Obama and the GOP on Foreign Policy: Reactive vs. Frivolous

After Obama’s nearly three years in office, it’s hard to find a single area where he was able to significantly advance U.S. national interests.

It was a bad year for U.S. foreign policy. Public-opinion polls suggest that more Americans approve than disapprove of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign affairs—49 percent to 44 percent. On issues such as terrorism and Iraq, Mr. Obama is doing even better. Unfortunately, the optimistic assessments reflect the American preoccupation with the economy and a lack of attention to the world in the absence of a major war. The simplistic and spotty nature of our international coverage, combined with the pitiful level of Republican presidential debates, contribute to our lack of alarm as to the direction in which America is going internationally.

After President Obama’s nearly three years in office, it’s hard to find a single area where he was able to significantly advance U.S. national interests. The Noble Peace Prize winner cannot claim with a straight face that the world has become more stable and harmonious on his watch.

The president did have his share of victories. But they were not strategically significant, and many came with serious unintended consequences. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a personal triumph for Obama. But, while the number-one terrorist deserved to die, he was yesterday’s mastermind. Bin Laden’s operational control from his Pakistani hiding place was limited, and most of his charisma among Arabs and Muslims was gone, as the Arab Spring persuasively demonstrated.

The killing of Muammar Qaddafi also was a victory for the president. But Qadaffi was a former terrorist willing to cooperate with the United States. For years, he hadn’t challenged American security in any meaningful way. On previous occasions, the United States demonstrated a willingness to work with former terrorists—for example, another Noble Peace Prize winner, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Washington even embraced some who transformed themselves from terrorists into highly respected Israeli statesmen, such as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Another “victory” for Mr. Obama was the fulfillment of his promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. The trouble is that he was not able to negotiate even a minimal stabilizing U.S. military presence in this deeply polarized country. Iraq certainly isn’t on the road toward a stable democracy and is not prepared to support U.S. objectives in the region—either in terms of diplomatic relations with Israel or joining sanctions against Syria or, more importantly, against Iran. Victories like that can provide Mr. Obama with an alibi against Republican charges of being weak on national security, but they do little to improve the United States’ position in the world.

They also can have ominous unintended consequences. The killing of Osama bin Laden contributed to a near crisis between the United States and Pakistan. In terms of American national security, there are few threats that would be more profoundly dangerous than chaos in a country with more than one hundred nuclear weapons. In the case of Libya, the NATO operation clearly stretched the limits of the UN Security Council resolution and alienated China and Russia in the process. This made it more difficult to get their support for sanctions against Syria and Iran. Considering that dealing effectively with Iran is more important than getting rid of Qadaffi, this trade-off is highly questionable in terms of U.S. national security.

One undisputed success of Obama’s foreign policy is the significantly improved relationship with Europe. The problem is that Europe looks like a sinking ship, not yet descending to the ocean floor, but severely damaged and with a clueless leadership unable to comprehend what is happening in their respective countries and what needs to be done to avoid disaster. After overreaching on integration, often in violation of democratic procedures, the European elites have confused the enthusiastic desire of Central and Eastern European nations to escape the Soviet imperial yoke and rejoin European civilization with a worldwide triumph of European values. As far as the Libyan operation was concerned, it was the Europeans, especially France’s ambitious and insecure President Nicolas Sarkozy, that appealed to America’s worst moralistic instincts regarding the humanitarian intervention. With friends like that...

With other world powers, the Obama administration is not doing well. A combination of protectionist measures, near-containment and human-rights critiques has seriously impaired American relations with the globe’s rising superpower, China. Some of Obama’s policies, such as providing security assurances to China’s neighbors concerned about Beijing’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea, were quite appropriate, but the total sum of U.S. policies was bound to complicate what is probably America’s most important international relationship.