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Daniel W. Drezner

Did Andrew Sullivan eviscerate Obama’s foreign policy critics?

Andrew Sullivan has a Newsweek cover story designed to best allocate Tina Brown’s resources or to wave a big red flag at conservatives make the case that Obama’s tortoise-like strategy of slow but steady, focusing on the long haul, has left his excitable hare-like critics on the left and the right launching fantasy-based and not ...

Andrew Sullivan has a Newsweek cover story designed to best allocate Tina Brown’s resources or to wave a big red flag at conservatives make the case that Obama’s tortoise-like strategy of slow but steady, focusing on the long haul, has left his excitable hare-like critics on the left and the right launching fantasy-based and not reality-based critiques of his administration.  Or, as he puts it:  "The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong."

This has triggered the predictable reactions around the blogosphere, as well as Sullivan’s responses.  One of the biggest perks of blogging at FP is that I rarely wade into those shark-infested waters anymore.  I have more than a passing interest in Obama’s foreign policy, however, so I’m going to focus only on the foreign policy portions of Sullivan’s take and see if they hold up to empirical scrutiny.  Here are the key excerpts on his pushback against the right: 

On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement. Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest—but most ambitious—plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further. If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.

Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.

OK, so how did Sullivan do?

He has the facts on his side with respect to the BS about Obama apologizing for America.  This has been a standard line when the GOP candidates talk foreign policy and it’s total horses**t.  Sullivan’s comparison of Obama to George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower on foreign policy also makes sense.  The emerging strategic narrative of this administration is a shift in foreign policy resources from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, and realist-friendly presidents like Bush 41 and Eisenhower would approve. 

That said… arguing that George W. Bush "ignored" bin Laden seems like a gross exaggeration — even if many of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies were counterproductive.  More importantly, the notion that Libya somehow "counteracted" Iraq is a problematic formulation.  It’s far from clear whether Obama has been "winning the broader propaganda war" in the Middle East.  Don’t take my word for it, however — here’s PIPA’s Steven Kull:   

The picture is mixed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is weaker.  With revolutions in several Arab countries, frustrations with unpopular autocratic governments – a recruiting theme for terrorist groups – have been mitigated.  But one important contributing factor has not improved – widespread anger at America in the Muslim world.  While views have improved in Indonesia, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hostility toward the United States persists unabated.

This does not read like a victory in the propaganda war. 

OK, what about Sullivan’s foreign policy rebuttal to the left?  Here’s the key excerpt

This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game…. He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets.

Hmmm…. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what Sullivan is talking about with respect to Israel.  Ironically, Israel is one of the areas where the left and right agree that Obama has made a hash of things (albeit for different reasons).  First, it’s not clear to me at all how Obama’s policies have made it more likely that settlement construction will be halted on the West Bank.  Second, stepping back further, one could argue that Obama’s greatest strategic miscalculation was his belief that the Israel/Palestinian issue was the fulcrum through which one can understand the problems of the region.  Third, Israel/Palestine is precisely the area where a long-term, slow-game approach carries the biggest risks.  Long-term demographic and political pressures make a two-state deal less likely over time. 

Iran is a counterfactual question.  Indeed, it’s the favorite counterfactual question of the GOP 2012 presidential candidates.  It allows the candidates to portray Obama as weak, claim he botched things without any proof that the United States could have influenced the outcome, and promise that they would have handled it differently, which we’ll never know in a non-multiverse world.  Still, while Obama has succeeded in applying more economic pressure on  Iran than is commonly appreciated, I don’t see this regime going anywhere

So, how does Sullivan do?  He makes some valid points, but he proffers some serious whoppers as well.  This is far from a slam-dunk empirical refutation of Obama’s critics.  As a George H.W. Bush kind of foreign policy guy, I wanted Sullivan to empirically and logically eviscerate the more hysterical foreign policy critics out there.  He didn’t. 

Am I missing anything?  [UPDATE:  I did miss parallel blog posts by Andrew Exum and Kevin Drum that buttress the points made above. Go check them out.]

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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