The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
As Election Fades from Memory, NYT Criticizes Obama Foreign Policy

David Sanger of the New York Times has written a thoughtful analysis of what the Obama administration has and has not accomplished in its first term, and what it plans to accomplish in the second in U.S. foreign policy. Short description of accomplishments in the first term: not much. Short description of hopes and plans for the second: even less.

. . . beyond Iraq, his first-term accomplishments from that list are sparse. In a fractured world, President Obama struggled to define a grand strategy for America’s role, apart from preserving its pre-eminence while relying increasingly on a changing cast of partners.

As Mr. Obama begins his second term, aides and confidants say he is acutely aware that his ambitious agenda to restore America’s influence and image in the world stalled almost as soon as the prize was awarded. But the president has indicated that he plans to return to his original agenda, though he has hinted it may be in a different, less overtly ambitious way.

Sanger doesn’t use harsh characterizations as he runs down the list of initiatives that didn’t yield much in the way of results, but the quiet recounting is damning enough in its own way.

Like Via Meadia, Sanger thinks the biggest accomplishment was the strengthening of America’s stance in Asia, but it’s not clear how successful this will be if the administration is serious about continuing to lower its profile abroad and cutting military spending.

The administration wants to take Eisenhower as the model for the second term, according to the unnamed senior officials who briefed the very well plugged in Sanger, but it is actually much harder to be a laid back, smooth chief executive in foreign policy than it looks. Having commanded U.S. forces in the European theater in World War II, Eisenhower had unmatched personal prestige around the world, and during his presidency the U.S. had an overwhelming economic and nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. Many of those around Obama believe that our position is very different today—that U.S. power and influence is on the wane. Others who share that belief are going to probe and test, believing that Obama’s love of the quiet life will lead him to flinch in moments of crisis. Iran, China, Russia, the jihadis: there are many people out there who want to deny the Obama administration the quiet life it seeks.

Just as we think that refusing to announce a timetable for the Afghan withdrawal would have increased our chances of getting out with a reasonable political solution, telegraphing your retreat to the world is not the best way to be left in peace. China will certainly be pushing, hard, against the ambitious line in Asia that the U.S. laid down in the first term. Iran is more likely than not to force Obama to make the choice between war and accepting an Iranian nuclear weapon that he has been doing so much to resist. We’ve just seen in Mali and Algeria that the jihadis are very far from dead. Russia is hungry to find a chink in America’s geopolitical position to build its own prestige at our expense.

The things Obama now wants in his foreign policy—peace abroad so he can focus on rebuilding at home—are good in themselves, and the American people are tired of crisis after crisis overseas. But if global transformation was out of reach in the first term, the President and the country may yet make the discovery that peace and a quiet life are out of reach in the second.

Published on January 21, 2013 9:34 am