To those voters, Obama looks relatively good, for now, on the big problems he inherited: the wars and al-Qaeda. What could go missing is a discussion about the president’s performance on his own priorities for foreign affairs — the initiatives he chose to launch.
If so, Obama will be fortunate. As he heads into the last year of his first term, the president’s biggest failures have been his own ideas.
The easiest one to document — and the one most likely to draw Republican attention next fall — is the busted Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama arrived in office afire with the ambition to create a Palestinian state within two years. But his diplomacy was based on a twofold misunderstanding: that the key to successful negotiations was forcing Israel to stop all settlement construction — and that the United States had the leverage to make that happen.
Veterans of the Middle East “peace process” shook their heads in wonderment as what at first appeared to be a rookie error evolved into a two-year standoff between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was only one possible explanation for this persistence in futility: The president himself was fixed on it.
Obama’s next big project was global nuclear arms control — an initiative so impressive to Norwegians that it won him the Nobel Peace Prize before he could act on it. Yet the results to date hardly seem prizeworthy. The New Start nuclear arms agreement with Russia merely ratifies warhead reductions already underway in Russia, while imposing a modest cut on the U.S. arsenal. More ambitious multilateral initiatives by Obama — to control nuclear materials, for example — have made little progress, despite an elaborate summit the president hosted in 2010.
Here again there appears to be a disconnect between Obama’s 1970s-vintage ideas and the real world of the early 21st century. There’s nothing wrong, and modest good, in extending Cold War nuclear conventions with Russia, or extracting highly enriched uranium from Ukraine and Chile. But the most dangerous proliferation threats emanate from countries that don’t attend summits or sign international treaties, such as North Korea and Iran. In terms of nuclear capability, both are ahead of where they were in 2009.
This brings us to Obama’s most distinctive — and most ill-fated — idea, and the one most identified with his 2008 campaign: the determination to “engage” with U.S. adversaries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. Obama promised “direct diplomacy” — even one-to-one meetings — with the likes of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong Il. More broadly he made the case that the United States could benefit by reaching out to autocratic regimes, while dropping the George W. Bush administration’s moralizing “freedom agenda.”
In his first year Obama dispatched two letters to Khamenei while keeping his distance from the revolutionary Green movement. He shook hands with Hugo Chavez. He launched a “reset” of relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and dispatched envoys to reason with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. He delivered a sweeping address to the Muslim world from Cairo.
The results have been meager. Khamenei spurned the U.S. outreach. Relations with Putin warmed for a time but now have grown cold again. In Egypt and across the Middle East, the president’s popularity is lower today than when he gave the Cairo address.
That’s largely because, in pursuing “engagement,” Obama has mishandled the biggest international development of his presidency: the popular revolutions against autocracy. Detente with dictators can sometimes yield results, but Obama’s outreach turned out to be spectacularly ill-timed. Following the failure to back Iran’s Green movement, the strategy caused the administration to lag in supporting the popular uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere.
The consequences of all this are not yet clear. To voters and maybe even to history they may be trumped by the dismantling of al-Qaeda. Taken together, what they describe is a president who has been a good counterterrorism commander, who has ended a war he promised to end — and whose signature initiatives have flopped.