Monday, March 03, 2014

Obama seems very good at foreign policy

I might as well talk about something I don't know that much about, because...I can! Because it's MY blog, suckaz! BUAHAHAH *pause to get up after falling over backward in my chair*

Anyway, on Twitter, I suggested that Barack Obama is the best foreign-policy president since Nixon, and therefore we should trust his instincts on Ukraine, at least for a little while. But why do I think Obama is so good at foreign policy (and why do I think Nixon was so good, for that matter)? Well, like I said, I am not any kind of expert on the topic. And since Obama's term is not even finished yet, we're not actually close to knowing how good of a foreign-policy president he really is. Obviously Ukraine will be a huge test. And also, "the best" might have been hyperbole; I think George H.W. Bush is another strong contender.

But that being said, I think Obama's record so far is pretty damn impressive. Here are what I see as the highlights:

1. American prestige partially restored. The Iraq War drove global opinion of the U.S. right off a cliff. In every region, our standing plummeted. But after Obama took office, the trend reversed in Europe and in much of the rest of the world. Compare opinions of the U.S. in 2004 and 2007 to opinions in 2009 and 2013. Only in much of the Muslim world has there not been a major recovery in American prestige since Obama became president.

2. Osama bin Laden and most of al Qaeda's senior leadership killed. Now, obviously Obama did not carry out the operation himself, but his strategic choice to focus attention on al Qaeda (instead of Iraq or the Taliban) was a good one. The result is that Obama accomplished what Bush could not - the almost total destruction of the core of al Qaeda. As a result of Obama's policy, the Afghanistan war can unequivocally be called a success.

3. Iraq withdrawal. America had to withdraw from Iraq; there was nothing more to be gained by staying, and the American people knew this. Obama did it quickly and effectively. This is an obvious parallel with Nixon and Vietnam, except that Nixon carried out a "surge" before withdrawing (which the U.S. had done in Iraq under Bush), and that Nixon waged a covert war in Cambodia (much as Obama is waging a covert drone war in Afghanistan/Pakistan while slowly withdrawing from that war).

4. Gaddafi gone. When Libya began to rebel against Muammar Gaddafi, Obama could have sent in ground troops to help, miring America in another Middle Eastern war. He could have stayed out entirely, resulting in Gaddafi brutally suppressing the revolt. Instead he took the middle ground, cooperating with Europe to set up a no-fly zone, which gave the rebels the edge they needed to eventually prevail.

5. Syria. It would have been so easy to get entangled in another no-win war in Syria, but Obama wisely held back. When Syria's government used chemical weapons, Obama threatened it, a tactic that looked like it might fail for a moment...but which wildly succeeded. As a result, Syria is now dismantling much of its chemical arsenal. And as for the war itself, it looks like Hezbollah in a fight to the death against al that really a fight we want to interfere with??

6. Alliance with India. America's incipient alliance ("strategic partnership", whatever) seems to me to be George W. Bush's single biggest foreign policy achievement, and Bill Clinton's single biggest failure. But in any case, Obama is continuing to get close to India, the world's largest democracy and a natural U.S. ally situated in a critical region of the world.

7. Warming relations with Iran. Only Nixon could go to China; the resulting flip of that mega-nation to a U.S. quasi-ally in the Cold War almost certainly hastened our victory. If Obama can follow up on the detente with Iran that began with the recent nuclear deal, it will defang one of America's most implacable enemies. Not quite a Nixon/China moment, but a solid win, and it also showed conclusively that American foreign policy is not in the pocket of the "Israel lobby" (an accusation I never believed, but many did believe).

8. Pivot to Asia. During the Bush administration, many Southeast Asian countries warned that the U.S. was ignoring the region. But with the "pivot to Asia", Obama is rectifying that oversight. I'm not sure how many dividends the policy has paid yet, but the partial opening of Myanmar, and its repositioning from a solid Chinese ally to a more neutral stance, seems like a very optimistic sign.

These are what I see as Obama's successes, but equally importantly, I don't really see any big missteps or failures. There has been a ton of criticism of the drone strikes in Pakistan, but Obama has scaled them back gradually, and so far there have not been any noticeable bad consequences there. There is the argument that Obama has been too soft on Russia, and I guess we're about to see whether that's true.

