The nadir for President Obama’s foreign policy probably came in April. His Republican critics were calling him “weak” and “indecisive” after Russia’s invasion of Crimea. A deflated Obama responded meekly that sometimes the best a president can do is to hit “singles” and “doubles.”
Obama still isn’t hitting home runs. But he does seem to have rediscovered his stance as a leader. Last month, he made climate, military and investment agreements with China’s President Xi Jinping; this week, he proposed diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba; he continues negotiating what could be a breakthrough nuclear deal with Iran; he’s slowly forming a global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. And at home, when Congress failed to act on immigration, he boldly announced unilateral measures.
All of these actions have Republican members of Congress sputtering. But what are they going to do? Sue him? Actually, they’re already trying that over Obamacare — reinforcing the public’s impression that the GOP would rather criticize than govern.
What characterizes Obama’s recent moves is that they’re cautious but deliberate. He’s still a president who doesn’t like to take major risks, with the exception of covert actions to kill terrorists or free hostages, where he has been arguably more aggressive than any predecessor. He governs in minor chords, disdainful of the cymbal-crashing rhetoric of military intervention.
The real test of Obama’s approach is with Russia: Through the spring, as President Vladimir Putin grew ever more belligerent in Ukraine, Obama kept open what he liked to call the “offramp,” even as he added sanctions against Moscow and gathered a skittish European coalition to punish Russia. As critics wailed about U.S. passivity, administration officials noted that Russia was digging its own grave. Its economy was too weak to support Putin’s expansionism.
Now, it looks as if Obama may have been right that sanctions (reinforced by collapsing oil prices) would ultimately put Putin under severe pressure. Russia’s 19th-century-style putsch gave an illusion of strength, but 21st-century economic power is likely to have more lasting impact.
“Objectively, Russia is weak and has many vulnerabilities, including a society that isn’t fully in sync with Putin’s hyper-chauvinism,” former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said in an interview. As the ruble falls and Russia’s economy buckles, “its leaders are beginning to ask: How do we get out of this?” The wild card is “how much disconnect from reality is there” with a vain Russian leader whose strutting, bare-chested antics are similar to those of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
In dealing with foreign crises, Obama has been dinged for what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called a “feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” Some of this criticism is deserved, especially on Iraq and Syria, where Obama’s early caution and disengagement made bad situations worse.
But more broadly, Obama may yet win his argument that the United States needs to break with the unilateral, interventionist policies of the previous decade that have lost support at home and abroad.
His theme of change is clearest in his strategies for engaging adversaries, such as Iran and Cuba, and keeping the door open for cooperation with rivals such as Russia and China. You wouldn’t know it in the echo chamber of Washington, but I found broad support for the idea of engagement in recent trips to China, Europe and the Middle East.
There is a widely shared view overseas that the United States drove down a dead-end street during the George W. Bush years, and much interest in alternative strategies. The loudest dissents come from such status-quo partners as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose views are amplified by their close ties to Congress and the news media.
Since the Democrats got pasted six weeks ago in the midterm elections, Obama has seemed more liberated to govern. You might have suspected the opposite, given the crushing defeat, but Obama now seems closer to the “post-political” aspirations he discussed during his first presidential campaign. For these last two years, we may see a better display of what Obama promised back in 2008.
“He has nothing to lose, and he can be himself,” Brzezinski says of the post-election Obama. Finally, he has a framework for solid policy — in dealing with Russia, Iran, Iraq and Cuba. Successful implementation has never been easy for this president, but he may do better now, when he seems to have the wind at his back and the end in sight.
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