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Commentary: Obama weakness or is it ours?

by on June 27, 2014 10:20 AM

The odds are that you think President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is a failure. That’s the scathing consensus forming, with just 36 percent of Americans approving of Obama’s foreign policy in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week. Foreign policy used to be a source of strength for the president, and now it’s dragging him down — and probably other Democrats with him.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, warns that Obama “has weakened the national security posture of the United States.” Trent Franks, a Republican member of the House from Arizona, cites foreign policy to suggest that Obama is “the most inept president we have ever had.”

Obama is no messiah, but this emerging narrative about a failed foreign policy is absurdly harsh. Look at three issues where Republicans have been unfairly jabbing him with pitchforks:

• Trading five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl was unpopular with the public, and the Obama administration may have made the trade in the incorrect belief that Bergdahl was near death. Then again, here’s a U.S. soldier who spent five years in Taliban custody, some of that reportedly in a cage after trying to escape. If we make heroic efforts to bring back American corpses, how can we begrudge efforts to bring back a soldier who is still alive?

Sure, there are risks. But the five Taliban prisoners have probably aged out of field combat, and, if they return to Afghanistan after their year in Qatar, they would likely have trouble finding U.S. targets because, by then, the United States will no longer be engaged in combat.

More broadly, there’s nothing wrong with negotiating with the Taliban. The blunt truth is that the only way to end the fighting in Afghanistan is a negotiated peace deal involving the Taliban, and maybe this deal can be a step along that journey.

• Russian aggression in Ukraine was infuriating, but it’s petty Washington politics to see it as emanating from Obama weakness. After all, President George W. Bush was the most trigger-happy of recent presidents, and he couldn’t prevent Russia from invading Georgia in 2008 and helping carve off two breakaway republics.

Obama diplomacy appears to have worked better than military force would have. Contrary to early expectations, Russia did not seize southeastern Ukraine along with Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia this week called on Parliament to rescind permission to invade Ukraine. Be wary, but let’s hope the Bear is backing down.

• The debacle in Iraq is a political and humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s a little rich for neocons to blame Obama after they created the mess in the first place. Obama was unengaged on Iraq and Syria, but it’s not clear that even if he had been engaged the outcome would have been different.

Suppose Obama had kept 10,000 troops in Iraq as his critics wish. Some would have been killed; others injured. We would have spent another $50 billion or so in the Iraqi sands (that’s more than 25 times what Obama requested to start universal prekindergarten, but Congress balks at the expense). And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might have felt even less need to keep Sunni tribes on his side. Would all this really have been the best use of U.S. lives and treasure?

Yes, Obama has made his share of mistakes, especially in Syria, where he doesn’t seem to have much of a policy at all. Partly balancing that, he helped to defuse the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

Look, the world is a minefield. President Bill Clinton was very successful internationally, yet he bungled an inherited operation in Somalia, delayed too long on Bosnia, missed the Rwanda genocide and muffed the beginning of the Asian financial crisis — and all that happened during a particularly skillful administration.

As for former Vice President Dick Cheney complaining about Obama’s foreign policy, that’s a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then pleading for mercy because you’re an orphan. In the Bush/Cheney years, we lost thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, we became mired in Afghanistan, Iran vastly expanded the number of centrifuges in its nuclear program, and North Korea expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons. And much of the world came to despise us.

Blowing things up is often satisfying, and Obama’s penchant for muddling along instead, with restraint, is hurting him politically. But that’s our weakness more than his. Obama’s foreign policy is far more deft — and less dangerous — than the public thinks, and he doesn’t deserve the harsh assessments. If there’s one thing we should have learned in the Bush/Cheney years, it’s that swagger and invasion are overrated as foreign policy instruments.



Nicholas Kristof writes a column for the New York Times. Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com /NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.
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