PRINCETON – The world may see Barack Obama as a leader weakened by the intractability of American domestic politics, but, as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up, the American public still sees him as a strong, capable leader in foreign affairs. Some 49% of Americans approve of his overall handling of foreign affairs, with 63% approving of his approach to terrorism and 52% approving of the withdrawal from Iraq. Contrast that with the 30% of Americans who approve of his handling of the economy, or the scant 26% who back his approach to the federal budget deficit.
With numbers like that, it would hardly be surprising if Obama tried to keep voters focused on foreign affairs in 2012, with high-profile initiatives like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma (Myanmar), carefully brokered diplomatic deals, and important international conferences at home, such as the NATO summit in Chicago in May. But presidential trips overseas in the coming election year are likely to backfire at home, particularly with unemployment above 9%.
The Obama administration knows the iron law of American politics – “It’s the economy, stupid” – as well as anyone else. Nevertheless, highlighting Obama’s ability to get things done abroad is more than an attempt at distraction; it also sends the message that the domestic-policy impasse is not his fault. So expect plenty of foreign-policy news in the coming months.
Election-year tactics aside, American voters are right. Obama has performed much better in foreign policy than in domestic policy, which is all the more surprising given the weak hand that he was dealt: an America that had lost its moral authority, its military invincibility, and its credibility as an economic model.
It is easy to focus on what has not been achieved, because Obama raised high expectations and then failed to deliver. On his second day in office, he appointed two Special Representatives: George Mitchell for Middle East Peace and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A month later, Dennis Ross was named Special Adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia (read: Iran).
Three years later, Ross and Mitchell have resigned, with no agreement in sight in the Middle East, and Holbrooke died unexpectedly, without having brought the Taliban and the Afghan and Pakistani governments to the negotiating table. Relations between the United States and Iran are frostier than ever.
But none of Obama’s predecessors achieved any of these goals, either, whereas he can claim credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and more than half of al-Qaeda’s top leadership. Indeed, it is now believed that al-Qaeda could fragment and cease to exist as a military organization within two years. Obama has also improved relations with Russia and negotiated a major arms-control treaty with the Kremlin.
Moreover, Obama has dramatically increased America’s presence in Asia, including signing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN and joining the East Asia Summit, and moved quickly and flexibly in response to the revolutions across the Middle East. He changed a 30-year relationship with Egypt in a week; helped to convince the Egyptian military not to fire on citizens in the first stage of the revolution; assembled and enabled a successful coalition to intervene in Libya; worked closely with Turkey, the European Union, and Saudi Arabia to increase pressure on Syria; cooperated with Egypt to broker a settlement in Yemen; and worked behind the scenes to convince Bahrain’s government to investigate its own violence against Shia protesters.
Moving south, Obama dedicated considerable resources to ensuring that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan’s civil war, was actually implemented, allowing South Sudan’s peaceful secession. Although engagement with Iran and North Korea may have failed, Obama did help to engineer a historic breakthrough with Burma. Finally, the US Senate ratified free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, clearing the way for the new Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The common thread in all of these achievements is old-fashioned diplomacy. In choosing Clinton as Secretary of State, Obama appointed one of the world’s most admired women. She has lived up to her reputation. Similarly, Susan Rice has been a remarkably successful US ambassador to the United Nations, consistently delivering votes in the Security Council.
Obama is pursuing a coherent grand strategy – what he called in his 2009 inaugural address a “new era of responsibility.” On the international side, his national-security strategy holds that “the burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone.” The US strategic is committed to an “international order based on rights and responsibilities,” including a “broader voice – and greater responsibilities” for emerging powers, and the imposition of real consequences on countries that violate their international obligations.
Within two years of taking office, Obama helped to transform the G-8 into the G-20, secured the re-weighting of votes on the International Monetary Fund’s board away from Europe and toward new economic powers, and committed to supporting the candidacies of India and Japan for membership of a reformed UN Security Council.
His administration also devoted enormous energy to building and strengthening regional institutions. For the first time, the Arab League is playing an active role in addressing political upheaval and government brutality in its midst, as is the Gulf Cooperation Council. The African Union helped to restore democracy in Madagascar, aided in forcing Côte d’Ivoire’s president to leave office after losing an election, and sent troops to Somalia. The East Asian Summit is becoming a forum for region-wide security discussions, from the resolution of maritime disputes to fighting pirates.
Obama’s Republican opponents love to hammer home the phrase “leading from behind.” But they miss the point, for they imagine leadership as the equivalent of a nineteenth-century cavalry charge, in which the general is either out front carrying the flag or following along in the rear. Obama is actually far in front in terms of shaping the world’s norms and expectations. He leads from wherever he needs to lead in order to get results. And he’s gotten plenty.