The Strategist

The question isn't whether Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy President. It's whether he can be a great one.

In the marathon that is the Republican primary campaign, candidates have tried for months to trip one another up on everything from capitalism to family values in a seemingly unending series of debates. But foreign policy is the one topic that doesn’t come up much. This is unusual. In the decades after Vietnam, Republicans never missed an opportunity to talk about global dangers—or pound their Democratic adversaries for being weak-kneed appeasers. These days, however, you could listen for hours to Republicans and hear only an occasional, narrow attack on Barack Obama’s handling of American foreign policy.

The main reason, of course, is that the economy is dominating the national conversation. But that isn’t the only reason. If Republicans saw opportunities to lash Obama on foreign policy, they would not hold back. In 1980 the economy was miserable, and yet both the primary and general elections were consumed with attacks on Jimmy Carter’s policies toward the Soviet Union, Iran and other countries. The reality is that, despite domestic challenges and limited resources, President Obama has pursued an effective foreign policy. In fact, over the past year, Obama’s policies have come together in a particularly successful manner. In an op-ed published on Jan. 9 in the Financial Times, Philip Zelikow, a longtime top aide to Condoleezza Rice and one of the brightest Republican policy scholars, described the past year as “the most important in American foreign policy in a decade ... The cumulative boost of American energy and commitment is palpable.” Of course, that is not what the Republican candidates say when they speak on the topic. Mitt Romney, who as the putative front runner has attacked Obama more than all his rivals, charges that Obama is an appeaser who apologizes for America, lacks fortitude and is “tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.” This generic and somewhat vague critique follows the familiar Republican narrative, but it’s unlikely to stick, especially with general-election voters. Even before the torrent of drone attacks that crippled al-Qaeda, even before the killing of Osama bin Laden, even before Libya, most Americans gave Obama positive marks for his handling of foreign policy. (His approval rating is currently at 52%.) Republicans have made specific charges in a few areas—Israel and Iran—mostly in the hope that they can cement support in one key constituency (Evangelicals) and woo another (Jewish Americans), but even there, the polls suggest that most Americans are content with Obama’s approach.

Foreign policy is not a popularity contest, but it is historically significant that the Republican Party, which since the Nixon era has enjoyed a clear advantage on foreign policy issues, will enter the 2012 race without any such boost. That may be partly because of the failures of George W. Bush, but it is also because Obama has handled the terrain deftly. And he has done so with a team not of rivals but of heavyweights who could have been difficult to manage. Among the President’s core foreign policy advisers for most of his first three years were two people he ran against in the 2008 primary campaign (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden), a Defense chief inherited from his Republican predecessor (Robert Gates) and a general who is reported to have disagreed with him on Iraq and Afghanistan (David Petraeus). That they mostly agree on broad policy helps, but it is still a team that has worked well together, in some measure because of the understated but highly effective National Security Adviser, Thomas Donilon.

Columnist Walter Lippmann once wrote that “foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power.” From 2001, the U.S. went though a decade of massive foreign commitments and interventions, which proved enormously expensive in blood and treasure—and highly unpopular around the world. This overextension was followed by an economic crisis that drained American power. The result was a foreign policy that was insolvent. Obama came into office determined to pare down excess commitments, regain goodwill and refocus the U.S. on core missions to achieve a more stable and sustainable global position. Obama can take credit for having achieved much along these lines. But to leave a more lasting legacy than one of focus, effectiveness and good public diplomacy, he will need to build on his successes and conceive and implement a set of policies that promote a vision of a better world—more stable, more open and more free. Good foreign policy Presidents (like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush) managed a complex set of challenges expertly, making few costly errors. Bad ones (like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson) made mistakes that cost America in lives, treasure and prestige. But great foreign policy Presidents (like Harry Truman) created enduring structures and relationships that produced lasting peace and prosperity. Obama has been a good foreign policy President; he has the opportunity to become a great one.

The Obama Doctrine

Candidates on the campaign trail usually say about foreign policy what seems politically advantageous, only to discover that they don’t actually believe any of it once in office. George W. Bush’s only foreign policy statements of note during his campaign were to criticize American arrogance and nation-building. Once he became President, however, as events presented themselves, he realized that he actually liked speaking about America as a nation chosen by God and history to lead the world. And he launched the most extensive nation-building project in U.S. history since Vietnam. Mitt Romney’s statements on, say, the Taliban and Iran tell us nothing more than that he has found a place to outflank Obama.

