One of the least controversial judgments about Barack Obama’s first term is that he has been a good foreign policy President. Certainly that’s what the American public believes. It has given him high marks on overseas affairs for much of his presidency, especially after the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden. In the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney, who had relentlessly attacked Obama in their two previous matchups, decided that the wisest course was to agree with the President on virtually every foreign policy issue.
But what has been the character of Obama’s foreign policy? Most Presidents gain fame and respect in this realm because of some large-scale project. Franklin Roosevelt led the U.S. to victory in World War II, Harry Truman organized the Marshall Plan and NATO treaty, and Richard Nixon opened the door to Communist China. While Obama has accomplishments to his credit, the signature trait that has helped him steer the country well—and receive credit for it—is what he has not done.
Obama’s foreign policy has, above all, been characterized by strategic restraint. At a time when old orders are changing and new forces are emerging, he has kept the U.S. engaged and at the forefront of these trends, but he has been wary of grand declarations and military interventions.
Obama came to office believing that the U.S. had overextended itself militarily. He believed that the cost of extravagant involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan had been the erosion of ties with allies and the worsening of relations with adversaries. He set out to change things, restoring diplomacy but also systematically drawing down in Iraq despite the advice of most of his military leaders. He experimented with a buildup in Afghanistan, partly because he was outfoxed by the generals, but he soon found a way to begin reducing that mission as well, shifting from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. He set constraints and limits to the U.S.’s military intervention in Libya and has been wary of a new one in Syria. He has navigated a path on Iran that has increased pressure and tightened sanctions while refusing to rush into war—so far.