It won’t help him win many votes this year, but it should be noted that Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy president. He, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary Hillary Clinton and the rest of his team have created a style of policy-making that is flexible, incremental, and well adapted to the specific circumstances of this moment . . .
Obama has shown a good ability to combine a realist, power-politics mindset with a warm appreciation of democracy and human rights . . .
Obama has also shown an impressive ability to learn along the way. He came into office trying to dialogue with dictators in Iran and North Korea . . .
the record is impressive. And, partly as a result of his efforts, foreign policy is not a hot campaign issue. Mitt Romney is having a great deal of trouble identifying profound disagreements. If that’s not a sign of success, I don’t know what is.
Those are not my words. They actually come from the keyboard of right-of-center NY Times’ David Brooks, hardly our president’s greatest booster. Still, Brooks recognizes that it will not be helpful to the Romney campaign to devote time and energy to establishing its foreign policy credentials. Not only has Romney come off as unimpressive in London, Israel, and Poland, he has succeeded in making President Obama look that much more presidential–deservedly so.
In the past few days, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak sat down with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and described President Obama’s support for Israel as being “more than anything I can remember.” CNN reported that, according to Barak, ”the Obama White House has been the most supportive administration throughout the two countries’ diplomatic relations on matters of Israeli security.” Thereafter, the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz said the statement by Barak appeared to be an endorsement, coming as it does, just days after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited Israel on his international tour, and just before US Secretary of Defense will visit the country.
How many ways can I insult thee? Let me count the ways.
Romney, feeling the need to say something bold at each stop on his tour was, at best, off-putting. He ticked off the British with unsolicited remarks about their not-up-to-Romney standards of hosting the Olympics. Perhaps Romney’s people think Thatcher is still Prime Minister. Then he blew what appeared to be a lay-up in Israel, seeking to earn his keep with Sheldon Adelson and the crew he brought with him. Speaking to big-time, full-time Republican donors, Romney pointed to what he sees as significant cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians that make Israel more economically successful. A spokesman for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Romney’s comments racist. Romney denied that. Well, that will settle that issue. Nicely done, Mitt. In Poland, reporters did not take well to being told to ‘kiss my ass and shove it.” (credit a Romney spokesperson for this blunder). All they were doing was asking questions, something a candidate’s spokesman might understand to be reasonable to reporters’ work.
It is understandable that Romney’s advisers will be jumping through hoops for the purpose of questioning President Obama’s foreign policy achievements. Here’s my short list of Obama accomplishments:
President Obama understood the importance of capturing bin Laden, something President Bush had dismissed as of little value. Obama addressed the American public’s desire to get our troops out of Iraq. He has focused on how to get a moderately satisfactory result in Afghanistan – likely as much as will ever be achievable.
President Obama recognizes that Americans are tired of war. Recall his position, I am not against all wars–just stupid wars. This is where the realist, the pragmatist, and the idealist come together. Together, that spells leadership. It is at that very set of values that Bush went ‘all in’ in Iraq, despite demonstrating any credible proof–that is, other than forcing Powell and Rice to say things they knew to be untrue.
Contrary to Bush, President Obama has demonstrated his innate caution. He is withdrawing American troops at a pace designed not to increase the level of chaos. He foresees a prolonged engagement with Afghanistan because he does not want to repeat the West’s mistake of disengaging too quickly after U.S. arms helped the mujahedeen defeat the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. Been there, done that. There are no good answers regarding Afghanistan. That has been proven historically.
As a result of his actions, President Obama has re-established the United States standing in the world. One need only to think back to how negatively people throughout the world thought of America by the end of the Bush-Cheney-Rice-Wolfowitz disaster. Perhaps ‘disdain’ best represents the collective attitude toward the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice/Wolfowitz axis of terror. The world’s opinion of the United States has “improved sharply” under Obama. No ifs, no ands, no buts.
While Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated the news, recall that 47 nations rose to Obama’s challenge at the US nuclear summit, agreeing to four years of non-proliferation.
Obama has not visited Israel during his presidency. He was there–twice–in the year preceding his election. In all, Obama visited more countries and world leaders than any first year president had ever done. Biden and Clinton have been to Israel. Obama’s appointments to the Middle East have reaffirmed America’s diplomatic leadership. He has guaranteed Israel’s loans and has extended its quantitative military advantage by reserving the most sophisticated weaponry and defense systems for Israel.
At the same time, Obama has refused to give Israel a “green light” to strike Iran. Listening to Romney’s speech to Sheldon Adelson and his cohorts, it seems Romney is all too willing to take America back to war. This time Iran would be the target. Obama’s Sanctions Act seems the far more desirable route to dealing with Iran. Congress is voting on ratcheting up the sanctions this week; their impact on Iran’s economy will impose great stress on the Iranian regime.
Lesser mention has been made of Obama sending Sen. Jim Webb to secure the release of an American held captive in Myanmar.There have been nuclear arms agreements with India, Australia, and Russia; helping to stabilize Somalia (by executive order), and reaching agreement with Switzerland to exchange tax information.
