Six months ago, President Obama’s foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.
As misfortunes gathered, Obama’s response was defensive — and earthy. His first principle, he said, was “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
But as strategy, that was so inadequate that it drew a public rebuke from his former secretary of State. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Hillary Clinton told an interviewer.
Today the picture looks different.
Last week, Obama surprised the world by normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze. Before that, he struck significant deals with China on climate change and trade. He launched a new war in Iraq, the country from which he had long promised to extricate the United States. And in a little-noted but important move, he extended a limited U.S. combat role in Afghanistan for at least another year, stretching his 2014 deadline for a pullout.
Only recently criticized as passive, Obama suddenly looks hyperactive.
And there’s more to come. Obama still hopes to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, a diplomatic achievement that will produce major controversy. He plans to lift as many economic sanctions on Cuba as Congress will allow. And aides say they will consider yet another attempt at Middle East peace talks if Israel’s March election produces a receptive government.
“My presidency’s entering its fourth quarter,” Obama said at his news conference on Friday. “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.”
Has he undergone a conversion from a president bent on minimizing foreign entanglements to one who’s actively seeking opportunities for diplomatic boldness? Is he admitting he was aiming too low and risking too little?
Not really. Obama’s foreign policy was never quite as passive as its critics made it out to be — and today, it’s not quite as brilliant and visionary as administration officials try to make it sound.
What we’re seeing, instead, is how circumstance, luck, plus a measure of diplomatic skill, can bring about a run of better-than-average results.
Some of it is the slow ripening of efforts launched long ago. The talks with Cuba took 18 months, plus a push from Pope Francis. The climate deal with China was more than a year in the making. The nuclear talks with Iran have been under way even longer.
U.S. diplomacy has benefited from one huge piece of luck: the increase in North American oil production and the drop in world oil prices. That has made the U.S. and its allies less vulnerable economically and has reduced the running room of adversaries such as Russia and Iran.
The 2014 congressional election played a part, too. The fact that Obama has survived his last campaign has freed him to use his foreign policy powers more freely — as he did in normalizing relations with Havana. A Republican-controlled Senate won’t make his life easy, but he no longer needs to worry as much about the electoral impact on Democrats if, for example, he concludes a nuclear deal with Iran.
And part of Obama’s recent activism hasn’t, strictly speaking, been at his own initiative; he’s been forced to react to unwanted events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of Islamic State. In Afghanistan, he agreed to continue U.S. combat support for the Afghan armed forces after U.S. military officials warned that without American help, Kabul’s forces could quickly crumble.
In the end, the pillars of Obama’s foreign policy haven’t changed. He’s still avoiding most invitations to employ U.S. military power in foreign conflicts; there’s no appetite for getting more directly involved in Syria or for supplying weapons to Ukraine. He’s still persuaded that diplomatic engagement is most likely to bear fruit with adversaries — hence the talks with Cuba and the widening of discussions with Iran to include the future of Syria and Iraq.
And even though he has revived the Clinton-era slogan of the U.S. as “the indispensable nation,” Obama is still trying to adjust the goals and means of U.S. diplomacy to a world in which the United States has less absolute power, less money and less appetite for military adventures.
And his administration is still capable of diplomatic missteps. David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and author of National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, wrote recently: “It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.”
I asked Rothkopf last week whether the administration’s recent successes had caused him to revise his assessment. Not yet, he said.
Obama’s fourth-quarter foreign policy looks better than it did six months ago. But for good and ill, a lot can happen in two years — and it will.