All in all, I don't think Barack Obama has been a very good president. In a new updated version of my book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, being published this fall, I rank him 34th of 41 presidents rated. His further injection of the government into the health care and financial industries, his temporary government takeover of two of the three major American auto companies, his massive pork-filled fiscal stimulus bill, and his only marginal improvement over George W. Bush's abysmal record on civil liberties have all been quite disappointing and troubling. Yet despite all the recent criticism, Barack Obama's foreign policy may be the best since Republican and Democratic presidents in the mid- to late-1970s.
Although his foreign policy record is not perfect, Obama, more than most recent presidents, seems to have at least a vague inkling that the United States is overextended internationally and that the American public is exhausted with the lost lives and money in foreign military adventures and the massive national debt to which they have contributed. His first clue might have been the two military defeats that George W. Bush bequeathed to him upon leaving office. Obama wisely pulled out of the quagmire in Iraq (although the Iraqi government helped him avoid leaving a residual U.S. force to be caught up in the current chaos) and will eventually at least mostly withdraw from the tar pit in Afghanistan. (The "crazy-like-a-fox" Hamid Karzai is trying to help the U.S. exit here too, but his likely more pliant successor may allow a remaining U.S. force to be caught up in the likely future chaos.) Although it is true that Obama should have been more resolute in getting out of Afghanistan, rather than getting more U.S. troops killed in a fruitless surge, he eventually began to draw down those forces.
In Libya, to satisfy his ally France, Obama helped NATO use air power to get rid of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. If this had to be done (it didn't), "leading from behind" and using only air power was the way to do it, despite the criticism from Republican hawks, such as John McCain and his sidekick Lindsay Graham, who never met a country on which they didn't want the United States to lead a pointless attack. In contrast to George W. Bush, Obama, with a few exceptions (for example, the successful Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden), has at least kept his attempts to kill terrorists to minor air strikes overseas using automated drones.
On Syria and Iran, Obama has so far wisely been reluctant to get the U.S. militarily involved. The United States cannot stop every civil war in the world, and in Syria, Obama has wisely strictly limited the U.S. military aid that could fall inadvertently into the hands of radical Islamists -- learning the lesson from Jimmy Carter's and Ronald Reagan's inadvertent creation of al-Qaeda through military assistance to the Islamist Afghan Mujahideen during the 1980s. Instead of attacking Syria, he negotiated, with help from Russia, a dismantling of Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program. More than any other foreign policy action by Obama, this episode is alleged to have demonstrated his weakness to McCain and the other interventionists. Actually, the criticism is more a sad reflection of the belligerent expectations among the American foreign policy elite of U.S. behavior abroad.
Instead of being led into yet another war, this one with Iran over its nuclear program, Obama negotiated an interim agreement with Iran to freeze -- and in some instances roll back -- that program. Apparently, at this writing, substantial progress is being made on a final agreement that would permanently restrict Iran's program. Such an arrangement would be a major success in peaceful nuclear non-proliferation.
And instead of trying to make presidential campaign hay against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of the fairly minor episode at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Republican hawks should come up with a better solution than Obama's multilateral attempts to pressure nuclear-armed powers -- Russia, China, and North Korea -- to behave.
Obama and his staff are convinced that a cautious approach to foreign policy is helping the United States avoid the foreign entanglements that the American people have come to hate. Obama defended this foreign policy by saying, "Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" He cogently added, "The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven't really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again." Obama also said, "I am confident that when I'm done as president, there's still going to be parts of the world that are having war, that are having conflict, that are oppressing their own people. So I'm not going to solve all these problems."
Other recent presidents could learn something from this rather Taoist attitude -- the foreign policy that realizes that "stuff happens" in the world that the United States shouldn't do anything about. As noted, George W. Bush entangled the United States in two massive and failed nation-building quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Soviet Union collapsed, removing the major constraint on U.S. military adventurism, Bill Clinton went hog wild and intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. George H. W. Bush also took advantage of the USSR's demise to conduct a needless war against Soviet ally Saddam Hussein and also invaded Panama to oust a leader who posed little threat to the United States. Ronald Reagan conducted a botched invasion of Grenada, repeatedly provoked and attacked Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, meddled in and withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon in disgrace, sold arms to terrorist-sponsoring Iran, and attempted to destabilize and overthrow, through covert means, many foreign governments he didn't like. Only when we go back to the post-Vietnam War presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter can we find a more sober and restrained foreign policy than Obama's.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously identified Libya as a former colonial possession of France. The post has been updated accordingly.
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