Reality Check

The Goldilocks Principle

No one's perfect, and surely not President Obama. But in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy, it's hard to argue he hasn't done most things just about right.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Gas prices and bad news from Afghanistan aside, the presidential gods seem to be looking more favorably on Barack Obama these days. Not only are job numbers rising, but as the campaign debates have revealed, the U.S. president’s Republican opponents are having a hard time finding a sweet spot on which to attack his foreign policy. And here’s why.

Almost four years in, Obama’s approach to the world might seem like the poster child for dashed hopes, deflated dreams, and unrealized expectations. Yet the president’s foreign policy also reflects a pretty impressive tale of competence in the rough and tumble world in which America now operates.

Despite some tactical blunders and far too much Panglossian rhetoric early on, Obama has gotten the big issues just about right, and like the unnamed English general who claimed that some of his greatest victories were the battles he never fought, Obama has managed to stay out of trouble too.

With the exception of killing Osama bin Laden, the president has had no spectacular victories — but no spectacular failures either. Indeed, on balance, he has crafted a policy suited to his times and to American interests. Not too cold, not too hot on key issues, Obama has defined a mix of "just right" policies that would make Goldilocks proud.

It certainly didn’t start out that way. Obama has always fashioned himself a transformational political figure destined to alter the arc of America’s domestic and foreign policies. He came into office with the economy as his most important priority, which meant some retrenchment with regard to expending his time and America’s resources abroad.

Still, as an internationalist by temperament and experience, Obama was a man of the world committed to improving America’s image. Just as on the domestic side, where fixing the economy was to be accompanied by transformative social change, Obama wanted to do big things abroad.

If George W. Bush had sought to transform the world through regime change, preventive war, and the division of the world into Manichaean poles of good and evil, right and wrong, Obama set out to produce his own countertransformation — largely through engagement, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, high-sounding rhetoric, and the symbolic power of his persona.

Either it was a very smart approach designed to substitute words for deeds at a moment when resources and political capital for an active role abroad were in short supply, or it was a naive ideal out of touch with the realities of the cruel world the president had inherited.

Within days of his inauguration, the president would announce the first of two special representatives (for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan) in what was to become an empire of envoys, and he set a high bar for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a higher one for a settlements freeze. In June 2009, he would drive the Arabs and Europeans wild with excitement and expectation with his speech in Cairo, raising their collective hopes that, finally, American policy toward the region would be fair and tough (toward Israel) and that the Arabs would finally get a hearing from a man who understood them. To America’s adversaries, Iran and Syria, he seemed to offer serious engagement. And to the international community, in a 2009 speech in Prague, he offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Back on Planet Earth, Obama’s foreign policy 1.0 proved long on good intentions and nice-sounding words but very short on strategy and results. It didn’t last long. Within two years, the transformer-in-chief seemed to have been transformed himself: He proved unwilling to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, stepped up the drone war (over a three-year period, the president has approved at least 239 strikes, more than five times the 44 approved by his predecessor), stepped back from the settlement freeze and his fight with Israel over the peace process, toughened sanctions on Iran and kept them on Syria, and surged in Afghanistan. The president’s 2.0 seemed a lot tougher and far less transformative.

That Obama took on some of the policies of a less reckless, less ideological, and much smarter version of Bush is indisputable. And the reason was pretty clear: In inheriting two wars (three, if you count the so-called global war on terror), the new president had very little room to maneuver.

Between the generals invested in a win, the Republicans waiting to pounce, and the deep commitment in American lives and treasure, not to mention the always present concept of U.S. credibility, early extrication was never an option. So Obama surged and doubled down on the good war in Afghanistan and got out of the bad one as quickly as possible in Iraq. Not much room for bold, transformative action here. Best to concentrate on fixing the economy and color between the lines.

Even without the parameters laid down by his predecessor, the world Obama had visions of transforming just wasn’t going to cooperate. America wasn’t in absolute decline, but its own broken economic house and the new competitiveness of a number of powers great and small made challenges to American leadership and power more than credible.

This new world is defined by asymmetrical wars in which tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and loyalties trump military power; by historical conflicts driven by trauma, memory, and religion, immune to the charms and persuasions of American diplomacy; by the presence of spoiler states like Iran and Syria with regional ambitions that conflict with America’s own; by nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah that America can neither engage nor destroy; and by allies — some close (Israel), some not so (Pakistan) — that have proved to be tough traders when it comes to protecting their interests.

In this world, being loved counted for very little. Being respected — even feared — mattered far more. And the president was not nearly as respected, let alone feared, as he needed to be. Sadly, for the great power, president "yes we can" heard "no you won’t" far too frequently. From Hamid Karzai to Nouri al-Maliki, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Mahmoud Abbas, everyone said no to America without much cost or consequence — all of which undermined U.S. street cred.

Still, despite the flaws, uncertainties, messy outcomes, and screw-ups, an honest man or woman would have to say that Obama has fared pretty well in this less-than-brave new world. He isn’t a transformer of U.S. foreign policy offering bold new visions or spectacular military victories or diplomatic triumphs. He’s more the cautious actor searching quite deliberately for that middle ground between what’s desirable and what’s possible.

And he’s getting better at it. His call to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was a sound one. In doing so, he found the balance between what America’s staying could possibly have achieved and the positive benefits of extrication from a war in which America’s direct presence no longer really mattered. And even though he surged in Afghanistan, he’s on a glide path toward extrication from a war that can’t be won there too.

The same search for the middle was evident in Libya, where Obama found the right balance — however messy it was — between doing nothing and everything unilaterally. He assembled a coalition for cover (consisting of the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the Arab League, too) that actually succeeded in removing Muammar al-Qaddafi without putting America in a position where it would have to own yet another Muslim country.

His reaction to the Arab Spring was another balancing act: try to get on the right side of historic political change, but understand that Washington’s role and influence really aren’t determinative anymore. Obama seems to understand intuitively that if you stand in the way of history’s power you’ll likely get run over by it. So he operated from the sidelines, supporting change in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, precisely where America belonged.

We see the same wise caution on Syria, where the president has rightly resisted the calls from Congress and the chattering classes for half-baked ideas that could get America in an encumbering, open-ended intervention with no clear goals. America may yet be drawn in, but it will only be after all other options have been exhausted and a strategy with clear goals, with responsibility shared with others, and without illusions emerges.

Iran may yet constitute Obama’s greatest challenge. There may simply be no middle ground. But the president has found a "just right" Goldilocks approach for the moment. He has also bought time and space for diplomacy and the heightening of nonmilitary pressures on the Iranian regime. But unless the mullahs back down on the nuclear issue — or the Israelis do — we’re drifting toward a confrontation.

All presidents make mistakes. The only question is whether they learn from them and make the necessary adjustments.

Barack Obama set out to end two wars and improve America’s global image in the process. His goal was not to withdraw from the world, but to be wiser about how and where the United States projects its power. We can forgive him for setting expectations way too high and for overreaching, in large part because — unlike his immediate predecessor — he has steered clear of disaster. In the process, the president has learned to respect history’s power, the future’s uncertainties, and America’s limitations. And for that he has made America’s foreign policy all the stronger.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola