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Grading Presidents’ Foreign Policy Records

Conor Friedersdorf challengesthe idea that Obama is on track to be a “great” foreign policy President:

This is the sort of evaluation that only looks impressive if we grade on a George W. Bush curve.

Conor gets this mostly right. Among post-WWII Presidents, Obama’s foreign policy record has been competent enough that it shouldn’t be ranked anywhere near the real failures (e.g., LBJ, Bush II, Kennedy, etc.), but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the very best records, either. It’s true that Obama’s record seems much better than it is when compared with George W. Bush’s, but then that is the relevant comparison for political purposes. Even when Obama blunders, he doesn’t suffer as much political damage because we still remember how badly Bush performed and we are regularly reminded of what the terrifying practical alternative to Obama was every time McCain sounds off on an international crisis. Judged by those admittedly low standards, Obama’s record looks a lot better than if we assessed his overall record simply on the merits. Bush’s foreign policy failures helped make Obama President, and they continue to make his own record look better by comparison, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for people who lived through the Bush years to avoid making that comparison when judging Obama’s record.

The foreign policy reputations of all postwar Presidents depend to a large degree on the perceived successes or failures of their predecessors. Reagan didn’t actually achieve that many major foreign policy successes during his Presidency, and the successes attributed to his policies after the fact overstate his contribution, but he didn’t preside over things that were widely perceived to be major national humiliations, the Lebanon debacle and the scandal of Iran-Contra notwithstanding. Memories of the last two years of Carter’s tenure made Reagan look a lot more successful by comparison. The reputations of reasonably competent administrations have also tended to suffer from later political developments. Detente under Nixon and Ford was successful in many respects, but it became a term of abuse once Reagan attacked it and was elected on a platform opposed to it. Subsequent failures can also cause people to revisit their earlier judgments of past administrations. There is a lot more admiration for the foreign policy record of the elder Bush now than there was when he lost his re-election bid. Once we saw the results of his son’s tenure, the elder Bush’s reputation for competence and prudence was revised upwards.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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