By Paolo von Schirach
September 18, 2012
WASHINGTON – The established consensus among leading American foreign policy experts and media commentators is that president Barack Obama has done very well in foreign and security policies. Among his achievements: he ended the war in Iraq, while he has set a time table for withdrawing from Afghanistan. And, of course, he eliminated Osama bin Laden. And, yes, he reset relations with Russia, while ordering a resources refocus on Asia.
Too much praise
While there is some cause for a mildly optimistic assessment, this praise is highly exaggerated. The Iraq withdrawal followed the timetable set by the agreement the Bush administration had reached with the Iraqi government. So, Obama followed a set policy.
List of under achievements
Afghanistan was a mess when Obama came along and it is still a mess today. The surge the president ordered at the end of 2009 produced little that can be called sustainable, at a very high cost. Having now a date (2014) for getting out of a country in turmoil, with a still very active insurgency is not the pinnacle of achievement. Meanwhile, relations with Pakistan have turned from bad to positively horrible on account of the drone strikes against Taliban elements who take refuge in Pakistan that violate Pakistani sovereignty.
The “reset” with Russia did not bring that much. Russia is still mostly uncooperative on Syria and Iran. And the Obama administration cannot do much to influence the autocratic proclivities of the Russian government.
The refocus on Asia looks like an attempt to contain China. While some of this may be welcome by China’s smaller neighbors, it is not clear what the end game will be. The decision to dispatch a few marines in Northern Australia has to be viewed as unfriendly by China, even though by itself it has just about zero strategic value.
The olive branch to Iran was rejected. Iran was bent on developing nuclear weapons when Bush was president and nothing changed during the four years of the Obama presidency. Except for the tightening of sanctions, nothing at all.
The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was deadlocked when Obama came along and it is still deadlocked today. Essentially zero progress, while relations with Israel have somewhat deteriorated.
New era of engagement with the Muslim World?
That said, let’s remember that Obama became president with a highly ambitious agenda of recasting, in a major way, America’s relations with the Muslim World. His famous “Cairo Speech” was supposed to inaugurate a new era. Well, it did not. The Obama administration was caught completely off guard by the 2011 Arab Spring phenomenon that gave legitimacy to mostly, although not entirely, anti-American forces.
And now, a year later, notwithstanding various attempts at engagement and dialogue, the well publicized incident of the anti-Islam video has become a pretext for conservative Islamic forces throughout the Arab world for inciting anti-American demonstrations and for attacking US assets, such as Embassies and American schools.
No action in Syria
In the meantime, America is just a spectator as the carnage in Syria goes on and on. Washington has piously declared that in this crisis it will follow the will of the international community. Translated in simple language this means: “We shall do nothing worth mentioning”.
Afghanistan still a festering wound
In Afghanistan, the “good war” according to Obama during the 2008 campaign, some US troops get killed almost daily by the Afghans we are supposedly training so that they will become an able fighting force capable of defeating the ongoing Taliban insurgency. And other Afghan fighters just days ago attacked a US base, destroying 6 Harrier jets while damaging 2 more. (Total damage: at least $ 200 million). The environment has deteriorated so much that the US and other NATO allies just announced they will reduce the level of cooperation with the Afghan forces they are supposed to train.
And this is success?
It is remarkable how this rather undistinguished record may be portrayed as successful. In fairness, Obama certainly inherited a bad legacy. Too many years of misguided wars wanted by the Bush administration had tarnished US reputation and prestige. Still, this president who came along with a new agenda of humility, friendliness and engagement in foreign relations is ending his term with a diminished America unsuccessful in Afghanistan, incapable of preventing Iran from getting the bomb, no progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, incapable of influencing economic policies in Europe, on an uncertain footing with China, and no record worth mentioning in Latin America or Africa.
And, to top it all off, this new benevolent and engaging America is now targeted by half the Muslim World on account of just one video produced by totally unknown film makers. One cheap anti-Muslim made in the USA video apparently has more power to influence negatively Arab and Muslim public opinion than the entire foreign policy apparatus of the US government. America’s best intentions and far reaching policy objectives destroyed by just one video clip? If this is a record of foreign policy success, I would be curious to see what would constitute failure.