Ross Douthat declares Obama’s foreign policy to be a failure:

But the absence of an Iraq-scale fiasco is not identical to success, and history shouldn’t grade this president on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld. Obama is responsible for the initiatives he’s pursued, the strategies he’s blessed and the priorities he’s set. And almost nothing on that list is working out.

It’s fair to say that Obama doesn’t have that many positive achievements that he can claim as his own, and he has been responsible for policies, especially in Libya and Syria, that don’t deserve to be defended. It is also hard to ignore that his worst foreign policy errors have come from giving in to demands that the U.S. “lead” in response to this or that crisis, which suggests that things could easily be much worse than they are. When judging Obama’s policies to be flawed, as many of them surely are, it is important to state as clearly as possible what the flaws are and why the policies are failing on their own terms. Most of Obama’s failures have come from attempting to interfere in foreign conflicts and crises in which the U.S. had little or nothing at stake. In that way, Obama more or less set himself up to fail by inserting the U.S. into disputes that Washington could not realistically resolve. When he has set relatively more modest goals, which the “reset” with Moscow had for the first two years of his presidency, he made some similarly modest but concrete gains.

Douthat cites the Libyan war as an obvious failure, and I agree with him entirely. However, as far as Obama’s most vocal critics are concerned, the president’s mistake wasn’t in ordering the intervention. It was that he didn’t commit the U.S. to a multi-year mission of stabilizing the country that would still be going on for many more years to come. The Libyan intervention should absolutely be judged by its results, including the destabilizing effects it has had on nearby countries, but it should also be understood that the intervention was wrong from the start. Obama’s first and most important failure in Libya was the decision to intervene.

On Syria, Obama erred in making declarations that he wouldn’t or couldn’t enforce, and then he very nearly erred in a much more serious way by trying to back up a statement he should never have made. Obama and his officials have had a bad habit of trying to take sides in crises and conflicts that the U.S. would have done well to avoid as much as possible. Once they have picked a side, they are then understandably reluctant to follow this position to its predictable end. They want credit for pursuing hawkish goals, but they also want to be credited with avoiding the costs of hawkish policies. This not only leaves all sides dissatisfied, but predictably creates half-baked policies that can’t achieve the stated goals while still making it appear as if the U.S. “owns” the outcome.

While the administration is frequently mocked for the “leading from behind” idea, these criticisms almost always miss the real problem with this approach. “Leading from behind” in practice means that the U.S. allows its policy towards a particular country to be defined by the allies and clients that seek to drag America into the conflicts they wish to fight, and in policy debates at home it means being guilted into taking action that the administration seems to know won’t achieve anything desirable. Diplomacy with Iran is perhaps the only major issue where the U.S. has rebuffed or ignored the whining of its clients and domestic hawks, and it is there that the U.S. has made the most progress. There is almost no part of Obama’s foreign policy that wouldn’t benefit from indulging foreign clients less and ignoring domestic hawks more.

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