Scoring Obama's Foreign Policy

A Progressive Pragmatist Tries to Bend History

(Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

As November's U.S. presidential election approaches, foreign policy and national security issues are rising in importance. President Barack Obama is running on a platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while demonstrating toughness against al Qaeda. His Republican opponents charge him with presiding over the United States' decline and demonstrating fecklessness on Iran. The true story is somewhat more complicated than either side admits.

When Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, he had already developed an activist vision of his foreign policy destiny. He would refurbish the United States' image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; "reset" relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; elicit Chinese cooperation on regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East. By his own account, Obama sought nothing less than to bend history's arc in the direction of justice and a more peaceful, stable world.

There was inevitable tension between Obama's soaring rhetoric and desire for fundamental change, on the one hand, and his instinct for governing pragmatically, on the other. The history of the Obama administration's foreign policy has thus been one of attempts to reconcile the president's lofty vision with his innate realism and political caution. In office, Obama has been a progressive where possible but a pragmatist when necessary. And given the domestic and global situations he has faced, pragmatism has dominated.

This balancing act has pleased few and provided fodder for Obama's critics. His compromises have been interpreted as signs of weakness, and his inability to produce clean outcomes in short order taken as an indication of incompetence. His efforts to engage competing powers have seemed at times to come at the cost of ignoring traditional allies. Above all, his approach has caused some to question whether he has a strategy at all or merely responds to events.

Such a portrayal, however,

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