And keep in mind that all of this is against a backdrop of a steep decline in America's military and economic power relative to our main rival. China is still riding a tsunami of "catch-up growth", while we're hobbled by the aftermath of the Great Recession and the Iraq War. There is just no way the U.S. could have remained a hyperpower this decade, but thanks to adroit maneuvering, we're still getting most of what we want in the world.

I'd say that qualifies Obama as a pretty solid foreign-policy far. The next few days could prove me very, very wrong about that. We'll see.


  1. He is certainly better than the preceding administration in this regard.

    One big problem thought is that a lot of the rhetoric from the administration has failed to keep in mind the limitations of US power. In terms of actions, this isn't actually problematic, but in terms of perceptions, speaking loudly and carrying a small stick is just a recipe for the kind of criticism he is currently facing with regards to the Crimea situation.

    Also, some nitpicky corrections:
    NATO actually took operations directly against Libyan ground forces, so it was not just a no flight zone that drove Gaddafi out. As for Syria, the Assad regime and its allies have cemented some of their positions while rebel groups bleed each other, so it can't really be characterized as Hizbullah v. AQ, and that also ignores the massive humanitarian costs. Finally, I don't know if saying our relations with Iran have warmed, but you are correct that actually trying diplomacy has been a huge improvement over previous Iran policy.

    1. Hugo André9:58 PM

      You don't think the possibility deal on nuclear weapons is a sign of 'warming relations'? The new Iranian administration has also been far less into criticizing the US and more focused on improving Iran's economy. Of course this is mostly an effect of Rohani but informed commentators say that having a man like Obama as US president made this outcome far more likely.

      You make very good points about Syria though!

  2. Not sure.

    1. Prestige. Look at Germany even before it broke US was conducting what one can only assume was mass industrial espionage (unless some consider them terrorists) he went from adoring crowds 100000s in his first visit to talking to an 'invited' audience of 4 or 5000 behind 12 foot of plexiglass with no one allowed near. He's not Bush but it's a shallow restoration and can play out badly still. He's popular in the UK amongst the general public but with our state media not hard. Among anyone who follows issues he's Bush Two in many respects.

    2. He started the surge in Afghanistan and has achieved nothing new bar killing more people who are arguably not a direct enemy - in the sense of having any ability to threaten the US. The Govt is still corrupt and it still costs a fortune and he's trying to stay there for 10 years more. bin Laden and co may have been bogey men but he was living powerlessly in Pakistan when executed - like when the Romans finally got Hannibal did it matter? Maybe to Americans but in reality it mattered little although I was happy you got the sod.

    3. Libya is now a basket case. Yes the bogey man has gone but I would not put it on my CV if I was him. Maybe oil supplies have been secured not sure really any better off from a 3rd party point of view or locally. Unlike Iraq you have not left lots of expensive troops behind so better in a US sense.

    4. Syria had his administration's rhetoric of red lines etc not been said he would have had no trouble. It was he and his administration who created a suggestion of direct action. He started supporting al Quada and other loons there. He dug a hole and stopped digging from a different viewpoint.

    5. Bravo. What fruits it brings will maybe pay off later. India is a vast country and maybe a good long term ally.

    6. Iran may work out but has some play - it's not a policy supported by everyone in Washington so if it works out 1st item on his CV. Certainly the distancing from Saudi (and Israel?) over this took some stones. Could work out.

    7. OK. Like India let's see if this bares fruit.

    Drone strikes so he ramped them up and marginally cut them to no effect. Possibly/Probably because the people there were no threat. How many of the targets and victims had visited an airport never mind presented an imminent threat to the USA? It's certainly built up a well of bad feeling and his seeming personal demand to imprison journalists has had some blow back among even US liberals.

    Quite what role his administration has played in Egypt and Ukraine has yet to come out. If US was behind stoking of Nationalism in parts of the Ukraine then the Q is and you expected Russia to do what exactly? Hopefully he can out perform the non action over South Ossetia.

    1. You needn't consider Germans terrorists. 9/11 was planned in significant part in Hamburg and extremists threats from Germany are ongoing. Whether the response is correct or not one could argue about, but it's incorrect to imply there aren't legitimate intelligence targets in Germany.

