This past week Barack Obama laid out his approach to foreign policy in a speech at West Point's commencement ceremonies. On the fundamental point, namely how the U.S. should use its military power around the world, the Obama Doctrine offers a direct contrast to the approach of his immediate predecessor:
I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe. But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required. Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.Additionally, the president promised the West Point grads that he would not send them "into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak. ... America must always lead on the world stage ... but U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
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We can compare this approach to the swagger of the Bush Doctrine, which Cheney summarized as follows: "If there is anyone in the world today who doubts the seriousness of the Bush Doctrine, I would urge that person to consider the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq."
This president's foreign policy is not perfect, about that there is no doubt. But as a historian, I look to historical comparisons to judge him, rather than compare him to an ideal of perfection that has never existed. Comparisons to any president before World War II make little sense, given how the nature of American power was altered by that event. The first bar to clear is the one which George W. Bush not only tripped over, but crashed into spectacularly: don't start an unnecessary, decade-long war by sending huge numbers of troops to fight an army that didn't attack us and which poses no threat to us. Boy, it really does sound stupid, doesn't it? Along similar lines, Lyndon Johnson bears the responsibility for escalating the Vietnam War, although we cannot forget candidate Richard Nixon's treasonous actions in the fall of 1968, which likely resulted in the war being extended for five more years.
Franklin Roosevelt, due to his leadership in the fight against the single greatest evil the world has yet seen, is in a category by himself. Harry Truman, who laid down the marker of containment through NATO and the Marshall Plan, must get a significant portion of the credit for our ultimate victory in the Cold War, the second leg in the twentieth century's long struggle between democratic capitalism and murderous totalitarianism of the Nazi and Soviet varieties. Certainly Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy (see Missile Crisis, Cuban) had their share of successes on that front as well, although all three made mistakes on the road to Vietnam as well as in other parts of the world when they overreacted to the perceived threat of Soviet expansion. Each of them—to paraphrase Obama above—rushed into a military adventure or intervened in a country such as Iran, which was the most destructive among a number of examples that fell short of full-scale invasion.
Jimmy Carter, despite his good intentions and highly moral focus on human rights, reaped the whirlwind of our Iranian intervention of twenty five years earlier, and his foreign policy record ended up stained by failure. We'll never know what he would have accomplished if not for the Shah, but all presidents must play the hand they are dealt. Ronald Reagan does get credit for successfully managing U.S.-Soviet relations in the waning years of the Cold War, although his record on that front is overrated by partisans and is marked by serious missteps in Latin America and elsewhere, including Iraq. George H.W. Bush also did well managing the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton managed to keep our military commitments to a minimum, and did ultimately bring the conflict in Yugoslavia, the bloodiest fighting in Europe since 1945, to an end. Oh, and Gerald Ford was president, too.
By these measures, Barack Obama has been a successful foreign policy president. First and foremost, he has avoided any new entanglements. We are out of Iraq and are, in terms of combat operations, all but out of Afghanistan. There are no existential threats to our security, and thankfully Obama doesn't see (or pretend to see) boogeymen around every corner. He did preside over the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, something that the "seriousness" of George W. Bush failed to achieve in seven years.
Islamic extremism remains a serious problem, but President Obama has badly weakened Al Qaeda. More importantly, he recognizes that problem in a fundamentally different way than did Bush/Cheney, one that ensures he will avoid overreacting and overstretching our resources. That may be a low bar to clear, but it is a tremendous and necessary improvement.
Russia and China are getting more aggressive, without question. We have to stand with allies who are threatened, but need also to avoid getting into another unnecessary war. This is a tricky balance, one that requires not soaring rhetoric or a three-point formula but instead dull, boring, careful, case-by-case analysis.
In Libya, we helped its people overthrow a brutal dictator without putting American personnel on the ground. In Syria, we were unable to do that, and have been unable to solve that conflict. At least we figured that out before going in. We did manage to get Syria's chemical weapons out of Assad's hands without firing a shot. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Although this is obviously preliminary, we appear, for now, to have contained Russian expansion in Ukraine, limiting their illegal territorial grab to Crimea. Their troops are pulling back from the Ukraine border (for now) and Putin says he'll cooperate with the newly elected president.
On Iran, we may well come to a comprehensive agreement on their nuclear program and proceed into a new period of vastly improved relations between our two countries. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is complying so far with the interim agreement reached in January. The news out of Israel and Palestine is less good, obviously, but I don't know that Obama and, in particular, John Kerry, could have done anything differently that would have resulted in a peace treaty by now.
Barack Obama should continue to ignore Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney, and follow the careful, measured principles he laid at West Point. If he leaves office: 1) having ended the Iraq and Afghanistan wars without starting any new ones, 2) having maintained the alliances with the European and Asian countries that, together, dwarf the power of any potential threat to our country, and 3) having enacted agreement with Iran that deals with its nuclear program and helps move that country away from its reflexive anti-Western path, he will go down in history as a very successful foreign policy president. We are, thankfully, not facing a Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, and Obama has thus far avoided the trap of starting an unnecessary war. In terms of foreign policy, this president is on track to leave the United States significantly stronger and safer than he found it. That's a legacy to be proud of.