Obama and U.S. Foreign Policy

Historians, of all people, should understand the dangers of prematurely evaluating a President’s foreign policy record. Quite apart from all that we learn as archives open, the passage of time provides perspective. To take an obvious example: while few contemporary observers would celebrate it now, at the time, Ronald Reagan’s approach to Afghanistan was heralded as a major success.

With that rather significant caveat, Barack Obama’s own overall grade of B+ seems a reasonable mark for his foreign policy. During the Iranian uprisings, the President effectively responded to a crisis in which the United States lacked leverage and in which almost any decisive U.S. move threatened negative consequences. In Honduras, he took a principled position that avoided associating the United States with either Latin American coups or a pro-Chavez leader eager to illegally extend his stay in office. Obama’s decision not to station anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic ended a counterproductive initiative that had needlessly alienated Russia. And while Obama had no good options for Afghanistan, his decisionmaking process earned praise from even the JCS chairman.

While it’s too early to pass judgment on Obama’s performance, it’s not unfair to observe that he has operated in a political culture detrimental to crafting an effective foreign policy.

First: Congressional Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable unity behind a strategy of loudly opposing Obama—equal parts, as Andrew Sullivan has put it, “bellicosity, limitless partisanship, profound cynicism and fanaticism.” Take, for instance, the party’s response to the fraudulent Iranian election, in which GOP members of Congress alternated between comparing themselves to the pro-democracy protesters and demanding that Obama take more aggressive unilateral actions.

What about the party’s supposed national security experts, such asJohn McCain? Dick Lugar? Olympia Snowe? Their insignificance (or, in McCain’s case, unhelpfulness) to the debate confirmed Peggy Noonan’s condemnation of a “shortsighted and mischievous” GOP caucus, whose actions played into the hands of “the ayatollahs [who] were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week.”

Second: The establishment media seems obsessed with how international developments affect short-term political tactics (thePOLITICO effect), while downplaying policy-based coverage. Perhaps the best illustration came in Obama’s November trip to Asia. Huge issues—climate change, human rights, rogue states in the region, the American debt—were on the table. Yet, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows explicated, by covering the visit as if it were a campaign trip, most in the mainstream media wildly misinterpreted what they had witnessed. The result, according to The Week’s Tish Durkin: “Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama’s visit than the US media did.”

Operating in this toxic domestic environment, Obama’s preference for tactical caution has generally served him well. But it also has backfired against two of his key national security promises.

In both the primary and general election of 2008, Obama advocated repudiating his predecessor’s “interrogation” tactics, including closing the Guantanamo facility. He also promised to provide the presidential “leadership” needed to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

The two issues featured strong policy justifications for Obama’s position combined with weak arguments but the potential for demagoguery from the emotional minority wedded to the status quo.  Though the President entered office with the option of quick, if creative, executive action, he held back, in part because of his instinct for prudence. (There’s also some doubt about his commitment to either issue, as seen in Obama’s more generalindifference to gay rights as President and the resignation of White House Counsel Greg Craig, the official most closely associated with upholding the campaign promises regarding Guantanamo.)

The administration’s strategy accomplished little beyond politically benefiting Republicans while leaving his desired policy outcomes no closer to fruition than they were on the day he took office. GOP members of Congress channeled their inner NIMBY to oppose transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil—a strategy that even has boosted Republican chances to capture the Senate seat vacated by Obama. And in the atmosphere that followed Maine’s supposedly tolerant voters repealing the state’s marriage equality law, fear of a political backlash has left House Democrats reluctantto address don’t-ask-don’t-tell.

Finally, on one foreign policy issue, Obama’s performance has been unimpressive. During the 2008 campaign, Obama came under attack for his Hyde Park friendships with various Palestinian activists, most prominently the extremist academic Rashid Khalidi. The candidate responded by pointing to his impeccably pro-Israel record in the Senate, as well as his long association (dating from a time when it did him little good politically) with the Chicago Jewish community. The attacks fell flat, and Obama received a slightly higher percentage of the Jewish vote than did John Kerry in 2004.

This record makes Obama’s tone-deafness toward Israel as President all the more perplexing. Even as he has displayed an extraordinary sensitivity to how other countries and leaders perceive the United States, Obama has alienated much of the Israeli public.

Obama’s speech to the Muslim world linked the creation of Israel solely to the Holocaust, without mentioning Jews’ ancient possession of the land. His refusal to distinguish between Jerusalem suburbs and outpost Jewish settlements in the West Bank has seemed calculated more to bring down the fractious Netanyahu government than to revive diplomatic momentum. His sending a high-ranking representative (National Security Advisor James Jones) to the J Street conference contrasted sharply with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s decision to boycott the affair. And theinexplicable denunciation of Oren’s action by (of all people) the head of Obama’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism(!) waswidely, and appropriately, condemned.

A truism of Israeli politics is that no prime minister can survive prolonged tension with Washington. But much as George Bush’s low standing in the Muslim world weakened the U.S. position with Islamic countries, Obama’s unpopularity in Israel has unintentionally bolstered the very Israeli figures who most oppose the President’s vision for the region. Perhaps the benefit of time or access to documents will provide insight into Obama’s strategy, but at this stage his handling of Israel stands out as the weakest element of his foreign policy record.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has avoided any shattering foreign policy mistakes. But as our political culture shows no signs of improving, he will remain a President whose foreign policy choices are very much complicated by the poisonous atmosphere in which he operates.

K.C. Johnson

K.C. Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign relations and politics, including All the Way with LBJ: The 1964 Presidential Campaign and Congress and the Cold War. This article originally appeared on the website of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Policy.


  1. KC Johnson says

    I’m intrigued by Paul McDermott pointing out my support “support for a more muscular foreign policy toward Iran.” Nowhere in the essay do I indicate support for such a policy; nowhere in any of my other writings have I indicated support for such a policy, which I believe would be counterproductive.

    In fact, of course, my essay praises the President’s handling of the Iran crisis, and specifically his refusal to play to domestic politics and adopt a belligerent public posture. Perhaps Mr. McDermott downloaded a different essay?

  2. Paul McDermott says

    This paragraph from K.C. Johnson’s article is so glaringly biased that it should raise the hair on the back on any progressive intellectual:
    “Obama’s speech to the Muslim world linked the creation of Israel solely to the Holocaust, without mentioning Jews’ ancient possession (1)of the land. His refusal to distinguish between Jerusalem suburbs and outpost Jewish settlements in the West Bank (2)has seemed calculated more to bring down the fractious Netanyahu government than to revive diplomatic momentum. (3) His sending a high-ranking representative (National Security Advisor James Jones) to the J Street conference contrasted sharply with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s decision to boycott the affair.(4) And the inexplicable (5) denunciation of Oren’s action by (of all people) the head of Obama’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism(!)(6) was widely (7), and appropriately (7), condemned.”

    (1) What does he mean by “possession” of the land? And is this “possession” of the land constitute a greater claim than that of the Palestinians, who have lived there for centuries?
    (2) There should be no distinction between settlements in the West Bank and settlements in the “suburbs” of Jerusalem. It’s all part of the West Bank, and land confiscations and settlements there are illegal according to the U.S. and international law.
    (3) The only way Obama will be able to achieve diplomatic momentum in the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is to bring down the “fractious” Netanyahu coalition government. Israel meddles in U.S. affairs, so why not return the favor?
    (4) J Street is a Jewish lobbying group which has set up to counterbalance the right-wing, neoconservative AIPAC. Why shouldn’t Obama send a representative to this organization? Or does the author believe he should only support AIPAC and shun J Street? It was Oren’s decision to send a signal to Obama by boycotting the J Street conference. Netanyahu and his right-wing gov’t. have been brazenly meddling in congressional affairs and giving Obama the bird for some time. What’s new?
    (5) What’s so “inexplicable” about this? Maybe not to someone who believes the U.S. should tow the Israeli line.
    (6) The inference Mr Johnson is making here is that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic and Obama’s representative should be condemned. Welcome to the new McCarthyism!
    (7) By the promoters of hasbara (Israeli p.r.), including Mr Johnson.
    (8) Again the author’s bias come out in his choice of words.

  3. says

    This article perceptively mentions various factors – both general (e.g. Republican intransigence) and specific (‘Obama’s tone deafness toward Israel’) that must figure in short-term assessments of Obama’s foreign policy.

    Correctly Johnson reminds us that short-term findings may turn out very different from later historical conclusions. One reason of course is that what the administration really is or is not up to can be quite secret to us – a source of obscurity that adds to (but is different from) the media’s distorting conduct noted by Johnson.

    But we should not hestitate to call em as we see em, even though the administration may be deliberately presenting us just half of the picture.

    And the one thing we see which does not square with Johnson’s relatively optimistic picture of Obama’s policy is his disastrous appeasement of the Iran dictatorship (and similarly the N Korean regime) and its open and insolent drive for nukes as well as for internal repression.

    The world ‘community’, paced now by the Obama administration, keeps threatening Iran with deadlines and sanctions – which all pass and don’t happen. The world has cried wolf so often, and does nothing, that the Iran regime perceives a green light for repression and for openly nuclearizing jihadism. On a more modest scale, we see the same appeasement to Sudan’s Bashir and his Darfur genocide.

    Obama’s wimpitude vis-a-vis Ahmadinejad seems of a piece with the same vis-a-vis the Republicans. (And, as Johnson notes, Obama’s ‘caution’ hasn’t really helped him on the issues of Guantanamo or DADT either.)

    In Springfield Illinois maybe everyone basically wants to get along constructively for the common good, and it takes an Obama to catalyze that to happen. But the bigger world of Congress and beyond comprise powerful folk who got where they are by not compromising, by deliberately being unreasonable, by deliberately and ruthlessly pursuing their own agendas or non-agendas.

    Sure, no big obvious crisis has happened yet on Obama’s watch. For a while they didn’t happen on Neville Chamberlain’s watch either.

    • Paul McDermott says

      It’s no surprise that Mr Weinstein would agree with K.C. Johnson’s support for a more muscular foreign policy toward Iran (on this, a progressive website?). These two share similar inclinations with the neocons who have been pushing for a hostilities with Iran for some time now and believe that military aggression is the one-size-fits-all solution to all international problems. Perhaps neither of them have ever considered that Israel should abandon its nuclear weapons as part of an agreement to have Iran forsake its nuclear ambitions and thereby achieve a nuclear-free Middle East!


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