President Obama came into office with high hopes of transforming America’s foreign relations and he has enjoyed some real successes, notably the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi and the killing of Osama bin Laden. But there have been even more setbacks. In country after country he has not shown much progress in dealing with intractable problems.
Iran creeps ever closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, while Benjamin Netanyahu warns that the mullahs could pass the point of no return as early as next spring. Israel and the Palestinians are as far apart as ever on a peace deal; Obama’s heavy-handed pressure on our ally predictably resulted in more gridlock, not a breakthrough. Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups are showing resilience in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, notwithstanding the loss of Osama bin Laden. U.S. standing in the Middle East appears to be no higher than it was when he took office and threats to U.S. interests are just as great, as seen from the killing of our ambassador in Benghazi. Iraq has just seen the most violent September in two years and Iran continues to use Iraqi airspace to ship weapons to the Assad regime in Syria. The fighting in Syria grows worse and worse—as does frustration among America’s Arab allies with the current American inaction. Russia is openly poking Uncle Sam in the eye by stopping all American support for civil society organizations. China is growing ever more belligerent with Japan, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies locked in disputes over tiny island groups in the East and South China Seas. North Korea continues to proceed apace with its nuclear and missile programs.
Oh, and hopes of achieving a peace deal with the Taliban are now officially being given up as unrealistic. One only wonders how it could have taken the administration so long to figure out the obvious: Sending fewer troops than military commanders had requested and setting an exit date for their departure is hardly the way to bring the Taliban to the peace table. Instead it only encourages them to wait us out, convinced, perhaps rightly, that we have no staying power.
Granted, most of these lingering issues would hardly have been fixed by a different occupant of the Oval Office: George W. Bush, after all, did nothing meaningful to stop the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs and his relations with Putin were just as troubled as Obama’s now are. But what makes Obama’s foreign policy particularly problematic (full disclosure: I am an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign) is the hubris with which he came into office, as symbolized by his promise not only to heal the planet but also to heal America’s relations with Iran, Russia, and other despotic regimes. That was a sign of his overweening self-confidence combined with a lack of knowledge about how the world really works.
The last four years have been an important educational experience causing the president to abandon, at least for now, unrealistic hopes of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian, Iranian, and North Korean negotiations. But he continues to chart an uncertain course in Afghanistan, Syria, and other crisis spots. The charitable explanation is that he is waiting for the election before he acts more decisively. But given the outcome of his decisive action in Iraq—the complete pullout of U.S. troops has led to a power grab by Prime Minister Maliki that threatens to tip the country back into civil war—inaction may actually be the preferred course.