Analysts of foreign policy often dream or fantasize more than they analyze. Every single ideological stripe or every single political Internet site produces its analyses in accordance with preconceived notions or preferred frames of references. It is often difficult to know if analysts from different backgrounds are talking about the same events or policies. I am not talking about realists vs idealists for there are many more foreign policy churches than just two.
It is often like the famous Indian story about the blind men and the elephant: every one has a totally different conception of the elephant. Usually only time, and therefore history, enables one to find out which interpretations were the correct ones. Thus we now know that the missile gap between the US and the USSR during the Cold War was not the one which so many politicians and simple war-mongers referred to in the West: the US was always ahead and its economy was always much stronger, even at the time of Sputnik.
Now with the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program and the multiple battles in the Middle East a myriad of contradictions have flourished in articles, blogs and books. Obama is accused of cozying up to Iran with his eyes wide shut, some even argue that it is a return to the alliance with the "Persians" which shows Obama is ready to throw Israel under the bus. Saudi Arabia is said to doubt the US because it feels its President is so weak. Egypt supposedly turned to France to buy its latest aircraft for similar reasons.
In Europe some analysts also consider Obama is weak and that is the reason why he is not giving Ukrainians the lethal weapons (an oxymoron by the way) they request. Others argue that Obama is to the right of the Bush 1 administration and lets his adviser Victoria Nuland run the show which can only lead to a new Cold War (now threatening to become a hot one).
With Syria Obama is blamed for not bombing the Assad régime in 2013 and therefore appearing weak. He is now accused of forming a tacit alliance with the butcher of Damas and also with the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to defeat ISIS. But then the US supports Saudi Arabia in its intervention in Yemen although the UN did not authorize it. So the US is cooperating with Iran in Iraq while cooperating with Saudi Arabia in its major anti-shite bombings. The US also cooperates with its allies in Europe over Ukraine though Ms Nuland keeps insulting Europeans (fuck Europe) or bashing Germany (Merkel a defeatist). Obama talks tough on Russia but is on the same side as Putin against Islamists in Syria.
Netanyahu keeps trying to frighten the world about Iran, knowing full well that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb nor could it use one if it had it. Israel is talking as if the US were its enemy over Iran although it is financially, diplomatically and economically dependent on America. Friends use the rhetoric of enemies and enemies work together. Iran shares an objective with the US in Iraq but is radically opposed in Yemen. This is the stuff foreign policy is made of. Always.
Obama plays the foreign policy game the way all American presidents have played it. Iran-contra, for those who remember, involved the US, under supposedly super tough Reagan, illegally delivering weapons to Iran although the US supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war of aggression against the Islamic Republic. The proceeds from this sale of weapons were used to illegally support the contras in Nicaragua. Cynicism and double-dealing are the rule in international relations. After 9/11, Iran and the US cooperated in the fight against the Taliban--without becoming friends for all this. Then the US, with its close ally Israel, resorted to sabotage of nuclear installations in Iran (stuxnet virus). Iraq under the butcher Hussein had been a good ally in the 80s when Rumsfeld went to Bagdad to pay a friendly visit. Bush junior refused to allow Israel to bomb Iran in 2008. American foreign policy is far more stable than the commentariat acknowledges.
Alliances of convenience are the staple of foreign policy as any reader of Machiavelli knows. Obama wants a deal over Iranian nuclear capabilities for it would be a major success of US foreign policy: Iran would not be a threat to Israel (which it is not really today anyway) but mostly Iran could not enjoy the prestige that this bomb might give it and thus could not lord it over Saudi Arabia or Israel. The deal Obama wants is actually in Israel's interest but Netanyahu needs an enemy or scapegoat for his own domestic reasons and his own military-industrial complex.
In Ukraine, Obama probably knows how not to get too far and if Nuland or McCain called the shots war with Russia would be a distinct possibility. It is wrong to argue that Obama was so busy with the pivot to the Pacific that he did not want to intervene in Europe. The US pushed its luck and its bases (NATO bases) closer and closer to Russia from Clinton onward. Americans thought the bear was defanged and Russia could be treated like Iraq or Serbia or maybe Venezuela. The US cornered the bear and then was surprised by the bear's brutal reaction. Obama talked about a reset which Putin's initial post 9/11 offer of cooperation made a reasonable proposition but then the US pushed further. The bear-baiter was taken aback.
Some argue that Obama is a neo-realist, but then he is les incisive than real realists like Walt and Mearsheimer, or that he is a pragmatist or neo-pragmatist. Whatever the label Obama, (that is, in fact, the many agencies, advisers and foreign policy decision makers working for his administration) is pushing the same agenda as former presidents which means projecting power to achieve more presence and ...power in the world. He fully supports Israel whatever is said about it for there is nothing pushing him to get closer to the Palestinians. He pushed Putin but not as far as fighting him in Crimea for he knows the stakes would be too high. He encircles China while the US and China have formed a kind of duopoly.
Lord Palmerston famously said in 1848: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow". This is the golden rule of foreign policy. So Obama's twists and turns, apparent weaknesses and reversals, his seeming contradictions can be understood in this frame. The interests of the US or of its dominant class are that Iran should neither have a bomb nor get too big for its boots in Iraq and the Middle East, that Israel should remain a close ally and client state in the Middle East without launching dangerous military attacks that could upset the fragile system of quasi-alliances in the region, that Russia should be kept down though not prompted into a serious military attack, that China should be a viable economic partner but kept to its sphere of influence and not threaten Japan, that Europe should be a close economic ally but not a major competitor nor a united force in the world.
There are shifts, twists and turns in the official rhetoric a few blunders like the Libya invasion in 2011 and probably a miscalculation about Russia which Clinton & Bush II also made but, overall, Obama has not strayed from the objective of US hegemony and global dominance. He resorts to other means than his predecessors, global surveillance for instance, but he has remained within the mainstream of US dealings with the world. On the left, people argue he is defending the empire, on the right people are reluctant to admit he has fought as hard an any former president to maintain American leadership, that is hegemony. There are curves and obstacles on the road but Obama navigates in the usual American way. The right is wrong to criticize him: he is doing what they would have done, only in a more subtle way.