Stop Grading Obama's Foreign Policy on a Curve

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His GOP critics often engage in bellicose rhetoric and harbor hawkish illusions. That doesn't make him a restrained realist.

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Summarizing President Obama's foreign policy record, George Packer argues in The New Yorker that it is his one strength heading into the election. "He can claim to have ended one war while winding down a second, and to have eliminated the country's most notorious enemy while seriously damaging his organization," Packer writes. "Obama's foreign policy of pursuing limited, realistic goals is in keeping with the public mood. For the first time in sixty years, Republicans will be wise to avoid picking fights about national security, as Romney found out last week when his campaign stepped into a hopeless argument over bragging rights to the killing of Osama bin Laden."


As political analysis I think he's right. Given the state of foreign-policy debate in America, Republicans would be foolish to attempt attacking President Obama on the subject, or even raising it. I am nevertheless struck by the narrative once again being presented about the last four years.

In the pages of The New Yorker, where George Packer is on staff and regularly turns out exceptional work, there's no shortage of evidence that our current foreign policy is neither limited nor realistic, unless we're going to respond to the Bush years by permanently acting as if any presidency that doesn't include a debacle on the order of the Iraq War is a model of restraint. When Obama took office, he directed tens of thousands of troops and many billions of dollars into Afghanistan. His initial effort was neither limited nor realistic. I know because Packer himself explained it that way -- how Obama poured a lot of resources into a counterinsurgency effort, but eventually changed course after realizing that it couldn't succeed. Said Packer in a later item:
...After we're gone there will still be Afghans in Afghanistan, facing the return to power of the Taliban, as there are still Iraqis in Iraq, hunted down by the militias and unprotected by the police. Walking away eventually becomes the only thing for foreigners to do. We're on our way there in Afghanistan -- a little faster after today. But don't mistake that for any kind of successful extrication, or negotiated bilateral relationship, or return to American priorities. It will be hell for Afghans, as it's hell today for Iraqis -- hell with us there, hell after we leave.
This is what drives me nuts. In writing about the war that President Obama campaigned on escalating, Packer is informed and clear: Obama invested a lot of resources in an approach that didn't work, changed course, and is now wisely withdrawing with little to show for U.S. efforts. How can you think that about Afghanistan and summarize Obama's approach as a pursuit of limited and realistic goals? Sure, that characterizes his approach to some countries, but on numerous fronts he embodies those qualities only relative to what some Republicans advocate.

President Obama has meanwhile waged a covert drone war in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The United States is killing people in at least six countries. Is that now a "limited" foreign-policy posture? In 2009, Jane Mayer reported that "during his first nine and a half months in office, he has authorized as many C.I.A. aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office." The CIA now has permission to carry out drone strikes without presidential approval even when it doesn't know the identity of its target or targets.

A lot of people support sending killer flying robots to extinguish life in multiple foreign countries. There are dissenters too. Can we agree that the adjective "limited" doesn't accurately characterize the policy? (I'd also argue that it's unrealistic to think that a campaign killing as many innocents as ours does will prevent more terrorism than it creates; about that reasonable people can disagree).

This disconnect between President Obama's policies and the way they're described when journalists present the narrative of his first term is something I've complained about on several occasions.

It's got to stop.

At present, American foreign policy is among the most aggressive in the world. A great many learned critics regard the national-security goals pursued under Bush and Obama to be insufficiently limited and wildly unrealistic. In writing about politics, it may seem accurate to characterize Obama as a restrained realist, since his GOP critics are determined to criticize him with bellicose rhetoric and distortions of his record that accord with the stereotype that Democrats are weak.

But it is not accurate. And it puts us at risk of completely losing touch with both reality and the way that much of the world perceives our foreign policy, even under Obama: as imprudently bellicose.
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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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