Contrary to what Republican presidential candidates keep trumpeting, in the area of foreign policy Obama is doing just fine in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The redoubtable Brookings Institute, the original middle-of-the-road think tank and an icon in this arena for over 100 years, carefully acknowledged this in a May of 2015 report. “Both his critics and his defenders tend to use unrealistic benchmarks in grading his presidency,” the report first observes. “If we use the kinds of standards that are applied to most American leaders…” it concludes, “Mr. Obama has in fact done acceptably well.”
This conclusion is confirmed by results released in October of 2015 by the Pew Research Institute. In a poll of over 40 countries world-wide, Pew reports that Obama enjoys an average approval rating of 65% in world affairs. In the important four countries of our closest allies in Western Europe – the U.K., Germany, France and Spain - it is even higher, with an average approval of 75% or better. Only in Russia, China and the Middle East of the major countries of the world does Obama receive truly bad ratings, but these regions also gave Bush terrible ratings. The most that can be said here is that Obama has not been able to improve upon the positions he inherited from the Bush administration.
In fact, Obama has racked up a remarkable record of accomplishments in foreign policy in the last seven years. Consider: he (1) rebuilt the worldwide reputation of the United States from its lowest point ever during the last days of the Bush administration to one of general approval and good relations with most countries by mid-2015; (2) cautiously improved relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia; (3) significantly improved relations with Xi Jinping of China; (4) reopened the embassy in Cuba; (5) successfully completed implementation of SALT II; (3) successfully reached a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issues with Iran; (4) achieved working trade agreements with Europe, China and the Pacific Rim countries for new multi-national trade pacts; (5) is on the brink of achieving the first ever multi-national agreement on climate change; (6) withdrew all troops from Iraq on schedule; (7) significantly degraded al Qaeda, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden; and (8) is on-target for significant reduction in troop requirements in Afghanistan.
There are huge problems that have cropped up, or remain, and which overshadow some of these gains.
He clearly has not succeeded in all that he set out to do. He has been unable to close Guantanamo. We continue to struggle in Afghanistan. Iraq is coming apart. The emergence of ISIL is a real threat. The situation in Eastern Europe is tense. Some of these failures were inherent and left over from the days of Bush and prior, some were the result of early mistakes by Obama in resetting the direction of his policies, and some are simply works still in process as a result of a constantly changing dynamic in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
One area for which he is roundly criticized by the Republicans is not a mistake. The concept of “leadership from behind” is the product of his decision to change the direction with which we implement operations in foreign policy; to build coalitions and seek consensus before action, and to defer, where appropriate, and allow others with greater interest or greater proximity to the crisis at hand, to take the lead both in planning and implementation. He has said repeatedly that it is not necessary for the United States always to be the first ones in, always to own the plans or concepts of operation, or always to position itself as the ultimate leader.
This is true not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, where the ills and mistakes committed in “The Ugly American,” Lederer’s and Burdick’s classic of the late 1950’s, are illustrative of why the mere presence of the United States can be toxic to any situation. The animosity towards the United States by the countries of the Middle East erupted with the disastrous decision to go to war against Iraq, then continued through the series of mistakes, incompetence and egregious mishandling of the post-war developments under the Bush administration. It has not abated during the Obama years.
Given this situation, plus the outbreak of Arab Spring and the uncertainties surrounding Putin’s intentions in the Ukraine and elsewhere, it is not feckless to be cautious, nor to wait until a concept of operation had matured to the point of mutual agreement among allies, before proceeding. To have followed the hawks’ cry of “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” would, in most analyst’s eyes, have landed us in a much more precarious situation with respect to Eastern Europe and conditions in the Middle East than we find ourselves in today.
We may not be in a good position yet in all the hot spots of the world, but it could have been much, much worse. It is instructive that, aside from the few regions mentioned above, the only entities truly wringing their hands over the choices Obama has made in these areas are not among our allies or even among those directly affected, but rather are only from the right wing media crowd and the Republican presidential candidates, all from within our own country.
No one knows where history will eventually place Obama in his management of foreign policy. Surveying the current writings, and sifting out the obviously politically biased commentary, one might expect the grade somewhere in the high C to mid B range – perhaps even an A minus, depending upon unfolding developments with ISIL and the Ukraine.
One thing is certain: Obama does not deserve the label of being the President responsible for making the worst foreign policy decisions ever. That badge of dishonor clearly and demonstrably continues to belong exclusively to the 43rd President, George Walker Bush, and to his cabal of cronies, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Sununu, and Rove.