      Calling him "Bush Two" seems to have little value other than a divisive rhetorical tool.

  3. Hugo André9:44 PM

    I'll stay away from nitpicking and focus on the bigger question. I understand why you would give praise to Obama and H.W. Bush but why on earth do you believe Nixon was a foreign policy success? Example: there are recordings showing that he was fully aware of how the Pakistani military was comitting something akin to genocide on the hindus in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and yet he continued to give the pakistani military both weapons and money.

    Okay, one piece of nitpicking(sorry), in Syria he said that if the regime were to use chemical weapons it would be a "point of no return". They used it and.... nothing much happened. Bashar Assad received a slap on the wrist and had to promise to hand the weapons over but as long as the civil war goes on there is no way to make sure that he hands over all (or even a large majority of) the chemical weapons.
    Breaking this promise has surely hurt Americas prestige and may be a reason why Putin dares to act so boldly.

    I agree with you though. Obamas foreign policy has been a success, despite Syria.

  4. Anonymous9:52 PM

    I hear a lot of people on the right say that Putin can tell Obama is weak, and that's why he keeps pushing the envelope, because he knows he can get away with it. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I always kind of got the sense that they are saying, "Putin isn't going to take a black US president seriously. So if we want other countries to take us seriously we can't have a black president." I mean...I guess I see the logic, but I'm more inclined to take a "fiat justitia, ruat caelum" approach to that "problem."

    1. Brian9:24 AM

      As a person on the right, you are way off base in claiming our dislike of Obama has anything to do with race. I know many people in the Tea Party, and absolutely none of us are the least bit racist. Repeat after me: "We dislike Obama solely because of his policies."

      If the best you can do to Obama detractors is play the racism card, you are rather weak intellectually. Most of us are deeply offended that people like you can make such baseless claims regarding our dislike of Obama being about race. Grow up.

    2. "We dislike Obama solely because of his policies."

      The only policy Obama has that is worthy of the name is the Affordable Care Act - a policy adopted from conservative think tanks.

    3. Well, there are some of these guys around:

      "I don't vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That's the way I was raised."

    4. Anonymous2:35 PM

      Yea and the Tea Party is a grassroots organization concerned with fiscal responsibility not motivated at all by race...oh wait you mean they didnt exist during the Bush days of insane deficits, oh and they blame Obama for the Bush bailouts, and many high ranking Tea Party members are birthers...

      It takes serious mental gymanstics to say with sincerity you do not believe racism plays a factor here.

    5. @Anonymous - It is basic Republican / Tea Party doctrine that deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House.

  5. Nathanael10:09 PM

    The key thing in foreign policy is avoiding disastrous quagmire wars, followed by making other countries like you.

    In this matter, the best President in recent years was George H. W. Bush (the older one), followed by Clinton, followed by Obama. The first two had the advantage of not STARTING in the middle of quagmire wars, and Clinton had the additional advantage of not STARTING hated by most of the world.

  6. What the hell do you know ?

  7. Rothosen7:32 AM

    I agree with most except "steep decline in military power." We spend more on the military then the next highest nine countries combined. Are you ssying wr don't get the bang for our bucks?

    1. First of all: That's right, we don't. Prices for military equipment, salaries, etc. are much higher in the U.S. than in, say, China.

      Second, "decline" is about a relative rate of change, not about an absolute level.

  8. I would be a bit less positive about Obama in Afghanistan/Pakistan and maybe also Iran but, otherwise, it seems pretty much correct.

    I especially like the point being made that we got no one to back in Syria and, actually, as long as the bad guys keep killing each others, we should just buy popcorn and enjoy the show. I've seen a Youtube video of Syrian anti-Bashar Al-Assad fighters and their courage, suffering and dedication was humbling. But as soon as they open their mouths to spew hatred about the US or UK and talk 'unbelievers needing to be put to the sword', you kind of lose sympathy...

    On Ukraine, my own take is there:

    1. Yes, if your family had been blown up in Pakistan, I'm sure you'd
      be very reassured to hear that Obama is slowly scaling that
      back. Or so he says.

      The Bush regime shredded the constitution, and Obama has made it
      normal. But maybe that doesn't count as foreign policy.

