President Obama has any number of accomplishments to tout as he hits the reelection campaign trail this summer, but there is one aspect of his presidency that deserves particular recommendation: his foreign policy. Ironically, Obama’s “gutsy” decision on the bin Laden raid has overshadowed an otherwise impressive foreign policy doctrine that has blended both soft words and big sticks.
In just three tumultous years, Obama has distinguished himself as an agile diplomat and savvy commander-in-chief. And this from a man who was considered a foreign policy lightweight upon taking office.
Obama weathered the Arab awakenings in Tunisia and Egypt with both vigilance and optimism and in the months since, has done perhaps the most good by not interfering with the subsequent electoral decisions that have taken shape. He personally saved the New Start treaty with Russia, paving the way for a sizeable reduction in both U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And in Libya, he insisted America take the lead from behind the scenes in working with NATO to provide support for anti-Qaddafi rebels. The operation effectively prevented a probable genocide without immersing the U.S. in what might have been its third conflict in the Muslim world in 11 years.
And for whatever loss of toughness “leading from behind” cost the U.S., as the right-wing claims, Obama has remained steadfast in maintaining historic, crippling sanctions against Iran. He has made it abundantly clear that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, all the while displaying his consummate, level-headed coolness in whether to embroil the country in armed conflict once again. Israel has balked at the latter point, but surely it is the mark of a good leader who can stand up to our enemies, as well as our friends.
Obama’s enhanced targeted drone campaign has been the hallmark of his counterterrorism policy, and it has been devastatingly effective, having all but eliminated Al-Qaeda’s safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border and certainly forcing would-be militants in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen to start looking up. And most obvious of all, any doubt as to how Obama might confront threats to the country ended with the bin Laden raid last May.
Syria has certainly presented a real challenge with few good solutions, through no fault of Obama’s and it seems that neither American diplomacy nor American threats will deter North Korean idiocy. Relations with Pakistan have been sour since before Obama took office, and further deterioration has certainly been unhelpful, but that is at the expense of an otherwise vital counterterrorism campaign, as well as dubious Pakistani leadership.
Of course Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP-nominee, will try to paint Obama as weak on foreign policy. He will say he is an apologist to our allies in Europe and an appeaser to our enemies in Iran because for Romney, American exceptionalism is at stake, and that means toning down the engagement and ratcheting up the tough talk. And it was exactly that kind of talk that got this country into two wars that cost us dearly in more ways than one. Frankly, if American exceptionalism brings us Iraq and Afghanistan, and “leading from behind” brings success like Libya, my vote is already cast.
It has been refreshing to have an American president who moves to end wars instead of start them, who values rational dialogue over blustering ultimatums, who weighs the gravity of conflict over blind unilateralism, and who knows the difference between a statesman and an apologist. All the while, Obama has taken firm and unequivocal action against those threats that continue to imperil the country. Those would be some big shoes to fill, Mitt.