Upon his election in 2008, it seemed no mud could stick to Barack Obama, as he radiated optimism and hopefulness at a time of despair. Nowadays, however, one gets the impression that it is becoming slightly fashionable to be critical of him.
The Economist has started doing it overtly – at least in its leader articles – perhaps because it is a magazine that might more naturally support a man with a fervently capitalist background, such as Mitt Romney. It may therefore, be hedging its bets about who to endorse in November. The Financial Times has been throwing a few punches too. Edward Luce, a senior editor and US correspondent, has written a fairly “declinist” book about the state of the US, and rarely pulls his punches with Mr Obama. That said, some of his criticisms are slightly dubious: Mr Obama’s apparently devious decision to go for broke and raise money privately for his 2008 campaign seems perfectly legitimate when one considers the current context of campaign financing, as witnessed during the Republican primaries.
What is especially irksome is the way Mr Obama’s foreign policy record gets attacked. Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the FT, suggested last week that the assassination of Osama bin Laden was Mr Obama’s only real success in this area, and that overall it has been a dismal failure. At best, such comments fail to take the bigger picture into account. In this instance, I give Mr Rachman the benefit of the doubt, but others who have criticised Mr Obama from this angle have a painfully ideological axe to grind.
On the 2008 campaign trail, Mr Obama offered a vision of a fairer, more peaceful, more just world. That still seems to be the underlying theme to his foreign policy. But, as three experts from the Brookings Institution in Washington DC write, he has been constrained by the limits of politics, which is, of course, the art of the possible. He can, they suggest, therefore be dubbed a “progressive pragmatist”. He has pursued values, but only incrementally and to the extent that he can. His campaign pledges – just like those in party manifestoes – denote those things that he wants to do; actually carrying them out in a democratic system requires some degree of realism and compromise.
Nevertheless, it is this failure to achieve all the expectations set by his rhetoric that partly explains the criticism he receives. He has not solved the Israel-Palestine issue – but given how long it has been going on for, and how many Presidents have tried, this is par for that course. Iran continues to play a stubborn game over its nuclear programme, but Mr Obama has achieved tough UN-backed sanctions. He has not closed Guantanamo, which continues to tarnish America’s reputation abroad, but blame for this can lay with his do-nothing Congress, that signalled its refusal to allow this (as with so many of his other goals). No hard agreement to combat climate change has been agreed, but as the debacle in Copenhagen showed, this is hardly Mr Obama’s fault alone.
But was killing bin Laden Obama’s only foreign policy success? The Iraq deployment is over, even if the Pentagon and others in the security establishment wanted to maintain a small presence there. That Iraq is holding together a fragile but apparently stable peace is – amazingly – no longer even news. The Afghanistan mission is being wound down, but NATO allies are one-by-one losing the will to fight, and the Taliban appear to be as persistent as ever – aided no doubt by the corruption in the current ruling elite there. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was ratified, just before Congress was filled with fundamentalist Republicans who would probably not have allowed it. Mr Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo instantly improved the perception of America in the Arab world; Simon Anholt, an astute pollster, reckons this contributed to his award of the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Muslim perceptions of America have since fallen back, but again, this shows that Mr Obama is guilty mostly of failing to achieve the expectations set for him.
The Brookings writers point out other successes that are often not mentioned: the relationship with China has been managed professionally and respectfully, at a time when there are fears about the impact of China’s rise. Ties with South Korea and Japan are still strong, and though some Indian policymakers prefer to describe themselves as friends but not allies, the relationship with that country is also cordial.
There are many more facets to American foreign policy, but this is not the place to tick them all off as successes or failures. True, the expectations have not been achieved; but America is no longer hated in the way that it was under George Bush. Mr Obama seems genuinely committed to building friendly relationships with other countries and leaders, avoiding the belligerent, ‘axis-of-evil’ tones that characterised the neo-conservative administration. He is also more committed to multilateralism, and the politics of persuasion, rather than assertion. His efforts are primarily focused domestically, however, thanks to his inheritance of an economy in freefall. There we can observe Mr Obama’s values, as he is committed to building a fairer, more equal, more socially just country. This is not something people regularly deny: he is either just called a Communist or Socialist for it, or criticised for not doing it fast enough.
If we place it all into context, however, Mr Obama’s greatest success is perhaps a negative one. That is, he is not his predecessor: indeed, how many foreign policy successes did the blundering, big-spending, ideologue, George W Bush rack up? I can’t think of many. Perhaps Mr Obama’s critics need to reassess many of their comments – and get some perspective.