When it comes to foreign policy, incumbent presidents have the advantages of greater experience and better information. That is why it is particularly important to examine how they have used those advantages in office. In advance of the Third Presidential Debate in Florida on Oct. 22, which will focus on foreign policy, it is useful to examine whether President Barack Obama kept the ambitious foreign policy promises he made in 2008.
Several organizations have attempted to track Obama's foreign policy pledges, among promises in other areas. Politifact--often a very friendly source to Democrats--counted 83 foreign policy promises by Obama in 2008. Of those, he has kept or reached a compromise on fewer than half, or 47%. He has stalled or broken 25 promises, or 30%; the other 23% are "in the works." That is not exactly a shining record of accomplishment.
Obviously, no debate can examine 83 foreign policy issues. So it is best to consider the most important of the president's promises: the five major promises he made in his 2008 campaign manifesto, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise. Of these, Obama has failed to fulfill every single one.
1. "End the War in Iraq Responsibly." Obama claims he has kept that promise, but the War in Iraq was actually ended by George W. Bush, and Obama merely abided by the withdrawal timetable that Bush negotiated before leaving office. The key word is "responsibly." Obama said in 2008 that he would keep a residual force in Iraq to maintain security. But he--and Vice President Biden--failed to negotiate a new agreement with the Iraqi government. The result was a total withdrawal, against the advice of military leaders and the wishes of the Iraqi government. Obama took the hard-fought sacrifices of tens of thousands of Americans and squandered them, leaving a potential ally and strategic foothold at the mercy of the hegemonic ambitions of Al Qaeda and Iran.
2. "Finish the Fight Against Al Qaeda and Turn the Tide Against Global Terrorism." Give Obama credit for ordering the successful raid on Osama Bin Laden. The past several weeks have made it clear that the fight against Al Qaeda is not finished, nor have we turned the tide. Indeed, Obama has now dropped the line "Al Qaeda is on the run" from his stump speech. The long refusal of the Obama administration to acknowledge that the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was an act of terror is part of a broader pattern in which it has refused to identify radical Islam itself as a threat to the U.S. Obama is learning something that he once mocked Bush for saying out loud: that bin Laden is one man, and that the real problem is much bigger.
3. "Rebuild a Strong Twenty-first Century Military." Obama began doing the opposite almost as soon as he took the oath of office. While wasting hundreds of billions of stimulus dollars on companies that failed and jobs that were never created, Obama cut the F-22 Raptor--which, whatever its demerits, was not only "shovel-ready" but combat-ready. Obama also ended the military's two-war strategy and oversaw plans for a managed decline that will see the U.S. Navy shrink alarmingly. He has taken the country to the fiscal brink, and massive new cuts to defense loom unless he abandons his quixotic quest to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans--not for the sake of balancing the budget (which such taxes cannot possibly achieve alone) but for "fairness."
4. "Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons." After four years, Iran is much closer to obtaining enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon because Obama refused to confront the Iranian regime, then resisted tough economic sanctions against it, and now rejects a firm red line beyond which diplomacy will cease. Obama insisted on re-inventing the wheel, starting talks anew as if years of effort by Bush and our European allies meant nothing. In addition, Obama cancelled the missile defense plans that Bush had negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic to help defend the U.S. and our allies from an Iranian (or Russian) nuclear attack. In North Korea, the death of Kim Jong-Il was an opportunity wasted: it remains a dangerous nuclear power.
5. "Renew Our Alliances to Meet New Global Challenges." Obama has damaged many alliances. The worst case has been Israel, which Obama confronted openly, adopting negotiating postures more radical than those of the Palestinians and thwarting Israeli attempts to build a stronger front against Iran. But Obama also undermined relations with Eastern Europe (see above), attempted to isolate a democratic government in Honduras, and hastened the fall of pro-American regimes in the Arab Spring while deferring action against the anti-American Syrian dictatorship. Our allies in East Asia worry about our commitment to protecting them from China, and "reset" relations with Russia are allowing Vladimir Putin to advance his own interests, not ours.
0-for-5. Yes, Obama kept some of the detailed promises within these promises--hence Politifact's findings--but he did not honor his overall goals. It is also unclear how he intends to address these failures in a second term.
What will he do if Iran passes the point of no return on the way to a nuclear weapon? How does he propose to repair frayed relations with Israel and Eastern Europe, and restore American stature? What will he do if $500 billion in defense cuts kick in? How will he answer the global challenge of Chinese economic and military power without abandoning our commitments to the rest of the world?
In short, what would he do to turn things around, given that his foreign policy, bin Laden aside, has been and remains a failure across the board?