The foreign-policy debate has grown increasingly shrill. Critics have labeled President Obama, inter alia, a danger to national security, who cares more about useless multilateralism than American interests. He is weak toward our enemies and uncaring about our friends. He is soft on terrorism. He does not pursue victory in war but focuses more on how to manage its domestic political aspects. And he is feeble or indifferent to pursuing America's highest values-democracy and human rights.
It is not surprising but a bit remarkable that most of this rhetoric comes from our more conservative foreign-policy thinkers, often those who served in the previous administration. Most of them proceed from an unstated but clear assumption: that Obama started either with a fabulous foreign-policy inheritance or a reasonably promising diplomatic slate, and that he is throwing it away, in great part because he does not really understand the world and the bad guys who inhabit it. Dedicated to the rhetoric of democracy promotion, the conservatives apparently pine for the days of George Bush's incessant talk about the robust expansion of democracy and his fervent support and friendship for such remarkable democrats as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who also undermined our efforts in Afghanistan; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who responded to Bush's democracy sermons by jailing even more of his country's democrats; and the dynasts in Saudi Arabia; not to mention our friendship with other "democratic" leaders elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia.
When Obama refers, as he does frequently, to this dismal legacy, conservative critics declare he should stop whining or even do an about face and continue the Bush approach to foreign policy. Some found solace, or at least hope, in Obama's Oslo speech that he can be tough on national-security issues. A few were even ecstatic because it read more like their approach to international conflict, if far more eloquently stated. Obama's more liberal supporters fear that the attacks from the GOP are having an impact on the president and fear that he might be embracing Bush's foreign policies. Indeed, presidents usually move to the Right.
The truth is, of course, different to a good number of people whose sense of history extends beyond last year. Rarely in the past century has a president been handed such a bad inheritance as Barack Obama. The only comparable ones are Richard Nixon, who was left to deal with Vietnam, and Franklin Roosevelt, to whom the Republicans bequeathed the Great Depression and a constricting isolationism that contributed to world war. That experience ultimately led postwar Americans to agree that foreign-policy discourse merited greater sobriety and respect.
Bush has repaid the Democrats in spades. His stewardship over the past decade saw the incredible decline of American standing and influence, and the enormous loss of that essential sinew of foreign policy in today's world-our economic dynamism. Mr. Bush's wars, which I supported, vastly contributed to that decline, not to speak of the loss of people, ours and others. In his 2008 campaign for the presidency, John McCain was even forced to pretend that Bush did not exist. Somehow all that is missing in the analysis we see from the angry conservatives. After the attempted Christmas Day bombing, Mr. Obama is even being blamed for the inadequacies of our intelligence system-which George W. Bush created after 9/11. The Bush administration, however, did have one important achievement: no terrorist incident occurred on American soil in his administration after 9/11.
Many Americans wanted a concerted reexamination of where the United States has been in foreign policy, a thoughtful look of what's right and what's wrong in the light of our pressing circumstances, domestic and foreign, and where we ought to be going and how to do it. But Obama apparently is not permitted that luxury. He is expected to produce instant results on enormously difficult issues that abound with uncertainty and ignorance, and even carry on the same approach to foreign policy as President Bush. Obama must be tough, he must kiss our allies goodbye if they don't like what we are doing, tell the Chinese to behave on human rights or else, do away with the Iranian government, stare the North Koreans down, and spend ever more money on building our military forces. The emerging terrorist scene in Yemen will probably help reinforce that view, even though no one has yet called for an attack.
Whatever the inheritance, it is Obama's baby now. But his fresh start on foreign policy is still a work in progress. He has lots of rhetoric, but so far no real achievements (as he himself acknowledged) and his problems are mounting. For that matter, Bush already had a failed administration eight months on-which was only resurrected by 9/11. Obama's is hardly a failed presidency. He has salvaged the economy without indulging in ruinous protectionism. He has restored diplomacy as a serious enterprise and emphasized multilateralism, but the results have yet to be harvested. His big initiatives, like those in the Middle East, have not yet paid off and may never. He has also taken on climate change, probably the most contentious international and domestic issue, one that the Bush administration buried. Here too the returns are highly uncertain.