The argument is being made in some quarters that, however unsuccessful Barack Obama’s domestic policies have been, his record in foreign policy has been successful. But when you examine the claims of success, they seem a bit peculiar.
Take the widely read New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Last week, he argued that Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to Libya worked much better than what turned out to be the Bush administration’s protracted involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He’s certainly right in saying our troops are not mired down in Libya. But it’s unclear how things will work out there, as it is in Afghanistan.
As for Iraq, let’s hope that military scholars Frederick and Kimberly Kagan are wrong when they say that the Obama administration’s inability to achieve its goal of a U.S. troop presence there has converted what was a limited success into “retreat” and “failure.”
Remember that we were told that the election of Obama would make America more popular in the world and that his readiness to negotiate without preconditions with the leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea would make their leaders more willing to see things our way.
“He was naive how much his star power,” Friedman admits, “or that of his secretary of state, would get others to swoon in behind us.” “Naive” is a kind way to put it.
Obama seemed to think that the replacement of an uncouth Texan by a nuanced African-American would convert determined enemies of the United States — a supposition that is one of those irritable mental gestures that pass for thought in the faculty lounge.
Iran is run by a regime that has been committing acts of war against us for more than 30 years, starting with the seizure of diplomats — a violation of the first rule of international law. North Korea is run by a gangster regime that starves its people and tries to prevent all contact with the outside world.
Astonishingly, foreign policy analyst Fareed Zakaria, writing in The Washington Post after a trip to Tehran, calls for Obama to “return to his original approach and test the Iranians to see if there is any room for dialogue and agreement.”
Give Friedman credit for recognizing that Obama’s “hopes of engaging Iran foundered on the rocks of, well, Iran.”
Also give Friedman credit for noting, in a column praising Obama’s foreign policy, that his Arab-Israeli diplomacy “has been a mess,” that he hasn’t assembled “a multilateral coalition to buttress the Arab Awakening” and that “his global climate policy is an invisible embarrassment.”
Friedman defends Obama on the grounds that the world is “messier” than it was in the days of Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan. Well, maybe. We don’t have the bipolar conflict between the Free World and the Soviet Union to structure our policy anymore.
What I see in Obama’s foreign policy is a retreat from the dreamy assumptions on which he campaigned to a reluctant and stumbling reversion in many areas to policies resembling those of George W. Bush.
Obama, after scorning the policy of promoting democracy that George W. Bush proclaimed in his 2005 inauguration speech (but didn’t pursue rigorously afterward), and after reacting with sublime indifference to the Green protests in Iran in 2009, is now talking up democracy from time to time, though only after hesitation.
He took a brave but long-delayed decision to double down in Afghanistan and has authorized drone attacks on terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen that some of his appointees would have denounced as criminal if Bush were still in office.
But he is also sharply cutting back the defense budget, and his failure to negotiate a troop presence in Iraq could have dreadful consequences. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, like his predecessor Robert Gates, does his best to proclaim that American resolve is firm and can be counted on.
They seem to understand what Obama may not yet accept, that as the world’s leading economic and military power the United States is unlikely to be loved, regardless of whether our president is a baseball team owner from Texas or a community organizer from Chicago.
The best we can expect among many of the elites and peoples of the globe is to be respected. And as Machiavelli argued long ago, if you have to choose, it is better to be respected than to be loved.