A Man with a Plan

Unlike Mitt Romney, Barack Obama not only has a plan to strengthen American statecraft, he's got four years of achievements to show for his efforts.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

President Barack Obama heads into the home stretch of the 2012 campaign in an unusual situation for a Democrat. On matters of foreign policy and defense, Obama enjoys considerably more public confidence than his Republican challenger. For decades, the public has seen Republican presidential candidates as better qualified to handle matters of national security. But Obama has bucked the trend and effectively cornered the market when it comes to fulfilling the role of commander-in-chief and conducting U.S. statecraft.

Our colleague and sparring partner Peter Feaver, in rebutting our recent critique of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, also offers a take-down of Obama’s diplomacy. While Feaver claims to give Obama credit as due, it is at best stingy, couched, and caveated credit. Sure, he says, Obama did the right thing by orchestrating a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan — but he then marred that decision by announcing an "arbitrary" timeline for withdrawal. Feaver gives Obama plaudits for unprecedented sanctions and other coercive measures against Iran — but then says the White House just "went along with the British and French and the U.S. Congress," who really deserve the credit for the initiatives.

Feaver also claims that whenever the White House has gotten it right, it has done so by "following in the path of Obama’s Republican predecessor." We take issue with this characterization. Obama’s statecraft depends in important ways on its clear departure from the policies of George W. Bush. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging that a leading Republican voice on foreign policy finds merit in Obama’s foreign policy and asserts that, at least in some respects, it is "fully consistent" with what a Republican successor would do. If Feaver wants to credit Republicans for some of the policies Obama is pursuing, so be it; bipartisanship is very hard to come by these days and should be grasped whenever available.

We accept that Obama’s foreign policy has had its shortcomings. We’re both on the record, for example, expressing misgivings about some aspects of his approach to Afghanistan. But our net assessment is a very positive one. Obama has offered a brand of U.S. statecraft far more effective than what Bush had to offer, or what Romney promises.

Obama has enjoyed considerable success on three main fronts: managing the Bush legacy, renewing multilateral engagement, and affirmatively forging a long-term strategy geared to the emerging global agenda of the 21st century.

Managing the Bush Legacy: With draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with a deepening financial crisis, Bush handed Obama more than a full plate. The Iraq war was a huge strategic blunder that threatened to empower Iran and ignite a sectarian divide throughout the region. Nonetheless, Obama succeeded in implementing a responsible U.S. withdrawal, leaving behind a reasonably stable country. Iraq is not out of the woods, but it is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, in response to the growing threat from Iran, Obama has ramped up sanctions, increased the U.S. naval presence in the region, beefed up missile-defense capabilities, and tightened military ties with allies in the Persian Gulf. Iran is isolated in its own neighborhood and would face a powerful military coalition should it seek to stir up trouble in the Gulf.

As for Afghanistan, Obama sent an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers to finish dismantling al Qaeda, further degrade the Taliban, and help create conducive conditions for the Afghan government and its security forces to mature. He also increased the use of drone strikes on militants in Pakistan who have been aiding and abetting insurgents in Afghanistan. As Obama sticks to his scheduled drawdown of U.S. troops, the capacities of the Afghan government and its security forces have fallen short of expectations, and the Taliban have proved more resilient than expected. But coalition forces have accomplished their main objective — effectively eradicating al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is past time to begin handing off increasing responsibility for the country to the Afghan people themselves.

On counterterrorism more broadly, Obama wisely toned down talk of a global war on terrorism and shrewdly focused on going after al Qaeda, taking out terrorist leaders (yes, including Osama bin Laden, but numerous others as well), and taking on al Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. He did not close Guantanamo, nor did he completely overhaul the legal procedures for handling detainees. As Feaver correctly points out, presidents often do find more areas of continuity than they expect. But these continuities do not compromise the fundamental and effective nature of the broader shifts in counterterrorism strategy orchestrated during Obama’s watch.

Renewing Multilateral Engagement: Obama has restored to American leadership in the world an appropriate balance between power and partnership. The Bush administration relied too heavily on power and bravado alone — a mistake that Romney seems all too prepared to repeat – failing to understand that brute force and intimidation often do more to invite resistance and resentment than acquiescence and deference. Instead, Obama has resuscitated the centrist brand of U.S. internationalism that proved so successful during the 20th century. Washington has returned to the tradition of leading through persuasion and teamwork, relying on coercion only as a last resort.

Republicans regularly counter that Obama has provided weak and vacillating leadership. But they mistake prudence and pragmatism for weakness. To be sure, Obama’s statecraft lacks the hard edges and black-and-white absolutes of his predecessor’s. But that is one of the main reasons for its success.

Allies again feel like partners that matter, not objects of American power. The United
States has shored up its alliances in East Asia. All nine European countries recently surveyed by Pew had more positive views of the United States in 2012 than 2008 — including, by the way, Poland, a country that Republicans mistakenly claim Obama abandoned when he revamped plans for missile defense. "Leading from behind" may have been unfortunate phrasing when an administration official first used it to describe Washington’s management of the coalition formed to intervene in Libya. But the Libya mission, in which Europeans flew the lion’s share of air sorties and some Arab states joined in, is a good model for a world in which U.S. allies shoulder their fair share of the heavy lifting.

Relations with the Arab world are on a much better footing. Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 set the stage for a more productive dialogue about Islam, political change, and the U.S. role in the Middle East. To be sure, America’s regional engagement has had its ups and downs, especially amid the upheaval sweeping the Arab world. Nonetheless, a deeper sense of mutual understanding helps advance America’s interests in the region. The fact that the Egyptian revolution was anti-Hosni Mubarak — and not anti-American — was a telling and positive sign in this regard.

