Foreign Policy: Thoughts On Obama's Foreign Policy

Originally published on October 26, 2011 2:40 pm

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

With Moammar Gadhafi's timely demise, it's becoming harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama's foreign policy is a failure. Of course, this hasn't stopped the GOP's 2012 candidates for president from trying. They dislike Obama so much that they're even saying nice things about France instead.

The GOP field's reluctance to acknowledge any of Obama's foreign policy successes is driving some people a little batty. Here's Kevin Drum:

I understand the left's problem with Obama's national security policy. But the right? What the hell is their problem? Obama has escalated our presence dramatically in Afghanistan; he created a massive drone air force that's all but wiped out al-Qaida in Pakistan; he killed Osama bin Laden; he approved a multilateral military operation in Libya that ended up killing Moammar Gadhafi; he sent a SEAL team out to kill Somali pirates; he assassinates U.S. citizens in foreign countries who are associated with al-Qaida; and he's done more to isolate and sanction Iran than George Bush ever did. Crikey. Just how bloodthirsty do they want the guy to be?

Andrew Sullivan offers a similar lament.

Five thoughts. First, it's worth noting that some Republican leaders have been reasonably forthright in giving Obama some hosannahs. John McCain said, " I think the administration deserves great credit." Lindsey Graham went further, excoriating fellow Republicans for sheer bloody-mindedness in opposing Obama's Libya policy. Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate who seems to have thought the most about foreign policy, said "yes, yes, absolutely" Obama deserved some credit for the end of Gadhafi's regime. So, there's that.

Second, through a combination of obstinance and incoherence, the GOP field's criticisms are looking pretty foolish. Simply denying any credit to the Obama administration's foreign policy has become sillier over time. In some cases a singular candidate's criticism remains logically consistent, but contradicts what other candidates say. So, you have candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman want to see the U.S. retrench (in the case of Paul, quite radically), while Mitt Romney wants a 600-ship navy while Michelle Bachmann wants to see the reestoration of autocracy in Egypt while Herman Cain just wanders from foreign policy misstatement to foreign policy misstatement. Instead of actual criticisms, the field has resorted to horseshit myths like the famed-but-nonexistent Obama "Apology Tour."

Politico's Josh Gerstein points out that Gadhafi's downfall exposes some of the policy contradictions within the GOP field.

The fact that some in the GOP criticized Obama for leading from behind while others said he is too quick to send U.S. troops abroad suggests a growing lack of foreign policy consensus within the Republican Party, one Democratic foreign policy analyst said.

"The Republican Party right now has attacked both its 'neo-con' elite and its 'traditional-con' elite," said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. "They sort of don't know what they think. They don't listen to their own people...they just don't have a coherent worldview."

Third, I suspect that it doesn't matter all that much, and the GOP presidential candidates know it. Herman Cain has managed to vault to co-frontrunner status despite truly astounding levels of ignorance of foreign policy. There's a reason for that — GOP voters don't care about foreign policy and the president is increasingly unpopular despite his foreign policy prowess.

Fourth, the president's foreign policy approach hasn't been perfect. He's botched the tactics of the Israel/Palestine peace process, hasn't earned all that much from his "reset" with Russia, is pretty damn unpopular in the Middle East, and was slow to realize that his own personal popularity abroad wouldn't translate into concrete policy accomplishments in, say, the G-20 or the U.N. Security Council. Admittedly, the GOP candidates will simplify this into "Israel!! ISRAEL!! ISRAEL!!!!" but Obama is hardly immune to criticism.

Finally, the one thing I wonder is whether the president will be able to use his foreign policy prowess on the campaign trail. I could see Obama articulating some variant of the following in 2012:

As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al-Qaida is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Moammar Gadhafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.

Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress — which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like sublecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.

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