In the second part of this series evaluating Barack Obama's foreign policy, I will discuss the weak points of president Obama's first term. Briefly, the issues in the Middle East and the global economy's dependency on America are the main stumbling blocks for his foreign policy.
The Middle East is a mixed bag for the president. In Libya, the United States was not the outright leader, but provided foundational support so the mission could be carried out, while France, Britain and Italy assumed the political leadership. While the outcome of the mission is questionable, with Libya’s peace and political integrity under question, it was an example that the viability of NATO as a transatlantic alliance is still there. At the end of 2011, the full withdrawal of combat soldiers from Iraq was complete, ending nearly a decade of bloodshed and violence that perhaps left America on the losing end, effectively opening Iraq to Iranian influence – yet, that is the lesser evil to wasting further lives and treasure in the country. The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is still going, but it is due to end in 2014; while postwar American support will remain essential to Karzai’s government, an illiterate population, the failure to eradicate the Taliban, and a potential re-fracturing along ethnic and religious lines might dry up American appetite to work in the country in the short term.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden, Washington’s one-time ally, was widely appraised as a success. Undoubtedly, it was necessary; the man who killed 3,000 innocent people deserved it. However, the fact it occurred in the backyard of Pakistan’s elite officer training academy means that where bin Laden was since 2001 has never been unclear – but lacklustre economic performance mid-term meant that May, 2011 was the perfect time to boost Obama’s image. The relative transparency on why it happened so late makes the more experienced observers shake their head, despite the popular approval.
Iran remains a sore spot for American foreign policy. Obama maintained the sanctions regime on the country for its nuclear program and even extended it in concert with other international partners to the point of imposing the equivalent of a Western oil embargo on the country. While he restrained Netanyahu’s push for striking the country, it is not completely out of the question. The failure to open diplomatic relations with Teheran and make Israel accountable for its own nuclear weapons in the process makes this a severe weakness in Obama’s foreign policy; he can show much better leadership.
In Syria, the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on its own people, marked by thousands of casualties and an externally-supported insurgency has left America working through the UN Security Council and Kofi Annan’s own mission in the country to implement a tacitly-accepted peace deal. However, the lack of reform in the UNSC’s structure and the fact it is an intergovernmental bargaining shop has put Obama in a weaker position to affect positive change in Syria.
In terms of international finance, American debt has grown faster under Obama, with approximately a third owned by foreign governments, and that share is rising. The budget deficit has also not been addressed adequately. Given that the health of the global economy is highly dependent on what America does, Obama has not been able to find a way past a disastrous legacy and Republican opposition to put in place effective measures to address America’s unsustainable balance of payments position.
Coming up in the next installment of the series: possible directions for 2013-2017.