Is Obama Really That Great of a Foreign Policy President?

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.

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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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