Politics & Policy

The Downside of Obama’s Foreign Policy

The president can hardly run on his record abroad.

Addressing the Democratic National Convention on September 6, President Obama proudly highlighted his foreign-policy achievements, boasting that “al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat” and affirming that “our longest war” — the war in Afghanistan — would be over by 2014. Then he drew laughter by painting Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as diplomatic lightweights: “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy.”

Talk about bad timing. Less than a week after the president’s speech, on the anniversary of 9/11, four American officials were killed in a terrorist attack at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the black radical-Islamist flag was hoisted above our embassy in Cairo. At first, the Obama administration claimed that the Libya killings had resulted from a “spontaneous” protest over a ridiculous anti-Islam video. On September 16, Ambassador Susan Rice, our chief envoy to the United Nations, flatly declared, “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”

But we did have such information, as early as September 12, according to Daily Beast correspondent Eli Lake: “Within 24 hours of the 9-11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda–affiliated operatives were behind the attack, and had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers.” Indeed, the very same day that Ambassador Rice claimed there was no evidence of a “preplanned” attack, Libyan president Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf said he had “no doubt that this was preplanned.”

By rejecting the terror link in so many public statements, the Obama administration was being either willfully deceptive or scandalously naïve. Either way, its response to the Benghazi massacre was deeply disturbing.

And yet, many people continue to argue that President Obama’s foreign policy has mostly been a success. Count me among the skeptics. While certain accomplishments are undeniable — such as the killing of Osama bin Laden — this administration has consistently (1) mishandled U.S. relations with both allies and adversaries, (2) let politics undermine military strategy and national security, and (3) neglected our own hemisphere. Let’s take each problem in turn.

Start with Israel. President Obama seems to believe that the best way for America to help resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into offering unilateral concessions. Not only has this approach failed to revive the peace process, it has damaged U.S.-Israeli relations and made America look like an unreliable ally.

Another nation that now finds us unreliable is Canada, our largest trading partner. Ottawa has a litany of grievances with the Obama administration, mostly related to trade, border disputes (in the Arctic), and energy. Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, believes that President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline “brought U.S.-Canadian relations to their lowest point in decades.”

Meanwhile, in Central Europe, the Poles and the Czechs are still smarting over the 2009 cancellation of longstanding missile-defense plans. Reporting from Krakow this past July, Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel wrote for NRO that “even the most pro-American Poles now question the seriousness with which the United States takes Poland as an ally.” Last year, when Prague announced that it was withdrawing from President Obama’s revamped missile-defense scheme, a prominent member of the Czech parliament voiced similar concerns: “The United States has been and will be our crucial strategic partner,” said Jan Vidím, “but the current administration doesn’t take the Czech Republic seriously.”

Plenty of other U.S. allies have their own complaints. For example, British officials are angry that the Obama administration has refused to endorse their nation’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, which dates back to 1833. Mexican officials are upset that the administration let thousands of guns “walk” across the border and into the hands of violent drug cartels, all without informing the Calderón government. And Taiwanese officials are increasingly worried that, while the military threat from China grows, their own fleet of fighter jets will shrink to half its current size by 2020, because the Obama administration has declined to sell them new F-16s.

The president’s supporters tend to ignore these complaints when evaluating his foreign-policy record. For instance, they trumpet his Russian “reset” as a success. Yet the best that can be said about this policy is that it yielded greater Russian willingness to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. The other supposed gains produced by the reset are either illusory or highly dubious.

Take the 2010 New START arms-control pact. Despite being advertised as a vehicle for shrinking the Russian nuclear arsenal, the agreement actually let Moscow expand its stockpile of strategic launchers and warheads, while doing nothing to reduce Russia’s sizeable arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which is ten times larger than our own. And despite repeated assurances from President Obama that New START would not jeopardize U.S. missile-defense programs, Russia has vowed to withdraw from the treaty unless those programs are curtailed. For that matter, the president famously promised Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev that he would “have more flexibility” on missile defense after winning reelection in November.

Has the reset made Russia a more responsible global actor? Not at all. For well over a year now, Moscow has brazenly flouted U.S. demands that it stop selling weaponry to Syria’s murderous dictatorship. It has also blocked any actions by the U.N. Security Council that might put an end to the bloodbath. Moscow still has a penchant for arming repressive, anti-American governments — Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is now the top importer of Russian ground-force weapons, according to the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade.

