Barack Obama, the Unexpected Foreign-Policy President

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Qaddafi — dead. Bin Laden — dead. Niedermeyer — dead.
Qaddafi — dead. Bin Laden — dead. Niedermeyer — dead. Photo: jim watson/getty

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, the strongest undercurrent of apprehension probably centered around his conduct of foreign affairs. He was young and possessed of little foreign-policy experience, and this was the main contrast his opponent tried to use to disqualify him. Now, having killed Osama bin Laden and numerous other Al Qaeda leaders, helped to depose Muammar Qaddafi, and announced he's carrying out his pledge to remove all troops from Iraq, the calculus has reversed itself. Obama’s handling of domestic affairs is the subject of endless recriminations, and his foreign-policy conduct is among his strongest assets. What in the name of Jeremiah Wright brought about this strange turn of events?

One answer can be found in the juxtaposition of a second Obama triumph that occurred yesterday: He finally got his Commerce secretary confirmed. You probably didn’t hear, because it doesn’t matter, which is the point. Last June, Obama named John Bryson as his Commerce secretary. Senate Republicans, despite harboring no objections either to Bryson or to his unimportant department, nevertheless held up the appointment for months in order to demand the signing of several trade deals. When Obama signed those, they made other demands. (Matthew Yglesias has the ridiculous narrative.)

They finally confirmed him yesterday — the same day Qaddafi was killed, and the day before Obama announced the final pullout of American troops. The striking contrast is the relative ease with which Obama pulled off these respective feats. At the snap of his fingers he can start a war or end one. But try to install a bland functionary into an unimportant domestic position, and he’ll be ensnared in months of controversy and inertia. This is the current state of “separation of powers.”

Republicans have the same whatever-you’re-for-we’re-against incentive on foreign policy as they do on domestic policy. (Witness Mitt Romney’s attempts to flit from hawk to dove and back again on Libya while maintaining maximal anti-Obamaism.) The difference is that Obama can simply do whatever he wants. This makes him look strong — no endless pleading with Congress — and allows him to craft the exact policies he wants, as opposed to half-measures that can attract 60 Senate votes and a House majority. When Obama tries to craft international coalitions to support his policies, he is negotiating with leaders who have different interests than his, but ultimately share a common interest in peace and prosperity. On domestic policy, Obama has to deal with leaders engaged in a zero-sum contest for power, understanding full well that anything that helps Obama hurts them.

Of course, Obama has also enjoyed much better luck on foreign affairs. Nothing has directly complicated his plans to carry out the foreign-policy agenda he ran on. The Arab Spring turned out to be a boon, albeit one he handled reasonably well. If, say, his inauguration coincided with a massive Russian nuclear attack on Western Europe — the rough equivalent of the economic crisis — his foreign policy might be not be going quite so well.

On both domestic and foreign policy, Obama came into office intending to follow center-left policies, broadly in line with the ideological consensus carried over from the Clinton administration, to correct the excesses of the Bush years. Abroad, he hoped to rebuild America’s image with the Muslim world and redirect resources from counterinsurgency toward destroying Al Qaeda. At home, he planned to rein in the Bush-era excesses of fiscal irresponsibility, reduce carbon emissions, and redirect resources within the massive health care sector away from waste and toward basic coverage for those lacking any insurance. His conservative opponents labeled both agendas radical, the product of deep-seated hatred for America and capitalism.

Romney’s book No Apology came out a year into the Obama administration, and offers a useful guide as to where the GOP expected the president’s weaknesses to be located. The title refers to Obama’s imagined habit of apologizing for his country abroad. In it, Romney denounced Obama’s anti-Americanism in hysterical terms:


He has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness and derision; for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, and for feeding anti-Muslim sentiments; for committing torture, for dragging our feet on global warming, and for selectively promoting democracy. So critical was President Obama at his speech before the United Nations that dictator Fidel Castro complimented him for his “brave gesture” and “courage” in criticizing the United States… Muammar Qadaffi, the dictator of Libya, declared that “we’d be content and happy if Obama can stay president forever.”
Such lavish praise for Obama - by Messrs. Castro, Chavex and Qaddafi - tells you much of what his approach to foreign policy is.

The domestic critique has resonated, due to the Republicans’ ability to stymie large chunks of Obama’s proposals, the magnified voices of the angry rich, and the pain of the economic crisis. The equally deranged foreign critique, of Obama as lover of Qaddafi and other dictators, has mostly melted away in the face of a reality he has had a free hand to shape.