In the ceaseless sturm und drang over Barack Obama's foreign policy and the U.S.'s response to the many conflicts abroad, two important questions are not being asked: Isn't the world different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago, and isn't it unfair to judge the president without taking that into account?
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because while the U.S. remains the sole superpower (with China coming up fast in your rear view mirror), the greatest threats to the homeland and America's global predominance come less from Putin's Russia, although it has an uncomfortable resemblance these days to the former Soviet Union at its most bellicose, but from the rise of the Islamic State and a resurgent Al Qaeda.
And I have little doubt that Obama's foreign policy legacy will improve with age because history has a way of smoothing out the bumps that occupy our attention in a 24/7 news world.
No, because Obama's foreign policy shortcomings cannot be overlooked even when you consider his enormous domestic achievements -- the significance of which grow larger by the day -- of expanding affordable health-care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while slowing runaway costs. Oh, and rescuing the economy.
These shortcomings cannot be balanced out even when you consider five years of unrelenting Republican obstructionism, including cries that the sky is falling whenever Obama has sought to use diplomacy to engage Iran and other mortal enemies of the Dr. Strangelove wing of the GOP, as well as unfair criticism over his reluctance to commit to specific courses of action on occasions when his administration is moving with appropriate caution.
But the fact is, while Obama won the historic 2008 presidential election in part by promising to spare the U.S. future wars and end ongoing ones, he could well leave office with the homeland in more danger than it was at the merciful conclusion of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. After all, there is now a cross-border caliphate in the Middle East that, in the words of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, represents "an imminent threat to every interest we have," while students of history recognize that Putin's nationalistic blood thirst for annexation and conquest was the key ingredient in starting two world wars.
* * * * *Alas, once the fancy rhetoric is stripped away, Obama's foreign policy is something akin to Don't Do Stupid Stuff.
That, in principle, is just fine considering the predilection for the Bush administration, led by a man of limited intelligence, to do stupid stuff. At the top of the list is, of course, the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, which was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history after the Big Muddy, while starving the nascent war in Afghanistan and hunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to feed the fool's errand in Iraq.
The Bush administration's blindered policy on Iran seemed calculated to fail, it's policy toward Pakistan was schizophrenic, while its obsessive unilateralism, mated with a grotesque reliance on torture, sowed deep distrust and antagonism throughout much of the world. Obama, who in comparison is no dummy, ended one war and is ending another. And in the service of not doing Stupid Stuff, his policy toward Iran, built on a mix of economic sanctions and efforts to sew mutual trust, has been comparatively successful, although events out of the president's control have fostered the two nations' strange bedfellows relationship in fighting ISIS.
But the Obama administration also has failed when it comes to containing Pakistan's well-practiced penchant for undermining American interests in Afghanistan and the region at large. The president's failure to do more than repeatedly draw lines in the sand in Syria is pathetic, at this point, while his efforts (more or less in tandem with NATO) to contain Putin's overreaching in Crimea and Ukraine verges on the tragicomic since economic sanctions are not putting the Russian bear back in its box, and at this point I've run out of fingers and toes to count the number of ceasefires.
Is Obama too reluctant too often to commit to a specific course of action? Would having an Obama Doctrine, a clear foreign policy strategy that goes beyond not doing Stupid Stuff, help?
While I applaud Obama's stay cool demeanor and pragmatism, his under-appreciated efforts to scale back unrealistic American ambitions abroad and the quality of his advisers, including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, I believe that having a clear strategy would at least be a reference point even at this late date in his turn at the plate.
Yet such a strategy almost inevitably would be at odds with the president's vow to not start new wars. This means that he may well serve out his last term not as the global leader in foreign affairs but as a victim twice over: Of having scant foreign policy experience before being elected, and inheriting the most important job in the world at a time when in which any foreign policy that falls short of being willing to engage in large-scale armed conflict -- which happened to be the lynchpin of the Bush Doctrine-- is futile.
Photography by Doug Mills/The New York Times