      In general, "better than Bush- does not mean "good".

  9. The original international reaction to Obama was one of relief. There were people in the developed world (including me) who thought Bush and his foreign policy team should be hung as war criminals and more who were afraid that Bush would start more wars and possibly drag NATO in.

  10. "As a result of Obama's policy, the Afghanistan war can unequivocally be called a success."

    Given how it is now a stable, pro-western democracy, with no civil war going on whatsoever, no sireee.

  11. And let's mention how we also absolutely had to invade Afghanistan in order to kill bin Laden, as he was hiding... wait, what? He was in another country altogether? Oh, never mind.

  12. Anonymous2:50 PM

    If Syria is a sign that Obama is good a foreign policy, then Putin must be really, really good.

  13. You are right. You do not have a fucking clue what you are on about. Stick to what you know mate. In fact you're fucking INSULTING - to say George Bush was a "strong contender" without a hint of irony? I read on to see if you were just taking the piss. But you really are a spastic. GEORGE FUCKING BUSH !!! That fucking sociopathic trigger happy retarded shit cunt hill billy??? Do me a fucking favour. He's made you all look like cunts.

    How could that retarded fuckstain get elected ONCE, let alone twice?? It's testament to the supidity of you red white and blue healthcare hating, gun toting, diabetes riddled retarded, fat, dead beats Americans truly are the scum of the earth. YEE HAW and PRSIDE THE LORD and GADD BLESS AMERICA.

    You thick cunts. From London. No we don't like you in England, we've just got Prmie Ministers who think it's wise to kiss your enormous fat arse. Now go shoot up some school kids or whatever the fuck it is you do.

    1. You realize I was talking about the old Bush, not the recent Bush, right?

    2. Anonymous6:50 PM


      George H.W. Bush was Vice President to Ronald Regan and served one term as President during the late 80's and early 90's, ultimately being defeated in the 1992 elections by William Clinton.

      The "fucking sociopathic trigger happy retarded shit cunt hill billy" to whom you refer was George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush's son. He served two terms as President during the 2000's and was indeed largely responsible for the decline in international regard for the United States that you describe here.

      Certainly, though, I can understand your confusion given the similarity of the two names.

      Yours in mutual trans-Atlantic regard,
      Some American

    3. Anonymous11:04 AM

      Albert tell how you really feel. Don't hold back! It can raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

    4. ROTFLOL, Why did I miss this comment earlier?!! Golly Neville, you are blowing the proverbial raspberry there, mate. Hold on tight, think you misjudge Noah. No matter. Fun reading.

    5. Albert, if you don't know that there were two Presidents named Bush, and that Noah was referring to the first one, then you are too stupid to comment on politics. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

    6. LOL, you must belong to the tolerant and inclusive crowd.

  14. Steve Reilly7:41 PM


    You asked for a favor but didn't specify what it is. In otherwise perfectly eloquent comment, that seems like a curious lapse. What is it we can do for you?

    1. Anonymous10:18 PM

      He instructed Noah to do him the favour of refraining from saying that George W was good at foreign policy. He was relying on context, as is the convention in use of the term "do me a favour" to convey the meaning. It is not a lapse, and it is very much in keeping with the eloquence of the rest of the passage.

    2. Good point, "Anonymous". Didn't feel like signing in under Albert Neville?

  15. But...

    Iraq close to failed state
    Libya close to failed state
    Syria is a failed state
    Warming relation with Iran means alienating Saudis and GCC
    The world's first Al Qaeda state rises in the heart of the middle east in Syria

    Are Hezbollah and Al Qaeda fighting to the death? No, for now just partitioning Syria into own area of control.

    1. Anonymous11:00 AM

      Pakistan is a failed state with atomic weapons. Whose fault is that?

  16. "The result is that Obama accomplished what Bush could not - the almost total destruction of the core of al Qaeda. "

    And transplanted it into Syria. The core of Al Qaeda has ditched Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban is no longer receiving donation money, all the money is now going to Syrian jihadists, and international jihadists are no longer going to Afghanistan, they are all flowing to Syria, Syria is now the heart of the Al Qaeda insurgency.

