"Obama's Failed Foreign Policy"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 1, 2012
Authors: Eliot A. Cohen, Eric S. Edelman, Senior Associate, International Security Program, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The Obama administration entered office with a theory of foreign policy that has failed the test of practice.
Candidate Obama promised a responsible end to the war in Iraq. But in 2008 the war was won and Iraq on a fragile path to stability and alignment with the United States. His administration declared that it wanted a continuing presence of thousands of American troops in Iraq; in fact, it appears, he did not believe in his own policy. President Obama's policy has thus left us today with no presence, no leverage, and no credibility with the Iraqi leadership. Iran uses Iraqi air space and roads to resupply the Assad dictatorship.
Candidate Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," and promised to win it. But President Obama's declaration of a date certain to end American combat operations discouraged our friends and heartened our enemies. Afghans, who know from bitter experience what abandonment can mean, are picking sides. In 2008 there were two "green on blue" attacks by Afghans against NATO forces. In the first nine months of 2012 there have been 33.
Candidate Obama defined our war with Islamist terrorists as being against the Al Qaeda organization that existed on September 10, 2001. But targeted killing is a tactic, not a strategy. The president and his advisers have crowed that the enemy is "on the verge of strategic defeat." That complacency explains their bafflement at the precisely executed mortar barrage, the rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire that demolished our consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including the first American ambassador to die violently in over three decades.
The lapping of the Islamist tide through North Africa, Yemen, parts of South and Southeast Asia, and now in Syria suggests that they never really came to grips with who the enemy is. We have changed; so too has Al Qaeda, which has spread far beyond the Pakistan borderlands.
Candidate Obama believed that his life story would win over the Muslim world. He attempted to realize that notion in his Cairo speech, delivered on a trip to the Middle East that deliberately avoided Israel. But President Obama's charisma and personal history failed him. In 2008, for example, 19 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States. Today 12 percent do. And Pakistan is far from the only case.
Candidate Obama promised a world without nuclear weapons in his 2009 Prague speech. But in 2009, Iran had manufactured approximately a thousand kilograms of low enriched uranium; today the figure is about seven thousand. Then it had virtually no uranium enriched to the critical 20 percent level; today it has two hundred kilograms — roughly a bomb's worth. The Obama administration has continued a policy of sanctions, but the result is only new, underground facilities; thousands more spinning centrifuges; and a regime that dares attempt to kill an Arab ambassador in America's capitol.
Candidate Obama promised little in the field of free trade, and delivered, contenting himself with ratifying three agreements negotiated by his predecessor. In the same period China has signed fifteen.
No surprise, then, that in 2008, more people around the world, by a margin of 23 percent, thought that the United States rather than China was the world's leading economic power. Today, by a margin of 6 percent, they think Beijing is ahead. Meanwhile, a newly aggressive China is in a shoving match with our ally Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and Tokyo cannot be certain that, in the President's oft-repeated phrase, we have their back.
Candidate Obama promised outreach to Russia. His "reset" yielded an arms control treaty that left thousands of Russian tactical nuclear weapons off the table; Russian obstructionism over Iran and Syria; the expulsion of USAID from Russia, and even bands of thugs harassing our ambassador in Moscow. And curiously, President Obama has promised President Putin more "flexibility" after the election.
The true audacity of the Obama administration lies less in its proclaimed foreign policy hopes, than in its insistence that its record is one of foreign policy success. It has, rather, been one of embarrassment, failure, and in some cases, disaster.
Because of the last four years, we face a world in which our enemies do not fear us, our friends do not believe they can trust us, and those who maneuver between the two camps feel that they will not get in trouble by crossing us. It is time, and more than time, to choose a different course.
Eliot A. Cohen, Eric Edelman, and Meghan O’Sullivan are special advisers on foreign and defense policy to Mitt Romney.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
Full text of this publication is available at:
For Academic Citation: