Ross Douthat says of the man who ended two long wars, killed America’s most relentless enemy – you know, the guy behind the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 – and who, perhaps, most significantly, did not start any new wars, “if Obama’s presidency ended today I have no idea what major foreign policy achievements his defenders could reasonably cite.” For Douthat, “the absence of an Iraq-scale fiasco is not identical to success.”
For many of us, the fact that Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, is indeed a success. Douthat, like every conservative, chary of naming Bush, says, “history shouldn’t grade this president on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld,” which is a ridiculous comparison since Rumsfeld was not president, or even vice president. But Douthat cannot even bring himself to name Bush, but rather, calls him Obama’s “predecessor.”
As ever, Douthat adopts a reasonable tone, trying to set himself apart from the extremists whose voices we are accustomed to hearing at Fox News:
Failure is a relative term, to be sure. His predecessor’s invasion of Iraq still looms as the largest American blunder of the post-Vietnam era. None of Obama’s difficulties have rivaled that debacle. And many of the sweeping conservative critiques of his foreign policy — that Obama has weakened America’s position in the world, that he’s too chary about using military force — lack perspective on how much damage the Iraq war did to American interests, and how many current problems can be traced back to errors made in 2003.
There is a big “but” coming, of course, but now Douthat has put himself in the position of not simply deriding Obama’s efforts because he’s Obama, of not sounding like all Obama’s other critics. In this, he is like a male, print-version of Megyn Kelly, and one wearing (presumably) more clothes.
Douthat moves from region to region, painting a big, red ‘x’ on each. He begins with Libya, which he claims, somehow, is “Obama’s own war of choice.” Really? I wasn’t aware we fought a war in Libya. And I might point out to Douthat that Libya was a success. Qaddafi is gone.
Douthat next moves to Syria, where he criticizes Obama’s inability to disarm Bashar al-Assad, before criticizing Obama for being unable to resolve Israeli-Palestinian tensions no president has been able to resolve since the foundation of Israel in 1948. And in fact, if you’re talking about the oft-repeated Republican claim that Obama has somehow thrown Israel under the bus, one Israeli official has said of U.S.-Israel ties, that things are “even better than under President Bush.”
Since the Republican position seems to be to attack everyone you can’t – or don’t want to – talk to, I’d say Obama has done very well. Yes, Mr. Douthat – refusing to go to war is a foreign policy success.
Douthat carefully avoids mentioning that it was George W. Bush who invaded Afghanistan. Instead, he seems to want his readers to associate Afghanistan with Obama. It was Bush and his administration who fumbled an initially successful invasion of Afghanistan, and the Bush administration who let that war – like the Iraq war – spin out of control. But instead, we see only criticisms of Obama, that his surge “failed to replicate the success of Gen. David Petraeus’s salvage operation in Iraq.”
Never mind that Afghanistan is a very different country from Iraq, that Obama was left with a mess not of his own making, and that even history’s greatest general, Alexander, failed to subjugate the land. Douthat implies that Iranian influence is now growing in the Holy Land, but Obama managed Iran – again without invading it as Republicans desired – and in the process, Iran’s nuclear weapons programs have been retarded, if not completely halted.
This is called diplomacy.
Sure, we might take a harder line with Iran. We might, for example, pull a Bush and invade. But are you willing to bet thousands of young American lives on that move? And how are you going to pay for the war?
There are no easy solutions. Obama cannot simply snap his fingers and make Iran behave. In that context, it should be noted here that in 2009, the man Douthat is criticizing here, won the Nobel Peace Prize:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
Douthat also carefully avoids mention of Egypt, another Obama foreign policy success story, where the Obama administration’s moderating influence ensured that the Mubarak regime would be sent packing, and without the violence of a civil war. The Republican response was to feel sorry for Mubarak.
Context is everything – unless you are a conservative criticizing Obama.
Douthat says, in another attempt to play the moderate while omitting relevant facts,
The point of this litany is not to suggest that all of Obama’s decisions have been misguided (I sympathized with the decision to slip free of Iraq entirely, and I’m glad we don’t have 50,000 troops occupying Syria), or that there’s some strategic reboot that would clear all these problems up. In a world that’s necessarily beyond an American president’s control, even the wisest choices can lead to disappointing results.
Disappointing results. That is the sense Douthat wants to impart to his readers, that Obama’s foreign policy record has been one of disappointing results. But there have been concrete successes. Wonderful as refusal to start a war can be, Obama has done more than be, simply, “Not-Bush” but has been a positive force on the world stage. No Republican admit that. It’s a pity they can’t admit to all the facts. Then we could have a genuine debate. But then, actually admitting all the facts into the equation would ensure conservatives lost the debate before it began.
And we can’t have that, can we?