (and why do I think Nixon was so good, for that matter)? Well, like I said, I am not any kind of expert on the topic. And since Obama's term is not even finished yet, we're not actually close to knowing how good of a foreign-policy president he really is. Obviously Ukraine will be a huge test. And also, "the best" might have been hyperbole; I think George H.W. Bush is another strong contender.
But that being said, I think Obama's record so far is pretty damn impressive. Here are what I see as the highlights:
1. American prestige partially restored. The Iraq War drove global opinion of the U.S. right off a cliff. In every region, our standing plummeted. But after Obama took office, the trend reversed in Europe and in much of the rest of the world. Compare opinions of the U.S. in 2004 and 2007 to opinions in 2009 and 2013. Only in much of the Muslim world has there not been a major recovery in American prestige since Obama became president.
2. Osama bin Laden and most of al Qaeda's senior leadership killed. Now, obviously Obama did not carry out the operation himself, but his strategic choice to focus attention on al Qaeda (instead of Iraq or the Taliban) was a good one. The result is that Obama accomplished what Bush could not - the almost total destruction of the core of al Qaeda. As a result of Obama's policy, the Afghanistan war can unequivocally be called a success.
3. Iraq withdrawal. America had to withdraw from Iraq; there was nothing more to be gained by staying, and the American people knew this. Obama did it quickly and effectively. This is an obvious parallel with Nixon and Vietnam, except that Nixon carried out a "surge" before withdrawing (which the U.S. had done in Iraq under Bush), and that Nixon waged a covert war in Cambodia (much as Obama is waging a covert drone war in Afghanistan/Pakistan while slowly withdrawing from that war).
4. Gaddafi gone. When Libya began to rebel against Muammar Gaddafi, Obama could have sent in ground troops to help, miring America in another Middle Eastern war. He could have stayed out entirely, resulting in Gaddafi brutally suppressing the revolt. Instead he took the middle ground, cooperating with Europe to set up a no-fly zone, which gave the rebels the edge they needed to eventually prevail.
5. Syria. It would have been so easy to get entangled in another no-win war in Syria, but Obama wisely held back. When Syria's government used chemical weapons, Obama threatened it, a tactic that looked like it might fail for a moment...but which wildly succeeded. As a result, Syria is now dismantling much of its chemical arsenal. And as for the war itself, it looks like Hezbollah in a fight to the death against al Qaeda...is that really a fight we want to interfere with??
6. Alliance with India. America's incipient alliance ("strategic partnership", whatever) seems to me to be George W. Bush's single biggest foreign policy achievement, and Bill Clinton's single biggest failure. But in any case, Obama is continuing to get close to India, the world's largest democracy and a natural U.S. ally situated in a critical region of the world.
7. Warming relations with Iran. Only Nixon could go to China; the resulting flip of that mega-nation to a U.S. quasi-ally in the Cold War almost certainly hastened our victory. If Obama can follow up on the detente with Iran that began with the recent nuclear deal, it will defang one of America's most implacable enemies. Not quite a Nixon/China moment, but a solid win, and it also showed conclusively that American foreign policy is not in the pocket of the "Israel lobby" (an accusation I never believed, but many did believe).
8. Pivot to Asia. During the Bush administration, many Southeast Asian countries warned that the U.S. was ignoring the region. But with the "pivot to Asia", Obama is rectifying that oversight. I'm not sure how many dividends the policy has paid yet, but the partial opening of Myanmar, and its repositioning from a solid Chinese ally to a more neutral stance, seems like a very optimistic sign.
These are what I see as Obama's successes, but equally importantly, I don't really see any big missteps or failures. There has been a ton of criticism of the drone strikes in Pakistan, but Obama has scaled them back gradually, and so far there have not been any noticeable bad consequences there. There is the argument that Obama has been too soft on Russia, and I guess we're about to see whether that's true.
And keep in mind that all of this is against a backdrop of a steep decline in America's military and economic power relative to our main rival. China is still riding a tsunami of "catch-up growth", while we're hobbled by the aftermath of the Great Recession and the Iraq War. There is just no way the U.S. could have remained a hyperpower this decade, but thanks to adroit maneuvering, we're still getting most of what we want in the world.
I'd say that qualifies Obama as a pretty solid foreign-policy success...so far. The next few days could prove me very, very wrong about that. We'll see.
Posted at 7:40 PM