    "It is likely that the most important motivation for international jihad in Syria is that some see the jihad in "Bilad al-Sham" as a jumping-off point for a full frontal jihad on Israel to retake the al-Aqsa Mosque, and al-Quds (Jerusalem), which is their ultimate goal. Further, because militant Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) have combined their battlefield prowess against the al-Assad regime and its allies with the provision of social services for opposition communities, they have been able to get closer to the local populace and win them over. This social appeal is a key lesson jihadis learned from their failed Iraq jihad project in the last decade."

  17. Anonymous12:01 AM

    Should be noted that the war could have ended in 1968 but Nixon secretly told the South Vietnamese to halt talks (while still only a presidential candidate) so as to get himself elected. The war continued for 5 years after that.

  18. Anonymous4:22 AM

    Good to see you have an interest in international relations Noah.

    I would strongly suggest a bit of study of IR (international relations, not industrial relations) theory. IR theory actually has something to say. A good book is Burchill Theories of International Relations - a standard UG text.

    I think IR is a much healthier subject than macro-economics in many ways. It does not try to fit for example Keynesian economics into rational choice based theory or integrate everything into a single model. It accepts that, for at least quite a while, there are going to be different ways of looking at the world and independent lines of enquiry into finding the truth is good. It threw away game-theoretic approaches to understanding Cold War stabilisation in the late 1970s after giving it a sufficient stab. Theory supplements, not dominates, the discipline as a whole. I would particularly strongly suggest a review of neo-realism, neo-liberalism and Marxian approaches. Constructivism has also had a big impact on IR as in other social sciences - except in economics of course.

  19. Tesla Motors looks like the first green technology bubble

  20. Wonks Anonymous2:17 PM

    Letting Qadaffi crush the revolt would have been better. He was cooperating with us. Plus, no destabilization of Mali. Plus all that Afghan surge stuff which racked up the casualties. Plus drones everywhere.

  21. Steve Reilly9:20 PM

    This guy sounds like a real fan. You should definitely add the link.

  22. Dear Noah,

    thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I am only wondering what you think about the NSA affair and how that affected the relationships with Brasil or Germany. Is that also good foreign policy or is it a different field?

    1. To be fair, NSA spying was not Obama's foreign policy. The NSA acted without oversight and Obama did not authorize their behavior.

    2. Dear Jefftopia, I agree. However, I am wondering more about the reaction after the affair became known. Was that good foreign policy and Obama reacted accordingly or is intelligence work rather not related to foreign policy?

    3. I think every government official beholden to the public fears intelligence ever becoming a foreign policy issue. In a politician's ideal world, the two are never related, and if they are, it's entirely behind closed doors.

      As for Obama's reaction: not quick or strong enough to appease those spied on, but occasions like Syria and now Russia quickly instill unity.

  23. Comic relief or confirmation bias?

  24. Disagree. Obama has followed Bush W's policies to the letter. It was and is to control and boost oil prices as Texans were getting about $18 per barrel for the oil. This has now been pushed up to near $100; a minor glitch made Saudis to say that they need $70 per barrel.

    If you look at backgrounds of Karzai and Maliki (of Iraq), you should find that they both worked for Unocal, which was conviently merged in Cheveron so there is no quick way to find out. Besides, relatively both low level vice presidents so even if you dig into SEC records, it is hard to find this.

    Obama has never articulated why we need to be in Afghanistan. There is mambo-jumbo about educating kids and empowering women, and rebuilding infrastructure so that heroin pipelines move smoothly. Look at the history of Afghanistan before wars. It was a country with well manages cities with universities and a reasonable education system for kids, Empowering women requires cultural change; however, all cultures have a belief system (religion) that must be changed. Good luck in becoming prophet

  25. uh Noah I guess by now you know you were asking for it when you typed this post. Especially it is very unwise to praise Nixon anywhere where anyone who remembers him can read it. You wrote "Obama did it quickly and effectively. This is an obvious parallel with Nixon and Vietnam," Uh Nixon kept the US fighting in Vietnam for 4 years (and one week IIRC and I think I do -- yes I checked -- the Paris peace accord was signed January 27th 1973 four years and one week after Nixon first became President). Notably, Johnson escalated sending regular US troops to Vietnam for the first time in 1965.

