As the world continues to writhe in the fires of sectarian hatred, great power competition, and economic distress, there are now two leading schools of thought about President Obama’s foreign policy: People who think Obama is irrelevant—that his foreign policy is failing because nobody can do anything about where the world is headed so nothing that is happening is really his fault—and people who think Obama’s responses are making things worse and indeed, in some cases, that they are are the causes of at least some of the problems around us. (Nobody thinks Obama’s foreign policy is working; it is very hard to find anybody not actually on the President’s payroll who will say that U.S. foreign policy is making the world safer or more stable right now.)In fact, both sides in the debate have some truths on their side. The world is going through a rough patch (a more aggressive China and the consequences of its rise on Japan and the neighborhood, the continuing failure of the Arab world to find a path to a stable and satisfactory modernity, the economic distress as the information revolution reshapes the world economy and upends the social models of countries all over the world, to name a few), which can in no way be laid at the feet of President Obama or indeed of any other individual. History is hard, peace is fragile, and the world is becoming a more complicated place.
The waves crashing on the shore of history right now are hard to surf, and any U.S. President would be having a rough ride right now. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, either Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Madison, or Monroe wouldn’t be doing handstands and back flips if they were in charge right now. They would be clinging to their boards and hoping not to be thrown.
But it is also true that President Obama isn’t of their caliber, and that some of his problems are either made worse or are even created by actions he took or failed to take, and by the assessments that other world leaders have formed about his competence and his instincts.
The smartest thing this President could now right now would be to change up his team, particularly his team in the White House. President George W. Bush learned from the mistakes of his first term, and some of the key aides and advisors who he listened to most after 9/11 lost influence and in some cases their jobs when things didn’t work out as they had predicted. Abraham Lincoln fired a lot of generals before he found his winning team. This White House is notorious in foreign policy for controlling key decisions within a small group of people; bringing in a new, at least somewhat bipartisan group of well regarded, seasoned, top level people to staff the President’s core White House policy team would send a powerful signal overseas and could give the administration a chance to stabilize itself.
It’s likely that the true believers around the President have been consoling themselves with the hope that a nuclear deal with Iran would get the President out of the strategic doghouse and restore his authority and prestige. They may well think that this is the strategic centerpiece of a brilliant new design and see themselves as courageously refusing to give up the game when victory is at hand. If so, July 20 could be an important date in American foreign policy. If, as seems increasingly likely, no final deal with Iran can be reached by that time, and if, as also seems likely, the six month extension of the temporary agreement holds out little hope that the gaps can be bridged, President Obama will have what may well be his last opportunity for the kind of deep rethink that could open the prospect of a real shift in direction.
Let’s hope so. It’s never a good sign when the debate is about which is the bigger driver of world events: your incompetence or your irrelevance.