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What Obama Gets Wrong On Foreign Policy

Last year, in what was surely one of the more unfortunately timed declarations in recent foreign policy history, President Obama described Yemen as a counter terrorism success story. 

The first thing that sticks out about that statement is that, as we documented in June, it’s at least possible that Abdullah Saleh and his lieutenants not only turned a blind eye to AQAP operations in the country, but in fact played a direct role in facilitating al-Qaeda attacks even as the government accepted anti-terrorism financing from the US government, but the truly ridiculous thing about claiming that Yemen should be viewed as a "success" is that here we are less than a year later and the country is the exact opposite. That is, it’s a failed state, and if it weren’t for the Saudi boots which, no matter what Riyadh says, are most assuredly on the ground in Yemen, the country would be controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels wielding some $500 million in arms that the US "lost" after President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was forced to flee to the Saudi capital. 

Of course that isn’t the only example of foreign policy debacles that have unfolded on the current administration’s watch. There’s Ukraine, for instance, where deposing a Russia-backed leader led, in short order, to civil war and may soon culminate in a coup by fascist militants. Then there’s Syria, where efforts to support "freedom fighters" in their battle against the Assad regime ended up creating a marauding band of blag flag-waving jihadists, bent on establishing a medieval caliphate. Finally there’s the deteriorating relationship with China, which culminated in a tense war of words after Beijing essentially threatened to shoot down a US spy plane over the Spratlys.

Against that backdrop we bring you the following excerpts from "What Obama Gets Wrong" as originally published in Foreign Affairs' September/October issue:

Gideon Rose’s intriguing essay on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy raises a vexing question: When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?

 

Rose devotes much of his article to rehearsing a litany of the Bush administration’s sins in an effort to persuade readers that Obama inherited a uniquely bad set of cards when he came to the White House—a “mess,” as the president liked to say—and must therefore be judged accordingly. But this is doubtful as a matter of history and past its sell-by date as a form of apology.

 

Every president inherits a mixed bag when he comes to office, and Obama’s was hardly the worst.

 

Obama’s supporters also need to acknowledge that they cannot celebrate the president’s supposed successes at one point and then disavow responsibility later when those successes turn to dust. If Obama can take credit for putting the core of al Qaeda “on the path to defeat” and bringing the war on terror effectively to an end—as he did at the National Defense University in May 2013, to much liberal applause—then it becomes difficult for him to evade responsibility for the resurgence of jihadism in the two years since then. If the administration can celebrate the success of its Iraq policy in 2012 (“What is beyond debate,” said Antony Blinken, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, “is that Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous, and the United States more deeply engaged there, than at any time in recent history”), then maybe Bush can be exempted from blame for Iraq’s travails in 2014.

 


 

Every president should be judged on a few fundamentals—his ability to deliver what he promised, weaken the country’s foes and strengthen its friends, elaborate a concept of the American interest that is persuasive and true, and pass on a world heading in the right direction. Obama rates well on none of these.

 

[Stability was supposed] to be restored in such places as Cairo, Istanbul, and Damascus. Israeli settlement expansion [was supposed to have] ended, and peace with the Palestinians would be forged. Much of this was to be achieved, so it seemed, through the sheer moral force of Obama’s personality and the compelling logic of his ideas. Yet none of it occurred. Obama became the president who, to use one of Rose’s baseball metaphors, called his shot only to strike out.

 

As for U.S. enemies, the core of al Qaeda might be weaker today than it was when Obama took office, but the groups he once cavalierly dismissed as jihad’s “JV team” are vastly more potent, successful, and aggressive. The Russian economy may have been badly hit by the fall in global oil prices, but Ukraine is bracing for the next phase in a Russian offensive that Obama has opposed with only token measures. The deal with Iran exchanges billions of dollars in tangible economic relief for Tehran—some of which will be used to fund anti-American proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan—in return for the paper promise of a temporary lull in Iran’s nuclear program.

 

The truth is that Obama’s idea of U.S. foreign policy is that there should be less of it, that the United States generally ought not to meddle in the internal affairs of other states and certainly not do so without a UN warrant, and that Washington should focus on what it does at home more than on what it does abroad.

 

Now, however, the consequences of that foreign policy are becoming more obvious. 

 

Full article here