Is Obama Really That Great of a Foreign Policy President?

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He's likely be remembered that way if re-elected, George Packer argues, but it's tough to see the evidence so far.
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Has President Obama been a good steward of foreign policy? Writing in The New Yorker, George Packer says that, if he is reelected, "he'll have a chance of being a great foreign-policy President." His case begins:

Foreign policy exactly suits Obama's strong points as a leader, which turn out not to be giving the masses a clear sense of direction and hope, but instead exercising good judgment on a case-by-case basis while thinking many steps ahead of the present moment. Often, foreign policy--which by definition is largely out of American control--is simply a matter of not doing the wrong thing, the unwise thing. On that count, I trust Obama more than any politician in my lifetime.

Despite my disagreements with some of President Obama's choices, his apparent temperament and cool-headed persona appeal to me. But, as I see it, he has failed to develop a foreign policy that thinks "many steps ahead." Launching perpetual drone strikes anywhere in the world an anti-American militant might live is an unsustainable policy, yet Obama has neither articulated an alternative method of addressing the terrorist threat nor shown any signs of transitioning away current policy. What's next? Is there a plan?

These drone strikes (especially in Pakistan and Yemen), as well as the Afghanistan War surge, the raid on Osama bin Laden, and America's apparent role in the Stuxnet virus are all examples of foreign policy decisions that had immediate benefits but longer-term costs. The same goes for the Libya operation, which has done so much to destabilize the region.

Perhaps the short-term gains that Obama has secured will be worth the drone strikes that kill innocents and spark anger, an al-Qaeda branch in Yemen that is better able to recruit, a Pakistan that's less stable after the bin Laden raid, and the norm that cyber-warfare is kosher. Or maybe not. Either way, it's difficult to see how his Middle East policy is supposed to be an example of long term thinking. (The diplomatic work he's done in the Pacific rim is a better example of longer-term thinking.)

Packer goes on to state what specifically impresses him about Obama's foreign policy:


Think about how much Obama has done well that could have gone very badly. He withdrew from Iraq after eight years of war in a way that left the U.S. with almost no influence--but he could have tried to force matters with the Iraqis and left behind far more bitterness. He tried to reverse the erosion that he inherited in Afghanistan, and he had to try, but once that failed he prevented his military from trapping him into an indefinite ground war and outlined a plan for withdrawal (which will be better for America than it will for Afghanistan). In Libya, the grounds for intervention were initially misleading, and the result will not be a happy place, but the NATO campaign went a lot better than skeptics expected, and Libya without Qaddafi is a better thing for Libyans and the rest of the world. On Syria, the Administration was too slow in isolating Assad, but no one has made a case for intervention that has a plausibly good outcome

This is the sort of evaluation that only looks impressive if we grade on a George W. Bush curve. Obama has done nothing nearly as catastrophic as the invasion of Iraq. And it's true that various matters he's grappled with could've gone worse. But in Iraq, Obama did in fact try to negotiate a longer-term U.S. presence in the country. Rebuffed by the Iraqi leadership, he exited on the time-frame established by his predecessor. That was the right decision. It was more commonsensical than far-sighted.

As for Afghanistan, Packer himself says Obama's surge of troops there failed. As Packer sees it, this also had to be done anyway. I am not sure why a president deserves credit for implementing a failed policy that he was allegedly compelled to implement. And as noted, the aftermath of the Libya campaign -- which is still unfolding -- makes it uncertain that the Libyan people or their neighbors will wind up better off due to NATO intervention. Without knowing what will happen in Libya, or nearby Mali, or elsewhere in North Africa, even over the next 6 months, how can Packer argue that the NATO campaign made everyone better off?

Packer continues, "On terrorism, he's devastated the top ranks of Al Qaeda, and if legally dubious drone attacks are his means for doing so--well, life and foreign policy are full of unpleasant trade-offs, and this is one I'm willing to take." But the ranks of the terrorist organization keep being replenished as new recruits take up arms, reacting in part to the bombardment of their homelands by U.S. forces. Perhaps the drone strikes will ultimately make us safer. You never can tell. But Packer is guessing, and many people, including some Obama administration advisers, worry that our drone policy creates more terrorists than it kills. Other observers aren't willing to dismiss the illegality so blithely. The separation of powers matter, as does the War Powers Resolution.

Finally, Packer writes:

The best example of Obama's success in foreign policy is Iran. Here he was too cautious in June, 2009, when he initially failed to condemn state violence against the Green Movement. According to David Sanger's new book, "Confront and Conceal," at least one Administration official now admits that this failure was taken by Tehran as weakness, not as an overture to engagement. But since then, Obama has done a masterful job of putting the maximum pressure on Iran while holding back the dogs of war: Proving that engagement won't work by trying it for a year, then isolating the regime, showing the world that Tehran, not Washington or Jerusalem, is the problem; winning international support for truly painful sanctions; waging a form of cyber warfare that hurts Iran's nuclear program without getting America stuck in a quagmire; even using Israeli war threats to force Iran to the table, while (so far) keeping Israel from giving in to its own irrational impulses. Just imagine Mitt Romney pulling off anything like this.

On Iran, Obama's approach may well be vindicated. At this point, it seems too early to declare it a success, even if it presently seems much more responsible than what the GOP is counseling. Given Mitt Romney's rhetoric thus far, it sounds to me like Obama would be the less risky steward of U.S. foreign policy, but that's mostly a statement about the absurdity of GOP foreign policy rhetoric. In the end, I can find very little reason to think Obama will be remembered as a great foreign policy president. It isn't presently clear whether he's a good one or not; the full effects of his decisions have yet to play out. It may be that we remember him as the guy who entrenched Bush-era civil liberties abrogations as part of the bipartisan consensus while sparking intense blowback that made us less safe from terrorism.

Time will tell!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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