Finally, Obama has replaced talk of the "axis of evil" with a readiness to engage adversaries. Washington’s outreach is not, as Republicans would have it, a naïve form of appeasement nor an apology for American hegemony; rather, it is bold and courageous diplomacy. Relations between Moscow and Washington have been more difficult of late, in no small part due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alignment with the Syrian government and his crackdown on the political opposition at home. But the "reset" between Russia and the United States has yielded significant progress on a number of important issues, including nuclear arms control, Afghanistan, and diplomacy with Iran. Patient engagement with Myanmar is now paying off; diplomatic and commercial contacts have deepened in step with political liberalization.

Engagement does not always produce quick results. Obama’s outreach to Tehran has yet to be reciprocated. But a diplomatic breakthrough is still possible. Meanwhile, Obama has imposed ever tighter sanctions and taken other steps to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. And if Tehran continues to refuse cooperation, Obama still holds the option of a military strike in reserve. In this year’s State of the Union, Obama insisted that he "would take no options off the table" in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In March, he followed up, noting that the Iranians "recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say." Obama’s approach hardly represents appeasement; it is coercive diplomacy backed up by the threat of force. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have been beating a path to Jerusalem to consult and coordinate with Israel, which has been having its own robust debate over the military option.

These accomplishments take place against the backdrop of Washington’s repaired relationship with international institutions. There remain plenty of reasons committed multilateralists should be critical of the United Nations. But the Security Council played a key role in sanctioning the intervention in Libya and in imposing tougher sanctions against Iran, demonstrating the merits of a good working relationship with the United Nations. The Obama administration’s repair of U.S. standing at the U.N. stands in stark contrast to the estrangement that set in during the tenure of Bush’s U.N. ambassador — John Bolton — who happens to be a key adviser to Romney. Whether in the U.N., NATO, the G-20, or the World Bank, the United States enjoys benefits from being a team player rather than an isolated bully.

The bottom line is that Obama, at home and abroad, has restored confidence in American power and purpose. That is no small accomplishment.

A 21st-Century Strategy: Even with the immediate crises and ever-full inbox, Obama has succeeded in broadening the aperture and laying a foundation for a long-term U.S. strategy geared to the emerging challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

The evolving pivot to Asia is a key component of this rebalancing of priorities. The United States is deepening its commercial and strategic presence in East Asia. This move will ensure that the U.S. economy fully benefits from the region’s economic dynamism. It will also enhance America’s ability to preserve regional stability amid China’s ongoing rise. Washington is seeking to deepen trust and cooperate on shared interests with China, while at the same time firmly deterring the Chinese from resorting to intimidating or aggressive behavior.

Even as the United States pivots to East Asia, Washington continues to face pressing challenges in the Middle East. The clock on Iran’s nuclear program is not ticking as fast as proponents of immediate military action claim, justifying Obama’s diplomatic patience. Nonetheless, a diplomatic breakthrough must soon be in the offing if Tehran wants to avoid a dangerous confrontation. The Israeli-Palestinian issue may have disappeared from the headlines, but the United States remains a key player in getting the peace process back on track. The erosion of trust between Israelis and Palestinians creates a pressing need for the mediation and reassurance that only Washington can provide. The Arab Spring continues to unfold in an uncertain and unpredictable way. Obama is right to pursue a strategy that has its requisites and redlines, but that also differentiates among the unique circumstances in each country experiencing political change. He is also appropriately standing behind the forces of democracy and pluralism, but in a way that avoids blanket opposition to Islamist political forces.

The Obama administration has deepened its engagement with emerging powers around the globe — both bilaterally and through the G-20. The United States enjoys an expanding commercial and strategic partnership with India, as well as broadening ties with Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and other regional powers. And Washington continues to offer its best advice as the European Union struggles to stabilize the eurozone. As the international distribution of wealth and power continues to shift, American leadership will remain indispensable to preserving a cooperative, rules-based global order.

On free trade, the Obama administration finalized bilateral agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. Washington is working toward more open trade in the Asia-Pacific region through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a framework for ongoing multilateral negotiations. Global trade liberalization, including through the Doha Round of negotiations, has stalled amid the financial crisis and the global slump. But the building blocks are in place for Obama to push ahead on this front in a second term, advancing international openness within a framework of rules-based competition.

Obama has also teed up a rich agenda of other issues to be pursued should he win reelection. Issues addressed in the Democratic Party Platform as well as in recent speeches and actions by the president include: pursuing arms control and counter-proliferation; advancing the Responsibility to Protect and other mechanisms aimed at preventing mass atrocities and related humanitarian emergencies; addressing cybersecurity; promoting global health and development; advancing human rights and democratization; and combating global warming. Progress on some of these fronts has admittedly fallen short of expectations. But a second term would afford Obama the opportunity to put renewed energy behind these objectives.

Finally, Obama is acting on the reality that economic and political renewal at home is the indispensable foundation for strength abroad. Fiscal solvency, a world-class education system, industrial capacity, and technological prowess are essential ingredients of military primacy. So too are economic opportunity and optimism preconditions for political solvency. The bipartisan consensus that guided U.S. foreign policy during the second half of the 20th century rested on the ability of broadly shared prosperity to ameliorate partisan cleavages.

Obama entered office in 2009 committed to restoring bipartisan civility to American politics. That objective remains elusive. A second term offers him the opportunity to renew the quest and revive the political consensus needed to anchor U.S. statecraft, Obama is also well set to revitalize the economic base on which national power rests and to build on the international groundwork he has already laid for advancing American interests and values.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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