The President, on the other hand, came into office with a set of beliefs about the world that he has tried to act upon. Chief among them is that over the past decade, the U.S. has wasted its power and prestige on an intervention in Iraq that he believed was an expensive mistake and a major distraction. In office, Obama stuck to his view despite pressure to do otherwise, and in a disciplined manner, he drew down American forces in Iraq, from 142,000 when he took office to zero as of a few weeks ago. When I asked Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 which President’s foreign policy he admired, he immediately chose George H.W. Bush, a President known as a foreign policy realist, whose watchwords were prudence, cost-effectiveness, diplomacy and restraint. James Baker, Bush’s Secretary of State, has admitted to approving of Obama’s approach to international relations.

In contrast with his policy on Iraq, Obama argued for a buildup of forces in Afghanistan. But even there, he sought to end the more expansive aspects of the mission, focusing the fight on counter terrorism against al-Qaeda and similar groups, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. The alternative, a war of counter insurgency in Afghanistan, could easily morph into an open-ended nation-building project in one of the poorest countries in the world. Several Administration officials privately confirm that from the start Obama wanted to pare down the mission in Afghanistan to a fight against terrorist groups. He either was outmaneuvered by the military or decided to accept its advice for a surge. In the end, he acceded to an 18-month buildup to hammer the Taliban into negotiations and announced last June that the U.S. would begin drawing down 10,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by the end of the summer of 2012, leaving 68,000 troops in the country. Meanwhile, he embraced counterterrorism with ferocity, dramatically expanding the campaign of special operations and drone attacks that have since killed most of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders—almost all of whom lived in Pakistan. The crowning success of this strategy was the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and his assassination. (Of course, as with all successful counterterrorism, the strategy seems foolproof in retrospect. Had these various missions failed, had many American soldiers died, those tactics would have been called dangerous and foolhardy.) In the central battle in the war on terrorism, Obama adopted many of the Bush Administration’s aggressive tactics, used them more aggressively and achieved greater success. Republicans find it difficult to attack Obama credibly on the core issue of fighting America’s enemies because he outflanked them on the right.

When asked to describe the Obama Doctrine, the President has chosen not to respond directly, but he explained that he believes the U.S. must act with other countries. “[Mine is] an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil. It’s a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources and capacity,” he told Time. That multi lateral approach—listening to others, being aware of their national pride and interests and ego—is surely a product of his worldly background, with a Kenyan father, an Indonesian stepfather and a mother who was a serious student of global development. It has shown results. Obama told other countries to step up during the Libyan crisis if they expected American help. This was caricatured by some as “leading from behind,” but really it forced others to act on an issue that the U.S. did not see as central to its national security. If France and Britain saw Libya as vital, he implied, they needed to put their money and militaries where their mouths were. In Asia, Obama let countries ask for American involvement rather than rushing forward to propose it. Countries are more willing to accept American leadership if Washington is patient enough to let them request it.

In an area that he does deem vital, Obama has shown himself willing to be extremely tough. Having tried to negotiate with the Iranians and been spurned by them, the Administration intensified the pressure on Tehran. It has ratcheted up sanctions, stepped up cooperation with the Israeli government and the Gulf Arab states and put in place even more crippling sanctions to pile up the costs on Iran. None of this would have been possible without significant multilateral diplomacy. The Chinese and Russians signed on to new sanctions at the U.N. (which ensures that they get enforced worldwide). Washington’s European and East Asian allies have gone further in cutting off economic ties with Iran. Observing the results, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the world’s leading hawk on Iran—and no fan of the President—admitted on Jan. 14 that the pressure was having an effect, that Iran was “wobbling” and that this kind of tough containment might actually work.

A great deal of foreign policy is crisis management. “Stuff happens,” the President said, “and you have to respond.” Iran’s Green movement and the Arab Spring were challenging and unexpected events, and the Obama Administration made a strategic distinction between the two. On Iran, while offering rhetorical support, the White House seemed to have concluded that the regime would be able to suppress the Green movement—which turned out to be an accurate diagnosis. In the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Administration concluded that the democracy protests had become unstoppable and the regimes were doomed. It took Ronald Reagan two years from the beginning of the democracy protests in the Philippines to break with Ferdinand Marcos. In 1997 when protests began in Indonesia, it took Bill Clinton a year to urge President Suharto to resign. In 2011 it took Obama two weeks to urge Hosni Mubarak to leave office. By placing the U.S. on the right side of a historical wave, Obama took it out of the Egyptian political debate. Egyptians know they will succeed or fail at their democratic experiment because of themselves and not Washington. In a Middle East that believes that America conspires and controls all, that’s a step forward.

