On Obama's foreign policy

Via Andrew Sullivan, some interesting posts on judging Obama’s foreign policy by Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison. The latter writes:

Among post-WWII Presidents, Obama’s foreign policy record has been competent enough that it shouldn’t be ranked anywhere near the real failures (e.g., LBJ, Bush II, Kennedy, etc.), but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the very best records, either. It’s true that Obama’s record seems much better than it is when compared with George W. Bush’s, but then that is the relevant comparison for political purposes. Even when Obama blunders, he doesn’t suffer as much political damage because we still remember how badly Bush performed and we are regularly reminded of what the terrifying practical alternative to Obama was every time McCain sounds off on an international crisis. Judged by those admittedly low standards, Obama’s record looks a lot better than if we assessed his overall record simply on the merits. Bush’s foreign policy failures helped make Obama President, and they continue to make his own record look better by comparison, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for people who lived through the Bush years to avoid making that comparison when judging Obama’s record.

It all depends on the standards you apply. By GWB standards he’s fantastic. By US post-WW2 standards he’s alright — especially, he is cautious and pragmatic. By mainstream human rights standards he’s pretty awful, mostly because of the continued use of rendition, Guantanamo Bay, assassinations and drones — in which he continues GWB policies. One of the more recurrent criticism of Obama is his lack of overarching doctrine, precisely because of his pragmatic case-by-case approach. The bottom line, compared with most other presidents, he’s OK and performed well in some instances, such as the Libyan intervention (in the sense that he did it in a manner that minimized possibility for US overreach, which was the stated goal), and pretty embarrassingly in other cases (Israel).

But where Obama fails more generally is that, at a moment when the policies of GWB meant that American foreign policy needed a radical overhaul and conceptual rethink — most notably a withdrawal from the Middle East — Obama shied away from that. You might argue he tried somewhat on Israel/Palestine, but I do not believe that attempt was genuine. More generally, in the Middle East at least, policy has been more of the same and continued support, post-Arab uprisings, for the traditional dictators/allies of the region: pro-Saudi and pro-Khalifa in Bahrain, pro-SCAF in Egypt, a massive surge in spending to protect the Jordanian monarchy (or more accurately, King Abdallah’s current power structure), pro-status quo in Morocco, etc. I will concede a good reaction on Tunisia, although we don’t know the details there yet.

This is disputed. Jeremy Pressman has a good post about this at The Monkey Cage, taking (within American academia) the positions of Marc Lynch (Obama went against Mubarak) versus those of Jason Brownlee[1] (Obama supported the military backbone of the regime) as two sides in the debate. Jeremy agrees with Marc, I agree with Jason. After the disbursement of US military aid (by the administration exercising its waiver) in 2012, the lack of strong reaction to the Egyptian military killing over 150 protestors and imprisoning thousands more during 2011–2012, and the lack of strong reaction to the complete perversion of the transition process (especially in the last week), I don’t think you can say the Obama administration has taken a pro-democracy position on Egypt. It’s taken a pro-status quo one.

You have to look at what Washington does, not what it says. As long as that military aid money continues to flow (no matter whether it is for domestic reasons or not), you can’t say the US is NOT “maintaining Arab authoritarianism” as Jeremy argues. But of course this is only one aspect of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and cannot be used to assess the conduct of Obama’s foreign policy overall. Overall, I’m relieved not to see an adventurist president. But in the specifics in the region I care about, I don’t see much success aside from the handling of the Libyan intervention, which I did not support in any case.


  1. Jason has a forthcoming book in which he makes that case, see this post.  ↩