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.
The Obama administration did not score better with Russia. Obama’s much-advertised Reset Policy notwithstanding, the administration has failed to take Russian priorities seriously. It claimed that “common interests” would get Moscow to accommodate the United States where it counted even as President Obama was openly cultivating President Dmitri Medvedev while putting down the predominant Russian leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The administration was right to refuse giving Russia veto power over the development of U.S. missile defenses in Europe. Unfortunately, it also did little to respond to Russia’s understandable desire to discuss a new European security architecture in which Moscow would be a genuine partner. Keeping Russia outside the European security system guarantees that Moscow will seek other ways to protect its interests. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently questioned the legitimacy of the Russian elections, which has predictably led to a sense of further mistrust between the two governments.
Particularly troublesome are signs that frustration with Washington is leading Beijing and Moscow to work closer together to prevent the United States and its allies from shaping the world order. It is true that Russia and China do not quite trust each other and would prefer a closer relationship with the United States to their own partnership. As Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany demonstrated, however, under appropriate circumstances strategic rivals may enter into tactical alliances with profound geopolitical consequences.
President Obama, to paraphrase President Jimmy Carter, had an “incomplete success” on two other key foreign-policy issues—the Israeli-Palestinian settlement and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He tried hard but has little to show for it. Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo, at the beginning of his presidency, inspired Arabs to think that the United States would act on their grievances, specifically on putting an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements. But when the U.S. president encountered a perfectly predictable Israeli opposition, he caved. Steering troubled waters, without a compass and a will to prevail, is not a virtue. The end result was that the Palestinians at first hardened their position and then felt mislead by Obama. The Israeli government got a sense that he was not a reliable friend but could be pushed around with impunity. The cause of the Arab-Israeli peace has suffered a major setback.
Particularly serious is Obama’s uncertain handling of the Iranian nuclear challenge. The dialogue with Tehran has not worked so far, and there is no evidence that the administration made a full-scale effort to make it happen. The sanctions did not change the Iranian determination to continue with a nuclear-enrichment program. Increasing the severity of the sanctions, as the administration is planning to do (with full Congressional support), may cause Iran to respond with drastic measures. Remember how Japan responded to American sanctions seventy years ago by attacking Pearl Harbor. Military action against Iran could lead to a dramatic increase in oil prices, possibly even triggering a global recession. Since China and Russia already are unhappy with the United States, they are unlikely to join further crippling sanctions and definitely would not support a military operation against Iran. There is a clear and present danger of Iran, after an American and/or Israeli attack, gaining powerful new allies who would be willing and able to help rebuild its defenses and restart its nuclear program.
To be sure, not all these serious foreign-policy problems can be blamed on Obama. First, most of the president’s current policies are fairly similar to Bush-administration policies. Second, even if the United States were able to develop a perfect foreign policy, dealing simultaneously with a rising China, a resurgent Russia and a nuclear-hungry Iran would be extremely difficult.
Still, with a foreign-policy record like that, one would expect Republicans both to perform their civic duty and gain a political advantage by raising probing questions about where Obama is leading the United States in the world. Instead, major Republican presidential contenders are accusing Obama of appeasement and a habit of apologizing for America. Such charges do not promote a useful conversation on foreign policy, and they aren’t likely to stick. It is particularly disturbing to see the Republican presidential contenders competing to demonstrate their devotion to Israel. Israel is an important ally and friend of the United States. It is also a proud, independent nation, fully determined to protect its sovereignty, including its right to reject guidance from the United States. We should respect the Israeli attitude, developed after many decades of amazing success in building and protecting their state in a hostile neighborhood. But precisely because Israel is a genuinely independent state with its own important interests, those running for president cannot responsibly claim that there should never be a difference between American and Israeli positions. If such a difference does exist, the United States should be fully entitled, within reason and decency, to act to protect U.S. interests. As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.” Washington also warned that an unconditional attachment to a foreign nation is “particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.” Governor Mitt Romney and Speaker Newt Gingrich are both highly intelligent, pragmatic leaders, and people familiar with them argue that their rhetoric during the silly season of early primaries is not a good way to predict how they would handle U.S. foreign policy if elected president. So perhaps there is still a possibility of an enlightened foreign-policy debate during the electoral campaign.