COMMENTARY

What you don’t know about Obama’s foreign policy

President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, Friday, March 30, 2012 after traveling to Maine and Vermont.
Susan Walsh | AP
President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, Friday, March 30, 2012 after traveling to Maine and Vermont.
Posted April 01, 2012, at 8:58 a.m.

Barack Obama campaigned as a visionary on foreign policy. He vowed to repair the breach with the Muslim world, make a major dent in global poverty, establish detente with dictators, arrest climate change and work toward global denuclearization.

But since he reached the Oval Office, pragmatism has won the day more often than not, rendering the president a reluctant realist more than an idealist. Now, as Obama seeks re-election at a moment of major challenges on the global stage, let’s lay to rest some myths about his successes and failures.

1. Obama is “leading from behind.”

This phrase, made famous in a 2011 New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, was attributed to an anonymous White House staffer in explaining the Obama administration’s approach to the international operation in Libya. “Leading from behind” soon became a popular shorthand for Obama’s supposed approach to foreign policy.

But to the extent that the president does “lead from behind,” it is mainly where American interests are secondary, or in cases such as Egypt’s revolution where Washington’s role cannot be too great lest it delegitimize local allies. With Libya’s revolution, for instance, Europe’s oil flow was directly affected, while no vital U.S. interest was at stake. So it made sense for British and French forces to take the lead after the initial U.S.-led suppression of Libyan air defenses — and the result was a relatively cheap and rapid overthrow of a brutal dictator.

When America’s core security interests have been on the line and the United States has had the power to do something about it, Obama has usually been decisive and led from out front. That’s true for the campaign against al-Qaida as well as the administration’s increased focus on Asia over the past 18 months, designed to reassure regional allies and remind China of U.S. interests in its neighborhood.

2. Obama apologizes for America.

This charge is a popular refrain on the GOP presidential primary trail. It has its origins in Obama’s tendency during the 2008 campaign to sound at times as if he blamed President George W. Bush’s policies as much as Iranian and North Korean leaders for the breakdown in U.S. dealings with those states. Critics have also cited the president’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, addressing U.S. relations with the Islamic world, as another instance of apology.

While there is plenty to debate in Obama’s foreign policy record, this particular allegation does not hold up. For every Cairo speech acknowledging past mistakes, there has been another — such as the one in Oslo later that year, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize — in which Obama has reminded the world that his top responsibilities are to protect the American people and unapologetically command the nation’s military forces in the wars they are fighting.

His Cairo speech was a recognition that mistakes had been made on all sides, rather than an apology for America. This approach made the defense of American values and interests that were central to the speech all the more compelling.

3. Obama has markedly improved America’s standing in the Muslim world.

Despite his Cairo speech, despite his time growing up in Indonesia, despite his effort to pressure Israel to freeze settlements and despite his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama enters his re-election campaign with his own popularity (and that of the United States) in the broader Islamic world mired at levels similar to those of the late George W. Bush presidency.

Several factors have contributed to this, such as the failure to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the use of drone strikes against al-Qaida targets.

Part of the problem, too, was Obama’s flawed approach to Israel, which rested on currying favor with the Arab world by distancing the United States from Israel. But Arabs instead wanted Obama to use U.S. leverage to coax meaningful concessions out of Israel. Proposing Palestinian statehood at the United Nations one year only to promise to veto the proposal the next was particularly unfortunate. His strategy here simply did not work.

4. Obama is the opposite of George W. Bush.

Who would have imagined it? After Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which he pilloried the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy, his differences with his predecessor have been modest on several fronts.

First, he kept Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates — the first time that had happened when a president of a different party took over. He found no quick way — nor any slow, gradual way — to shut down the Guantanamo prison. Then, after promising during his campaign to leave Iraq within 16 months, Obama kept U.S. forces there for three years and left on a timeline negotiated by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

After his efforts to extend a hand to those who would unclench their fists (as he put it in his inaugural address) failed with Iran and North Korea, Obama tightened international sanctions more effectively than Bush was able to do. On China and India, he has continued the prior approach of engagement, with no radical moves. Even on Bush’s “freedom agenda,” Obama began as a skeptic but wound up supporting the demands across the Arab world for free elections and accountable government.

5. Obama is standing by as Iran acquires nuclear weapons.

This oft-repeated charge by some Republican candidates ignores the significant progress Obama has made in organizing an international coalition against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, including the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing harsh sanctions on Iran. As the Iranian regime’s defiance continues in the face of what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has described as “crippling” sanctions, Obama has toughened his rhetoric, too, declaring that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

And while he has emphasized that “all options are on the table,” he has actually taken one off the table: containment. That means Obama’s approach is binary — either Iran gives up its nuclear weapons aspirations through negotiations, or the United States will probably use preventive force to destroy its nuclear capabilities. That’s hardly capitulation.

Martin S. Indyk is vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Michael E. O’Hanlon are senior fellows at Brookings. The three are the co-authors of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”

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