As Europe’s economy teetered, Obama held a video-conference call with the leaders of Germany, France and Italy. He sent the U.S. number one Treasury official to Europe in the hopes of averting a collapse that could carry the American economy down with it.
Obama top adviser David Plouffe recently spoke about the campaign and foreign policy:
In some elections two candidates may try to hide their differences as they woo moderate voters. But this year the Obama campaign would insure that the competing ideologies of the two major parties are not blurred. ‘Everything we do has to be with that in mind.’
Admittedly, I am no economics scholar. I read what you read. Rather, read the words of noted historian Dr. Robert Watson on Obama’s Israel policy:
I am always being asked to comment on Obama’s Israel policy and I get a regular dose of angry misinformation – much of it 180 degrees from the truth – alleging that the Obama administration does not support Israel.
So, here are some thoughts and, more importantly, some facts…
When President Truman supported statehood on May 14, 1948 by having the United States be the first nation to recognize Israel (Truman signed the proclamation at 6:11 EST, about 11 minutes after statehood), it was but part of the vital role Truman played in both establishing Israel and supporting the plight of the Jewish diaspora after the Second World War.
For instance, Truman improved conditions for displaced persons after the Holocaust, supported Jewish refugees relocating to Palestine over British objections, forced the Brits to stand down from their policy of intercepting Jewish craft headed to Palestine, secured Jewish immigration to the US in the critical years after WWII, built international support for Israel, and much, much more. Much of what Truman did was unpopular politically, especially with his base of white, southern voters (including during the 1948 election) and among key allies, White House aides, and the US State Department. Additionally, the great Zionist leaders indicated to Truman Israel’s need for more than simply official recognition of statehood. There was the need for:
Agricultural support and aid
Joint intelligence sharing
Economic cooperation and commercial development
Cultural exchanges between the two, new allies
Key vetoes in the UN of anti-Israel measures and symbolic support for the fledgling state in the international community
Truman delivered and is rightly recognized as a great champion of Israel. It is now being said, however, that President Obama has abandoned the historical alliance between the United States and Israel when the fact of the matter is that President Obama has delivered in every one of the aforementioned 10 critical areas.
Here is a partial list of Obama’s substantive support for Israel:
1. Sent Israel the largest ever security package of $2.775 billion (2010).
2. Surpassed the 2010 package with a $3 billion package in 2011.
3. Provided Israel with the most advanced missile defense system.
4. Ordered the largest-ever joint US and Israel military training exercise in history.
5. Supported the Gaza Counter-Arms Smuggling Program with 10 other nations.
6. Vetoed the 2010 Security Council resolution criticizing Israel’s construction of settlements (the US was the only one of the 15 members on the Security Council to veto).
7. Obama has vetoed over a half-dozen anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council.
8. Pushed a UN Security Council measure hitting Iran with the toughest sanctions to date.
9. Promoted and signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act.
10. Promoted and supported sanctions against Syria.
11. Repeatedly opposed unilateral efforts at a Palestinian state.
12. Obama’s two-state proposal for Palestine based on the 1967 borders was only a starting point. Both sides were able to negotiate up or down from that point and would have to sign off on any firm deal. There were an array of territorial swaps built into the proposal, requiring the support of both sides.
13. Called for the immediate release of Gilad Shalit.
14. Obama has sent countless senior White House and Pentagon officials, Cabinet officials, and Vice President Biden to Israel (hundreds of visits in total).
Here is a partial list of Obama’s symbolic but important support for
1. Refused to condemn Israel when asked repeatedly to do so by many countries after the so-called Turkish flotilla incident.
2. Repeatedly advocated in the UN and in the international community Israel’s right to self-defense and self-determination.
3. Has continued the long history of immigration between the two nations
4. Has continued the long history of cultural exchanges between the two countries.
5. Publically criticized Syria’s arming of Hezbollah.
6. Criticized the Goldstone Report and lobbied the world community to oppose it.
7. Discussed and ordered study to examine textbooks and curriculum in Saudi Arabia to determine possible anti-Semitism.
8. Repeatedly proposed efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
9. Publically and repeatedly called for a non-militarized Palestinian state.
10. Publically and repeatedly condemned Hamas violence.
11. Obama has met with Netanyahu 7 times thus far.
12. Obama repeatedly in speeches states the US commitment to Israel.
(This includes his unequivocal statement of commitment in his 2012 State of the Union speech)
One of the best ways the United States can support Israel is to be respected around the world and engage the world community in a constructive, multi-lateral manner. This is happening. US support for Israel is not a Democratic or Republican thing – and friends of Israel should never want that to become the case. However, there are individuals alleging as much today, which is potentially very harmful to Israel. Both parties have supported Israel. Liberals such as LBJ and conservatives such as Reagan were champions of Israel.
At the same time, presidents such as Jimmy Carter (Democrat) and George HW Bush (Republican) have, at times, not exactly promoted policies and positions helpful to Israel. To suggest that Obama, however, has not been supportive of Israel is simply not true.
Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. Professor of American Studies