There have been misses. Whatever your view of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it is difficult to see Obama’s approach as a success. The fundamental issue there remains that neither party is inclined toward or capable of making peace right now. Israel is ruled by a right-wing coalition that would collapse if it tried for peace and a Prime Minister who most certainly does not want to. Palestine is divided between two groups, one of which explicitly rejects peace with Israel. In this context, to put American prestige on the line in the hope that a few words or nudges would transform the situation seems naive. It would have been better to have continued with what appeared to be Obama’s initial strategy: appoint a special envoy so the world knows that Washington wants a deal—but commit no presidential capital in a situation that seemed destined for stagnation.

One could add others. Relations with Iran could explode as pressure builds (and oil prices rise) without any discernible diplomatic path toward a nuclear deal. The current policy assumes that Iran will capitulate or that, having described the situation in dire terms, the Obama Administration would take even more dramatic steps, perhaps including a military attack on the country. Neither scenario appears likely, and neither side seems to be working to construct a third.

The Asian Opportunity

Crisis management, effective or ineffective, is not strategy. Obama has been determined to draw down America’s military interventions and limit its commitments in places like Iraq and even Afghanistan so that he could focus U.S. foreign policy on America’s core interests. These he has defined as its dealings with the great powers and its embrace of larger global issues. He has reset relations with Russia, built on the growing ties with India, established a close working relationship with Turkey and maintained the historical connections with European allies. But the biggest upgrade in U.S. relations has been in Asia. The strategy of “rebalancing” might well be the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy and what historians will point to when searching for an Obama Doctrine. It is premised on a simple, powerful recognition. The center of global economic power is shifting east. In 10 years, three of the world’s five largest economies will be in Asia: China, Japan and India. The greatest political tensions and struggles might also be in Asia as these countries seek political, cultural and military power as well. If the U.S. is going to be the central global power, it will need to be a Pacific power.

In a speech to the Australian parliament, Obama signaled America’s intent. “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” he said. The President promised that despite serious defense cuts that would affect all aspects of the military, there would be no cuts in Asia. Over the past year, the Administration launched a series of diplomatic efforts that culminated at year’s end with a flurry of initiatives. The U.S. will establish a military base (of sorts) in Australia, expanding its reach in the Pacific. It has launched a transpacific trade accord, which, if negotiated, would be the largest trade deal since NAFTA. It re-established ties with Burma, thus gaining influence with a pivotal country that borders China and India. And it partnered with other Asian countries at the East Asian summit to limit Chinese influence and claims on the South China Sea.

The pivot to Asia has been highly effective, taking advantage of China’s belligerence. But the Administration must now work to build an affirmative vision of an Asia that is not banded together against China but rather is open, diverse and plural. The real challenge is to convince China that it benefits from the stability, rules and prosperity that such a vision would produce (just as Germany benefited from a peaceful and prosperous Europe with it at the center) and to persuade the Chinese that they are better off with such an Asia than one characterized by geopolitical competition. So far, Washington’s relations with China have not reached the level of serious strategic dialogue that will be necessary to achieve any true global cooperation in the years ahead. Going forward, U.S. security and prosperity depends on a productive relationship with China more than with any other country.

The challenge with China is the challenge with other great powers—and with Obama’s foreign policy in general. It is worthwhile to have good relations with countries. But it is crucial to have good relations in the service of a broader vision of a world that is characterized by increasing levels of openness, economic interdependence, international cooperation, peace, prosperity and liberty. Over the past 60 years, the U.S. has helped build an international order characterized by institutions, policies, norms and best practices. The hundreds of organizations that help coordinate countries’ policies on everything from trade to disease prevention to environmental protection are all new creatures in international life, and they have created a world of greater peace and prosperity than humans have even known. But this world needs shoring up as new nations rise to power. The challenge for the U.S. is to make a stable structure for the world that all the newly emerging powers can buy into and uphold. That means revitalizing global trade, pushing through on a nuclear-nonproliferation agenda, working to integrate the emerging powers and, perhaps crucially, articulating a vision of this world.

Henry Kissinger once said that the test for a statesman was to find the place between stagnation and overextension. Good tactics alone would leave you reacting to events and stagnant in the stream of history. Too vast a vision would leave you overextended, exhausted and inviting adversaries. Barack Obama is already pointed in the right direction on foreign policy. The challenge for him is to find the sweet spot.