Is Obama Weak on Foreign Policy?

One reason that Barack Obama is slumping in the polls is that Republicans have successfully painted him as weak on foreign policy. Yet, during his tenure so far, Obama has used air power to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, surged American forces in Afghanistan to satisfy the U.S. military, re-entered the civil war in Iraq, and extended the bombing to Syria. He found and killed Osama bin Laden, which George W. Bush was not focused enough to do for seven years, and also expanded Bush’s drone wars against terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Obama’s "pivot to Asia" really means beefing up U.S. alliances and military presence to run a neo-containment policy against a rising China. Finally, Obama is augmenting military forces and conducting more NATO exercises in Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s mischief in Ukraine. Only to an American public that has long forgotten the nation’s founders’ military restraint, and embraced the post-World War II policy aberration of acting as the world’s policeman, would this record seem weak.

So despite the rhetoric of Republicans, by historical standards, Obama is a practitioner of militaristic activism. Yet, he is not the first president to suffer from a misplaced label of weakness. Remember George H. W. Bush? George W. Bush’s father won two smashing military victories, the invasion of Panama and Desert Storm, in only four years as president – only to be deemed a "wimp." The elder Bush intervened more and on a larger scale for his time in office than Ronald Reagan, who has the most macho image of any President Teddy Roosevelt.

And Roosevelt, despite his belligerent nature prior to being president, matured in office and was commendably more of an international peace facilitator than a wager of wars – with the exception of using a military threat to steal the Panama Canal fair and square and flexing newfound muscle by sending the Great White Fleet on a world tour.

Dwight Eisenhower also was never deemed a wimp, despite the fact that he ended the Korean War and had only one minor military intervention during his eight-year presidency – perhaps because earlier he had been the winning general in the European theater of World War II. In contrast, Jimmy Carter was unfairly deemed weak for his enlightened policy of military restraint during the hostage crisis with Iran. He attempted a failed rescue attempt of the captives, but many chairborne wannabe commanders wanted stronger military action. Yet although he had the right to take such steps, because the U.S. embassy in Iran – considered U.S. soil under international law – had been violated, such action would have certainly gotten the hostages killed. Carter’s real mistake was allowing a solution to the hostage crisis to become so prominent on his and the nation’s agenda. But at least, prior to an election, he didn’t pay ransom to Iran to try to get hostages back – as Reagan later did to get captives held in Lebanon by selling arms to the same terrorist-sponsoring Iranian government as part of the Iran-Contra scandal, perhaps the worst constitutional scandal during a single president’s administration in American history.

Going back even farther, apart from a few minor military interventions in Latin America, the Republican administrations of William Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover were not too militaristic, avoiding major wars. Republicans today are much more bellicose – as are Democrats. Since World War II, a consensus has arisen among presidents, politicians of both parties, journalists, and the American people that America should go everywhere in the world and impose its will, usually disguised as spreading democracy. Yet out of 16 instances since 1900 of America attempting to export democracy at gunpoint, the use of force has only worked four times to sustain democracy for longer than 10 years.

Despite this abysmal record of U.S. military interventionism, post-World War II presidents of both parties have kept trying the same thing over and over again. Obama has done likewise and cannot be accurately called timid in foreign policy. But he can’t be called smart either – like Eisenhower and Carter, who exhibited the most military restraint in the interventionist postwar era.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.