Second terms are often a time when presidents, balked by domestic opposition, turn to the world stage to secure their legacy — opening doors to China, closing out the Cold War, chasing Middle Eastern peace. But the global stage hasn't been a second-term refuge for President Obama; it's been an arena of setbacks, crises and defeats.
His foreign policy looked modestly successful when he was running for re-election. Now it stinks of failure. 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 rivalled 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. But the absence of an Iraq-scale fiasco is not identical to success, and history shouldn't grade this president on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld.
Obama is responsible for the initiatives he's pursued, the strategies he's blessed and the priorities he's set. And almost nothing on that list is yet working out.
Start with Libya, the site of Obama's own war of choice. The consuming Republican focus on Benghazi has tended to obscure the fact that post-Gaddafi Libya is generally a disaster area — its government non-functional, its territory a safe harbour for extremists, its former ruler's weaponry and fighters destabilising sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of those weapons, for instance, appear to be in the hands of Nigeria's most-wanted kidnappers, Boko Haram.
Then swing northeast to Syria, where this administration's stated policy is that Bashar Al Assad has to go, and that there is a "red line" — backed by force, if necessary — around the use of chemical weapons. Well, Assad isn't going; he's winning.
And the White House's claims of progress on the chemical weapons front were undermined by Secretary of State John Kerry's acknowledgment last week that "raw data" suggested a "number of instances" in which Assad's government recently used chlorine gas.
The picture doesn't look better when you turn south or east. Kerry's recent push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ended in predictable failure, and in Iraq the caldron is boiling and foreign influence is growing — in part, The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins suggested last month, because the White House's indecision undercut negotiations that might have left a small but stabilising American force in place.
Similar status-of-forces negotiations are on-going in Afghanistan, and the backdrop is even grimmer: The surge of forces ordered by Obama (also amid much indecision) failed to replicate the success of General David Petraeus's salvage operation in Iraq, and even with an American presence the Taliban are barely being held at bay.
As for the White House's major diplomatic projects, one — the "reset" with Russia — has ended in the shambles of the Ukraine crisis. A second, the opening to Iran, is still being pursued, with deadlines looming, and it's the Obama administration's best remaining hope for a paradigm-altering achievement.
But that hope is still a thin one (complicated, for instance, by Iran's continuing pursuit of ballistic missiles), and it's just as likely that Obama will have unsettled America's existing alliances in the region to very little gain.
As for the promised "pivot to Asia," let me know when it actually happens, and maybe I'll have something to say about it.
The point of this litany is not to suggest that all of Obama's decisions have been misguided (I sympathised 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.
But most presidents do win some clear victories. Not everyone gets to end the Cold War, but there's usually some diplomatic initiative that leaves a positive legacy (even Jimmy Carter had the Camp David accords), some military or humanitarian intervention (even George W. Bush had his AIDS-in-Africa initiative) that looks like a success.
Yet except for the elimination of Osama bin Laden — an "except" that has to be qualified by radical terrorism's resurgence — if Obama's presidency ended today I have no idea what major foreign policy achievements the president's defenders could reasonably cite.
There is still time for it to be otherwise — for the administration to brilliantly exploit Vladimir Putin's possible overreach, or seal a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, or craft a strategy to soothe the nationalisms gathering on the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Rim.
But recent events do not inspire much confidence. Instead, future defences of Obama's foreign policy may boil down to just six words: "At least he didn't invade Iraq."
The New York Times News Service