As to the debate over sanctions on Iran, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared on June 6 that “additional sanctions are completely counterproductive.” More recently, on August 13, the Kremlin denounced the latest U.S. sanctions as “overt blackmail.” Moscow has also warned the Obama administration that if American sanctions harm Russian companies doing business in Iran, there will be “severe repercussions” for the U.S.-Russian relationship.

In short, the reset policy has mostly failed to improve U.S.-Russian relations. It also certainly hasn’t advanced the cause of Russian democracy. The country is more lawless and autocratic today than it was in 2009, and Moscow has expelled the United States Agency for International Development, which had been funding a diverse mix of organizations, including Russia’s sole independent election monitor.

The diplomatic naïveté that led to the Russian reset also inspired President Obama’s early policies toward Havana and Tehran. If the president thought that loosening the U.S. embargo against Cuba would elicit a friendly response from the Castro brothers, he was mistaken: At the end of 2009, Cuban officials decided to jail a USAID contractor named Alan Gross and hold him as a de facto hostage. (Gross is now serving a 15-year prison term.) The Iranians were similarly unmoved by U.S. engagement efforts and chose to plow ahead with their nuclear program, at which point Congress forced President Obama to adopt tougher sanctions.

A few months ago, we learned more about the president’s Iran policy, but only because his administration leaked what appear to be classified details. This followed leaks of possibly classified information about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and other aspects of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Even many Democrats have condemned the leaks as dangerous and irresponsible.

The leaks highlight a disturbing pattern: Time and again, the Obama administration has let politics affect crucial national-security decisions. This pattern started back in 2009, when the Obama Justice Department released classified memos on the agency’s interrogation practices, rejecting the advice of seven former CIA directors. Four months later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an investigation of several CIA interrogators, despite the fact that career officials in his own department had already investigated the alleged abuses and decided not to seek prosecutions. (The agents in question were formally exonerated last year.) As you might have guessed, President Obama isn’t terribly popular at Langley: According to former CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, he “may be the most disliked commander in chief among case officers since Jimmy Carter.”

The president has fulfilled his promises to end the war in Iraq while ramping up U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, political considerations have undercut any effective American strategy in both countries. Rather than do the diplomatic work necessary to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq, the Obama administration eagerly withdrew the last American troops in December. The subsequent reduction in U.S. influence has contributed to a dangerous rise in sectarian tensions, and emboldened Iran to meddle even more in Iraqi affairs.

On Afghanistan, President Obama foolishly telegraphed a departure date (first it was July 2011; now it is December 2014), thereby encouraging both our enemies and our friends to make preparations for a post-American civil war. The brave U.S. servicemen currently stationed in Afghanistan have not been given proper clarity about their mission, nor have the American people. President Obama’s only explanation is the politically convenient claim that “the tide of war is receding,” even as events in the greater Middle East paint a very different picture.

The president insists that our departure from the Middle East will help facilitate a broader strategic shift toward Asia. While I fear that this Asia “pivot” has been oversold, I support efforts to strengthen our position in the Far East. But meanwhile, the president has plainly neglected our own hemisphere.

Don’t just take my word for it. In April 2011, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said that a “passive” United States had become “disengaged” from Latin America. Not surprisingly, between 2009 and 2011, President Obama’s job-approval rating fell by double digits in 15 of 18 Latin American countries surveyed by Gallup. The steepest declines were in Mexico (31 percentage points), Uruguay (26 points), Chile (25 points), and Panama (25 points). As of last year, his approval rating stood at just 31 percent in Mexico, and only 19 percent of Mexicans expected U.S. relations with Latin America to get stronger under his watch.

Yes, President Obama finalized the Colombia and Panama free-trade accords in 2011, but only after delaying tactics that humiliated two democratic allies. His “new beginning” with the Castro regime flopped, as did his attempt to boost relations with the semi-autocratic, pro-Chávez government in Ecuador. And when Honduran officials used lawful mechanisms to stop President Manuel Zelaya (another Chávez protégé) from hijacking their democracy, the Obama administration sided with Zelaya, urging Honduras to put him back in the presidential palace. (Thankfully, Honduran authorities refused to budge, and the administration eventually backed down from its demand.)

Should a foreign-policy record like this be considered a success, and part of a case for reelection? Not if we care about maintaining the trust of our allies and the respect of our adversaries. Not if we care about separating politics from national security. Not if we care about preserving democratic stability in Iraq. Not if we care about sending clear, unambiguous messages to U.S. troops risking their lives in Afghanistan. Not if we care about staying actively engaged in our own hemisphere. And not if we care about refuting the idea that America is a declining power.   

— Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


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