By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
U.S. President Barack Obama has at times been compared with former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. The comparison with Carter is made by Republicans who want to paint Obama as a weak, hopefully one-term Democratic president. That comparison is deeply flawed and deeply partisan: For example, Obama's campaign against al Qaeda has been far more successful than the military's attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran in 1980, which took place on Carter's watch.
But the comparison with the elder Bush is more interesting. Both are seen as cool and analytical compared to the hot-blooded, ideological George W. Bush, who bogged the United States down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Obama has on occasion openly expressed admiration for the elder Bush — no doubt meant as a slight against the younger.
But this comparison is also too facile. It is not that the elder Bush was better than Obama; they are simply different. Bush was a U.S. Navy pilot who fought the Japanese: He was psychologically and historically anchored in the Homeric Age of World War II and the Cold War. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, he saw it as the culmination of a 50-year struggle and made momentous decisions accordingly. Indeed, while some opposition Democrats entertained the idea of a neutral, eastern half of Germany, Bush and his lieutenants, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker III, would have none of it: Germany would be reunited and belong in full to NATO. Bush and especially Scowcroft, his national security adviser, were realists: Rather than advance good causes, they worked instead to prevent bad things from happening. They knew that nothing could be done to prevent Soviet tanks from invading a rebellious Lithuania, so they deferred recognizing the Baltic country's independence in order to appease Moscow. This got them denounced by liberal humanists in the media, but in a quiet and understated way, it kept the demise of the Soviet Empire in Europe peaceful. Bush and Scowcroft's book, A World Transformed (1998), is one of the greatest presidential recollections, ranking with Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs (1885).
Obama, by contrast, was formed by the post-Cold War period, grew up partly in the former third world and is a pragmatist more than a realist. That means, according to Dimitri Simes, writing in The National Interest (September/October 2011), that rather than Bush, Obama has no strategic vision but instead is focused on domestic affairs and therefore makes only tactical adjustments overseas. This does not make Obama soft. Indeed, he has conducted an epic campaign of assassinations against al Qaeda leaders across the Greater Middle East through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and special operations forces. But he seems to lack the inner ballast, rooted in historic nation-state America, that would make him as comfortable as Bush was with the projection of American power. Obama's aim has been to end wars; not begin them, as Bush did to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi troops in 1991. Obama has surged troops into Afghanistan, even while announcing at the same time a timetable for their withdrawal. He goes many months without speaking substantially about the war in Afghanistan, even as tens of thousands of uniformed Americans are fighting there. The current commander-in-chief does not from the outside appear emotionally invested in America's conflicts overseas and seems deeply ambivalent about them.
This does not necessarily make Obama a bad foreign policy president. His limited military intervention in Libya was not a disaster in the short run like the younger Bush's invasion of Iraq, even as he has so far stood down the human rights crowd on robust intervention in Syria. His somewhat precipitous withdrawal of troops from Iraq has probably not made the situation there that much worse. And if Iraq were to struggle on toward a highly imperfect, yet functioning democracy, Obama may in the future receive credit for decisively ending the war.
While Obama seems at this writing to be on the right track in avoiding armed conflict with Iran, were Iran in the future to successfully detonate a nuclear explosion in its desert or acquire a nuclear weapon, the historical judgment on Obama might suddenly become negative. For the moment, he is taking the path of least resistance: opting for sanctions, delay and negotiations which, even if judged successful by the global media, might merely provide Iran with enough wiggle room to pursue a bomb.
In sum, this is a president who has not yet really been tested to quite the same extent that the elder Bush was tested by the demise of the Soviet Empire and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the younger Bush was tested by 9/11. In this regard, Obama may vaguely resemble President Bill Clinton, who faced no cataclysmic national security challenge on his watch: Clinton kicked the can down the road in the face of al Qaeda attacks in places like Yemen and East Africa and made correct, albeit delayed, decisions on military intervention in places like Haiti and the Balkans, which were not in any case vital to American interests. (He also oversaw the disaster in Somalia.)
Obama made a clumsy attempt to restructure relations between the United States and Israel, trying to extract concessions from the Israelis on West Bank settlements in return for the billions of dollars of American taxpayer aid they get annually. But by not distinguishing between settlements in Greater Jerusalem and in the West Bank proper, among other mistakes, he put a right-wing Israeli government in an impossible political position and the result was stonewalling by Israel and its allies in Congress and the media. Obama beat a retreat.
Perhaps the only new concept or policy that Obama has been able to implement was his "pivot" toward the Pacific, following ground troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy actually originated in Hillary Clinton's State Department and indicated a natural strategic evolution given Asia's economic importance, the need to balance against the military rise of China and the wish to stay engaged abroad and thus avoid quasi-isolationism, which has dogged the United States throughout its history.
So this is a reasonably competent, B-plus foreign policy record. If Obama is re-elected, the personnel in his new administration may be quite different, and that will affect performance. For example, the degree to which Obama was a hardline pragmatist, as in his successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, is partly ascribed to the influence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former CIA director (and current defense secretary) Leon Panetta. But if the second term means new personalities, such as Clinton being replaced at the State Department by someone like Sen. John Kerry or U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, foreign policy might acquire a far more traditional liberal cast. Living and working for years in Washington, I have learned: You are who you appoint. And different appointments will mean different decisions at key moments in deciding war and peace that, in turn, decide the foreign policy personality of any administration.
Obama began his presidency with Gates, a Republican realist, as both the secretary of defense and the most powerful person in the Cabinet. Thus, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility remained open and there was reasonable continuity from the previous administration (at least initially) in the prosecution of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It is in the second term, if he gets one, that Obama will truly define himself, surrounded by members of his own party.