- By Region
“Weak.” “Apologist.” Those two words are repeated endlessly in the Republican party’s attack on Barack Obama, as it tries to persuade voters that the US president is not worthy of another term as commander-in-chief.
The charge of weakness will be difficult to make stick. As the president’s team will endlessly remind us, he is the man who sent in a combat team to kill Osama bin Laden – against the advice of some of his aides – and who has ruthlessly pounded al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan with drone strikes.
The irony is that there are really serious criticisms that can be made of Mr Obama’s handling of foreign affairs. But the real problem is not that he is weak or apologises for the US. It is that he has over-promised and under-delivered. Fortunately for the president, this is a relatively complicated idea that relies on some knowledge of world affairs. Therefore it is not a critique that the Republicans are likely to attempt.
Nonetheless, it is sobering to measure Mr Obama against the goals he set himself. His international priorities in 2008 were clear and ambitious. He intended to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy. He wanted to make peace between Israel and Palestine. He would transform America’s image in the Muslim world. The Guantánamo prison camp would close and terrorists would be tried in US courts. The new president would get the US out of Iraq and use the freed-up resources to fix Afghanistan. And he would dramatically improve relations with Russia and China, allowing the world to make progress on issues of common concern, from global warming to global trade.
Go down this checklist and you will notice far more failures than successes. The rapprochement with Iran never happened. Instead, as Mr Obama nears the end of his first term, the US and Iran are dangerously close to armed conflict. The president’s efforts to revive the Middle East peace process have got nowhere. Guantánamo has not closed and the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is taking place there.
After some agonising, the president ordered a George W. Bush-like troop “surge” into Afghanistan. This policy also looks likely to end in failure, with little sign that Nato will leave behind a functioning Afghan state. When it comes to Pakistan, Mr Obama has out-Bushed Mr Bush. The use of drone strikes has increased dramatically. This will be portrayed as evidence of strength by the Obama camp. But it leaves behind a dangerous legacy of a rotten relationship with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180m people.
After the early ecstatic reaction to Mr Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009, in which the president called for a “new beginning” between the US and Muslims, America’s popularity has slumped again in the Islamic world. Mr Obama’s rightwing critics cite the Cairo speech as evidence that he apologises for America. In fact, it was a balanced plea for a reset with the Muslim world – but it failed. The US “favourability rating” in three key Muslim countries – Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan – is now actually below the levels of 2008, Mr Bush’s last year in office.
Intent on according the Muslim world more respect, the president was also initially blindsided by the Iranian uprising of 2009 and the Arab spring of 2011 – both of which were events that fitted more easily into a neoconservative narrative, about the universal yearning for democracy.
Mr Obama must surely regret his lukewarm support for the Iranian uprising. When it came to the Arab spring, he struck a necessarily uneasy compromise between supporting US ideals and protecting US interests. The idealistic president called for Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to go and supported the ousting of Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi. The pragmatist has allowed the Bahrain uprising to be crushed and has hung back over Syria. It is hard to argue that he has made any big mistakes. But the big picture is of declining American influence in the region.
The president’s policies towards Russia and China have also not worked out as planned. He came to power at a time when relations between the US and Russia were at a dangerous low, after the Russian war with Georgia. The Obama team proclaimed its desire to press the “reset” button with Russia – and for a while this policy paid dividends. The two countries signed a new arms-control accord and co-operated at times at the UN. But the “reset” was built around President Dmitry Medvedev. The return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin has brought a fresh chill to US-Russian relations.
Mr Obama’s initial hope of forging a new and co-operative relationship with the rising superpower in Beijing has also been mugged by reality. The two powers have maintained a reasonable dialogue. But they have also clashed over trade, climate change and human rights. And military tensions between China and the US are rising in the Pacific.
Nor, despite the premature award of a Nobel Peace Prize, can Mr Obama point to any transformative impact on global diplomacy. The UN remains a tetchy and dysfunctional forum. The G20 – while it played an important role in stabilising the world economy in 2009 – is now something of a disappointment. There have been no big new deals on climate or trade.
If the newly elected president in 2008 had been told this would be his list of global achievements he would surely have been disappointed. Mr Obama ran as the anti-Bush candidate. So it is ironic that his signature achievement overseas – the killing of bin Laden – is one George W. Bush would have been proud of.