In this year of news and commentary saturation about the character flaws of the presidential candidates, scandals left and right, policing and race, healthcare, and almost everything else, America’s overall state of foreign policy has mostly gone unnoticed, or at least under-reported.
By and large, we are told, voters usually base their vote on pocketbook issues or economic circumstances. But on occasion, foreign and defense policy have played a large part of elections as well. 1980 was such an election. There was not a major speech Ronald Reagan delivered in 1979 or 1980 that did not include a discussion of foreign or defense policy. The issue was there in 2004, too, but in recent elections—beyond Barack Obama and the left using America’s image in the world as a cudgel against Republicans in 2008—it has not been determinant to vast numbers of voters.
While we hear of late a great deal about Mosul and, more generally, who is friendlier with or to Vladimir Putin, little has been said about the general condition of our foreign policy. Barack Obama spoke a lot about it in 2007 and 2008, and, as mentioned, it served as a good rallying cry for the left to declaim against the downward condition or reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world. A look at global attitude surveys reveal Barack Obama over-stated America’s fallen reputation and, in a few short years, he actually made it worse.
But what of today? We have a nearly eight-year record, and the Democratic candidate for the presidency shaped much of it. Put differently: Hillary Clinton was not the Secretary of Labor.
Thus, the ignored story—not an op-ed—by a well-respected Associated Press reporter: Once lauded as a peacemaker, Obama’s tenure fraught with war. Consider, this is about Barack Obama, but it’s about his foreign policy and, again, Hillary Clinton was not the Secretary of Labor.
He is the erstwhile anti-war candidate, now engaged in more theaters of war than his predecessor. He is the commander-in-chief who pulled more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops out of harm’s way in Iraq, but also began a slow trickle back in. He recoiled against full-scale, conventional war, while embracing the brave new world of drone attacks. He has championed diplomacy on climate change, nuclear proliferation and has torn down walls to Cuba and Myanmar, but failed repeatedly to broker a lasting pause to more than six years of slaughter in Syria.
Instances of terrorism have peaked, deaths in battle around the world are at a 25-year high, and the number of refugees and displaced people has reached a level not seen in sixty years, according to the 2016 Global Peace Index, a report on international stability produced by the nonpartisan think-tank the Institute for Economic and Peace. The researchers attributed the trends to the expanded warfare in the Middle East and North Africa and broad ripples across the region and in Europe.
Critics do not see Obama heeding his own call to responsible nations. Obama’s refusal to use force to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, cripple his air force or more aggressively engage in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting have been a steady source of criticism. Many view it as an unfortunate over-correction from the George W. Bush-era Iraq war.
“The president correctly wanted to move away from the maximalist approach of the previous administration, but in doing so he went to a minimalist, gradualist and proxy approach that is prolonging the war. Where is the justice in that?” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of the book, “Just War Reconsider.” Obama should have worked harder to rally a coalition around a shared vision of a stable Middle East:, he believes. “Part of the requirement of leadership,” Dubik said, “is to operate in that space between where the world is and where the world ought to go.”
Looking back on Obama’s Nobel speech, that dilemma was already there, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former State Department official.
“What’s strikes me most is how different our concept of war was seven years ago,” he said. “We are engaged in a whole series of infinitely sustainable, low-level actions that have no logical endpoint.
As long a list as the foregoing is, unmentioned is the arrival of two new terror groups, Boko Haram and ISIS, and the dramatic increase of domestic terrorism.
Now think about the biggest and most lethal places: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. Do they fear us at all? Or do they mock us at every turn, large and small?
Now think about allies, say Israel, or Poland, or the Czech Republic, or Egypt, to tick off just a few (and many others could be added). Is there one place—one?—where the foreign policy of the Obama administration has shown an improvement, if by improvement we mean “better relations”?
The answer is yes, there is one: Cuba. Hell of an achievement, that. And it’s worth noting, Cuba has not changed one whit. Not any more than Iran. That’s the forgotten problem with photo-op agreements with tyrannies: they more often tend to change us, not them.
Perhaps as we move ever closer to November 8, we might encourage the media to focus more on the state of the world and the United States’ foreign policy of the last seven-plus years. And then perhaps the follow up: Who, just who, was the Secretary of State?