With a White House record of stewardship on the economy that is at best mixed, the Democratic National Convention this week is trying to draw attention to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy achievements. The 2012 Democratic Party platform, released on September 3, says the United States is on the rise in power and influence around the world due to Obama’s leadership. It claims the decade of war following the 9/11 attacks is now ending. The platform also praises President Obama’s ending of the conflict in Iraq, killing of Osama bin Laden, and moves to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. These successes, it adds, allow the country to focus on nation-building at home and refocus on high priority challenges overseas such as nuclear proliferation, the danger of cyber attacks, biological weapons, climate change and transnational crime. Meanwhile, the democrats depict Romney as inexperienced, out of touch and needlessly confrontational. They have sought to frighten undecided voters by blaming his positions on the same "very hard-core neoconservatives” whom they allege surround the Republican candidate and urge on him the same hawkish positions that led to the war in Iraq and needless global tensions during the Bush years.
The Democrats need not unfairly demonize the GOP opposition in order to highlight Obama’s accomplishments. In addition to successfully managing the challenges mentioned in the party platform, Obama has shown a keen sense of the limits on American power in a changing world. This has resonated with Americans weary of long and costly wars overseas. For the first time in at least a generation, the Democratic Party occupies the political middle ground. Polling data consistently say voters give Obama higher marks than Romney on foreign policy issues. It is the Republicans who now must earn again popular trust, (though in some instances Obama merely built upon the less heralded work of the Bush Administration).
Despite the successes, Obama has stumbled in a number of areas. He has made little progress on the Israel-Palestinian issue. He has largely neglected the US European allies. Iran seems far closer to having nuclear weapons than when the President took office. More fundamentally, as Leslie Gelb has recently pointed out, while Obama saw the limits of American power, he failed to appreciate what America can still do. Gelb correctly faults the Administration for failing to "formulate strategy and understand its interplay with power.” Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, Gelb notes, "seems little more than a disjointed list of tactics.” In fact the problem is deeper. Obama has failed to recast the interrelationship of power and traditional American concerns such as human rights. He also has yet to convincingly link US economic power with national security.
In no area are the strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s foreign policy more evident than in the now famous Reset of relations with Russia. Born of the conviction that relations between Washington and Moscow were drifting dangerously during the second Bush term, the White House responded by trying to advance common interests with the Russians and develop a more robust bilateral relationship. The results, though oversold, have been positive in some areas – especially arms control, cooperation on the campaign in Afghanistan, and the broadening of the relationship more generally.
But the Obama Administration’s approach has been based on dubious assumptions that in recent months have undermined the Reset: first, that the Kremlin would allow the US to engage the Russian government and society in a meaningful way as the gulf between them has widened (indeed, the recent street protests caught many observers in Washington by surprise); second, that a reset with Russia could be pursued without compromising its relations with other countries (Given the attention lavished on Russia, this was an almost impossible goal given Moscow’s often troublesome relations with its neighbors); third, that the US could avoid linkage of "unrelated” issues, such as human rights and dealing with the corruption of Russian international big business, even as it pursued issues of mutual interest. Obama has also stumbled on implementation. By appearing to court former president Medvedev the White House has angered Putin, according to some press reports, and made cooperation more difficult. In seeming to downplay human rights concerns Obama has alienated significant parts of Russia’s democratic, traditionally pro-American, forces. Finally, by making better relations a goal in itself, Obama has signaled to the Kremlin he is weak and can be manipulated.
Vladimir Putin has said he can work with either Obama or Romney, though Russian officials openly favor Obama. The Russian President stoutly defended Russia’s approach to controversial issues such as Syria in an interview this week, positions that reflect very different geopolitical calculations than Washington’s and an almost reflexive suspicion of American power and intentions. Prominent Russian analyst Aleksey Pushkov, moreover, has observed that even if Romney wins, the US will be unable to badly harm Russia because a deterioration of relations would cost America dearly. After admission to the WTO, he argued, «Russia does not need the support of the White House very much.” The US, he concludes, needs Moscow more: on Iran, North Korea, and nuclear nonproliferation.
On the other hand, after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 the US can afford to be less concerned about the Kremlin’s sensitivity about human rights issues. Opposition street protests and evident tensions in the elite have exposed Putin’s diminished political base, making possible, though still not likely, an abrupt turn of events in Moscow. This changing context requires, at a minimum, a recalibration of relations. But the track record of the Administration over the past four years gives little confidence that, with so much political capital invested in the Reset, if Obama wins at the polls in November he will be inclined to do so.
Dr. Donald N. Jensen