    Yes BushII/Obama and Afghanistan have broken all records, but Nixon commanded the US war effort in Vietnam for more years FDR did during world war II, Wilson during World War !, Truman and Eisenhower combined during Korea, McKinley the Spanish American war, Polk with the Mexican American war and Madison the war of 1812.

    In the end he faced facts and withdrew (while expecting his countrypeople to not face facts and think that the Northern conquest of South Vietnam wasn't inevitable).

    He also started wars with Laos and Cambodia. Obama hasn't started any wars although he had the US join the Libyan war in progress.

    Yes Laos too. You overlooked a war. That is sloppy. This was the kind of war in which US forces invade a sovereign nation.

    The comparison makes no sense.

  26. Anonymous7:16 AM

    "As a result of Obama's policy, the Afghanistan war can unequivocally be called a success."
    Sure, if you ignore what is happening in Waziristan or Jemen and other places in the world: guerillia warfare with drones that is illegal under international law and serves no purpose besides killing and terrorizing ample of civilians.

    As a social democrat (which is far to the left of a centrist liberal/libertarian like Noah) I gotta say that the persecution of whistleblowers, the behaviour of the intelligence agencies and the, to use Scahill's term, "dirty wars" is far worse under Obama than under Bush.
    Centrist liberals who close their eyes to the horrible crimes of a POTUS just because he is a Democrat are perhaps even more disgusting than right wing scum. Why? because they should know better.

  27. How about Cuba ? Does anyone think that what we have been doing there for the last 55 years has paid any dividends? Chalk another one up for Obama. While I agree with much of what you say I am examining the advisability our involvement in Libya. The verdict is in on Iraq. We need to carefully examine the potential results of our actions and to determine if we realistically can achieve the results which we desire before becoming engaged in essentially what are civil wars. Democracy requires nation building and the institutions necessary for it's survival. Ghadafi had paid reparations and essential had rejoined the nations of the world. He no doubt was a bad guy like Saddam but like Saddam containable. Obama began his presidency with an impassioned speech in Cairo speaking to human aspirations. He was to be the honest broker in the Middle East but where was the follow up. It looks like more rhetoric than action to me. The situation in the Middle East is a tinderbox. It is difficult to speak of democracy when you do not respect the results of democratic action.Israel is experiencing a settlement boom under Obama's watch. Gaza is in shambles and the Muslim world irate and at war. What was done to foster democracy in Iraq or Egypt but more weapons for dictators ? What has been done to address Shia- Muslim unrest or mollify grievances? There are civil and humanitarian rights issues in all of these countries.There are deep economic concerns. The dictators that we have supported for decades have filled their pockets and done little for their people. They survive and thrive through the Petro dollars we give them. Many while preaching ,in Saudi Arabia, a radical form of Islam. They fund Madrassas' with the money we give them to inflame jihad against us. It is utter insanity but some people make a lotta money and it goes on and on. Obama's sin to me then is in the omission. He is not one for the bully pulpit and thinks he can get along with everybody but that is not leadership and sometimes you need to take a position and stand by it. He also opens mouth and inserts foot. He should not have spoken about drawing a line in the sand in Syria because in reality the President does not have the authority to declare war and bombing or droning a nation does constitute war. But by declaring that he would take it to Congress it put pressure on the Syrians via the Russians and the Iranians to destroy the chemical weapons stockpile as they knew that the Congress was more hawkish than the President and so the resultant effect was the elimination of the stockpile without a drop of blood or a farthing of expense. I give Obama credit for ousting Malachi in Iraq. he had to go but the situation is so dire there that we may be where Joe Biden advocated years ago the division of Iraq into a Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia segmentation. The pressing of the expansion of Nato and missile defense has pushed Russia into a corner as historically it has always been concerned with it's " Near Abroad ." Russia sees security in a buffer zone and Obama must see the concerns here if this situation is to be resolved. North Korea is still a matter of concern and one does not see much movement here diplomatically.Pakistan is another area of deep concern and we must link our support to reforms and domestic concerns albeit the military fnally seems to be taking some positive action there. Obama has a tough job he has accomplishments but needs to exert his personal leadership more aggressively