David Brooks gushes over Obama’s foreign policy record:
Obama has shown a good ability to combine a realist, power-politics mind-set with a warm appreciation of democracy and human rights. Early in his term, he responded poorly to the street marches in Tehran. But his administration has embraced a freedom agenda more aggressively since then, responding fairly well to the Arab Spring, rejecting those who wanted to stand by the collapsing dictatorships and using American power in a mostly successful humanitarian intervention in Libya.
I am quite willing to give Obama credit when he seems to have done the right things, but this description is hard to take seriously. It isn’t an entirely bad thing that Obama has not demonstrated a “warm appreciation of democracy and human rights,” since many people who have a “warm appreciation” of such things tend to favor highly intrusive and destructive policies to promote them. Even so, we should all be able to acknowledge that Obama and his administration have not really “embraced a freedom agenda” at any point in the first term. The administration offered limited and almost entirely rhetorical support for Tunisian and Egyptian protesters at the start of 2011, it remained mostly quiet in response to Bahrain’s crackdown and the Saudi-led GCC intervention in Bahrain, and it continues to support the Egyptian military regime that remains committed to preserving its privileges and power.
This may or may not be a good record, but it is the real record. In general, critics that say that Obama has been “too slow” to lend support to popular uprisings overestimate how much of a difference American support would make, and they usually don’t appreciate how deeply distrusted the U.S. government is by the people in these uprisings. Regardless, that isn’t the same as saying that Obama has been “more aggressively” pursuing a “freedom agenda” than he was in 2009. He hasn’t, and it doesn’t help anything to pretend that he has. This passage has the feel of a rather strained attempt to create the impression of strong continuity between Bush and Obama on these issues (hence the use of “freedom agenda”) that greatly exaggerates this continuity for the purpose of using Obama’s record to give Bush credit. It isn’t persuasive.
The intervention in Libya can be judged “mostly successful” if we don’t take into account the tens of thousands killed in Libya during the intervention, the effective partition of Mali, the hundreds of thousands more displaced in Mali, the coup in Mali, and the empowerment of jihadists in northern Mali. It is typical that Brooks’ assessment of the “mostly successful” Libyan war doesn’t so much as mention the country that has been devastated by its effects. The Libyan war was “mostly successful” in that it resulted in the collapse of the previous regime, which was the one goal that the administration explicitly ruled out at the beginning of the war.
Brooks says that Obama “responded poorly” to the protests in Iran in 2009-2010, but he doesn’t explain what would have made for a “good” response or whether a “good” response would have made the slightest bit of difference to the protesters. Whenever someone says that Obama “responded poorly” to the protests in Iran, it is almost always the case that the person means that Obama did not spout a lot of empty rhetoric about freedom. If someone making this criticism could just once specify what it was that Obama should have done at the time that doesn’t involve crazy plans of shipping in weapons, it would be a refreshing change from saying that he should have done “more.” Obama’s decision not to insert the U.S. into Iran’s post-election protests wasn’t the easy, crowd-pleasing move to make, but it still makes more sense than the alternatives.
Brooks’ column contains two glaring omissions, namely Russia and Syria. Obama’s Russia policy is one of his more successful initiatives, and it is one of the few things that his administration can claim as being entirely its own. It is extremely odd that a column otherwise dedicated to putting a positive spin of Obama’s foreign policy record doesn’t so much as mention this. Obama’s response to the Syrian conflict has been far from ideal, but it has been better than it could have been. Keeping the U.S. out of an unnecessary war or an undesirable major commitment in Syria is good for the U.S., and one would think that Brooks would want to acknowledge this.