There has been considerable buzz about the possibility that President Obama will, in part, run for reelection based on his foreign policy successes. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who is very well plugged in to the White House, published a piece on May 10th entitled “Obama’s foreign policy: Dealing from a position of strength,” which suggests that the Obama team will be able to capitalize on Mitt Romney’s bumper-sticker vision of America’s relationship to the rest of the world. But while it is true that Obama might well shine in comparison to his Republican rival, U.S. foreign policy (to include defense and security policies) is hardly an area that can be cited as a success, and any attempt to do so will create vulnerabilities for the president even if Romney is not well situated to take advantage.
Consider the overall record. Washington continues to be engaged in a highly unpopular and unwinnable war in Afghanistan that promises to continue long after the fuzzy commitment to withdraw all combat troops in 2014, while the Bush doctrine of preemption has been replaced by humanitarian intervention which has created more zones of conflict rather than fewer. “Liberated” Libya continues to be an unstable mess, Egypt continues to drift, and Syria has been pushed towards civil war precisely because the U.S. and other outside forces have acted on their desire to topple Assad “to protect the Syrian people.” Yemen is in serious disarray, Pakistan is creeping towards failed-state status due to the escalation in U.S. drone strikes, and Washington has boots on the ground in at least three countries in Africa. Mexico, a victim of the U.S. War on Drugs, is slipping into chaos. Think for a moment how Americans would react if 49 headless torsos were discovered one morning hanging from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Against terrorism, the government has succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden but continues to assert that remaining Salafist terrorist groups pose a serious threat, a contradiction that will be hard to explain and a de facto admission of failure.
And then there is Russia. Ignatius sees Obama “doing business” with Putin, but it is an odd sort of exchange when Hillary Clinton continues to deride Russian democracy. On China, Ignatius avers that Obama realizes that “it’s important not to gratuitously embarrass the Chinese leadership.” If that is so, how does one explain a Chinese dissident finding shelter in the U.S. Embassy and then being video beamed over to Washington so he can participate in a congressional hearing?
One solution to creating at least a simulacrum of a successful foreign policy is to rewrite the narrative, which is essentially what Ignatius and fellow administration-friendly pundit Steve Clemons does over at The Washington Note, where Clemons observes approvingly that the U.S. “will not abandon Afghanistan” while concluding that “Obama seems well on his way to ending America’s overextension in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq.” Not abandoning and ending would seem to be contradictory, particularly as the president can hardly take credit for the Iraq departure, which was against his wishes and imposed by the Iraqis.
The real Obama foreign policy promise is that future conflicts will be global and frequently conducted ad hoc, but implemented largely by machines and so reducing American deaths. The mini-wars against non-state players will have no enemy who can surrender on a battleship deck and therefore no exit strategies. For that reason, they will go on forever. But of course Ignatius is not writing about foreign policy at all — he is really interested in shaping the perception of foreign policy for the American voter. Joe Sixpack does not know that the United States is disliked almost everywhere in the world; that Washington no longer has the leverage to manage the politics in former client states like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel; and that the bleeding of resources in overseas misadventures threatens to bankrupt the country. The Founding Fathers saw foreign policy in simple terms as establishing friendly relationships that would ultimately benefit the American people. There is little of that in evidence these days and even less that President Obama can claim as a success.