Special Report

Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

President of the United States

Gregg Wood - Pool/Getty Images
Gregg Wood - Pool/Getty Images

Foreign-policy credentials: As president, Obama has taken on a number of major foreign-policy initiatives, including a renewed troop surge in Afghanistan, the negotiation of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the NATO intervention in Libya, the withdrawal from Iraq, ongoing trade negotiations with China, and of course, the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Overview: Obama is a much different candidate today from the senator who distinguished himself by his opposition to the "dumb war" on his way to the presidency in 2008. Obama has turned out, in many ways, to have pursued a fairly conventional, at times, hawkish foreign policy. He has had some notable successes, such as the bin Laden raid and this year’s withdrawal from Iraq — albeit on a timetable negotiated by his predecessor — and the successful overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. All the same, "apology tours" and "leading from behind" — referring to an unfortunate description of Obama’s diplomatic strategy by a White House staffer — have already become buzzwords for Republican candidates. He has also faced heavy criticism on the left for a sometimes inconsistent approach to international law in counterterrorism operations.

But with a significant economic recovery appearing unlikely and fewer domestic achievements to point to than he might have expected, coupled with the international inexperience of his opponents, Obama may make his foreign-policy wins the centerpiece of his reelection strategy.

Advisors: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.

On the issues:

Afghanistan/Pakistan: "We have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat," Obama announced last June, noting that the 33,000 "surge" troops he sent to Afghanistan in 2009 would be out of the country by the summer of 2012. Although a constant barrage of drone strikes and special operations raids have taken a harsh toll on al Qaeda, it may be difficult for Obama to make the case that Afghanistan has achieved stability or that Hamid Karzai’s government can stand on its own without U.S. assistance.

Relations with Pakistan have deteriorated significantly under Obama’s tenure, particularly following the bin Laden raid. He has pledged to "constantly evaluate" the relationship between the two countries going forward but says he would be hesitant to cut off aid that could "help the Pakistani people strengthen their own society and their own government."

Military spending: Backed by his then current defense secretary, Robert Gates, Obama announced last April that the Pentagon will lead a "fundamental review" of U.S. military capabilities in order to cut $400 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years. "We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world," Obama said. Of course, major cuts could come sooner than that if the congressional "supercommittee" fails to reach an agreement on deficit reduction by Nov. 23.

Immigration/borders: Obama insists that enacting comprehensive immigration reform, which would likely include a path to citizenship for at least some illegal immigrants already in the United States, is still a "top priority," but with little congressional enthusiasm for such a measure, it has been pushed to the back burner for now. Meanwhile, deportations of illegal immigrants are continuing at a record pace, though the administration touts the fact that a higher percentage of those deported have criminal records.

Obama has substantially increased the number of agents patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, but has also mocked the fence-building enthusiasm of Republicans, saying they won’t be happy until there’s a "moat with alligators."

Israel/Palestine: Obama’s engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has probably been the most frustrating foreign-policy initiative of his presidency and the one on which he is most often criticized by his Republican opponents. Obama continues to support negotiations on a two-state settlement of the conflict, but his best-remembered statement on the topic is controversial: his suggestion that Israel’s pre-1967 war borders be taken as a starting point for negotiations, a position fiercely opposed by Israel. More recently, the administration has confirmed that it will veto Palestine’s statehood bid in the U.N. Security Council.

Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed very strained at times. In a recently overheard conversation he told French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day."

China: Obama has repeatedly criticized China — most recently at the APEC summit in Honolulu — for currency policies that he says have a distorting effect on the global economy. The president has made a few cautious statements on China’s human rights record but came under criticism for delaying a White House meeting with the Dalai Lama. This year, the administration confirmed a $5.8 billion package of arms sales for Taiwan that provoked a predictable Chinese backlash.

Foreign aid: In his 2010 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama announced an overhaul of U.S. foreign aid policies, which he vowed will place them at the center of U.S. foreign policy. In the speech he called aid a "core pillar of American power." Nonetheless, foreign aid to a number of countries was cut by Congress in the 2012 budget.

Iran/nukes: Early in his presidency, Obama made several overtures to Iran in an effort to improve relations. Critics say this engagement strategy went too far during the 2009 Green Movement uprising against the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when the Obama administration was reluctant to overtly back the protesters. Since then, the administration has instituted a number of new sanctions against Iran that are aimed at halting its nuclear enrichment program. "We are not taking any options off the table. Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region but also to the United States," Obama said in a recent news conference in Hawaii.

Trade: In October, Obama signed long-delayed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. On his trip to Asia this November, Obama is working to promote a new trans-Pacific free trade agreement. "We’re not going to be able to put our folks back to work and grow our economy and expand opportunity unless the Asia-Pacific region is also successful," he said. Obama has indefinitely put on hold a campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA.

War on terror/detainees: Obama signed an executive order closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center as one of his first actions as president. The facility remains open, however, largely due to congressional opposition over where to house the remaining prisoners. Obama has put a halt to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" employed by George W. Bush’s administration but has enraged some civil liberties advocates by authorizing the extrajudicial killing of alleged al Qaeda terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. Obama has also disappointed some liberal supporters by resuming military trials of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo.

Environment: Despite his stated support for environmental legislation and green energy, there has been little progress on passing major climate-change bills under Obama’s watch. Thanks largely to Obama’s public intervention, an agreement was reached at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, but in failing to impose enforceable emissions targets, the meeting was widely considered a failure. This year, Obama abandoned tough new air-quality rules, adopted early in his administration.

Russia/reset: One of the centerpieces of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was the effort to "reset" relations with Russia. The president successfully negotiated the New START nuclear reduction treaty, though there have been significant disagreements with both Russia and his GOP opponents over the contours of missile defense. Human rights advocates have criticized the president for ignoring the erosion of Russian democracy. Russia has also continued to stymie U.S. efforts to impose tough international sanctions on Iran and Syria. Obama seemed to have made friends with President Dmitry Medvedev, but relations with Russia may only get tougher, with Vladimir Putin’s likely return to the Russian presidency.

Arab Spring: After a slow start, the Obama administration eventually came around to calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, joining the NATO intervention in Libya, and supporting stricter sanctions against Syria. The president has been less outspoken about other Persian Gulf allies, including Bahrain, which hosts a key U.S. naval base. Obama has urged Egypt and Tunisia to "set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership."

Other issues: Although he once described himself as a George H.W. Bush-school realist, in the past year Obama has learned to embrace humanitarian intervention, both in Libya and in central Africa, where military advisors have been sent to aid in the fight against the long-running insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army. There’s speculation that Nigeria may be next. It’s a measure of how much things have changed in the last four years that Republicans are now attacking the Democratic president for trying to spread democracy and human rights at the barrel of a gun.

As the European economic crisis has worsened, Obama has been speaking out more in support of strong measures to protect the common currency. "Ultimately what they are going to need is a firewall that sends a clear signal we stand behind the European project and we stand behind the euro," he said during his recent trip to Australia.

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