opinion | ali wyne

How will history remember Obama’s foreign policy?

Observers who believe that the verdict has already been sealed might consider holding out a bit longer.

getty images/h. hopp-bruce/globe staff

It is impossible to know how history will remember President Obama’s foreign policy. But observers who believe that the verdict has already been sealed and delivered might consider holding out a bit longer.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency is illustrative. Those who advocate the resumption of a Reaganite foreign policy often depict the Gipper as the antithesis of President Obama. While Reagan was strong, they say, Obama is weak. Reagan did not negotiate with evil; Obama, they charge, persists in engaging America’s adversaries. It is easy to forget, and remarkable to discover, how different this appraisal of Reagan is from the one that existed in at least some segments of the commentariat when he was actually in office. As expected, he had fierce opponents within the Democratic Party. One could argue, though, that the strongest criticisms — or at least the most damaging — came from those who believed that his foreign policy was insufficiently muscular.

A little over a year after Reagan took office, for example, Norman Podhoretz took to The New York Times Magazine in 1982 to express dismay at the emerging contours of Reagan’s posture towards the Soviet Union. Podhoretz was no ordinary critic. He was the editor of the journal Commentary at the time, and he is widely regarded as one of the two godfathers — the other being the late Irving Kristol — of contemporary neoconservatism. Podhoretz observed in his essay that Reagan had “said that he welcomes the signs of an impending breakup of the Soviet empire from within and he has looked forward to a time when Communism itself will disappear. Yet presented with an enormous opportunity to further that process, what has President Reagan done? Astonishingly, he has turned the opportunity down.” He went on to fault Reagan for “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than a strategy aimed at encouraging the breakup of that empire from within.”

After Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, the head of a group called the Conservative Caucus decried him as “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda” and “a weak man.” Shortly thereafter the caucus ran an advertisement in The Washington Times comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain. Other indictments of this vein abounded.


But since then? In 2006, upon revisiting his initial impressions, Podhoretz concluded that Reagan’s actions formed “a series of prudential tactics within an overall strategy that in the end succeeded in attaining its great objective” — that is, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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What does this reassessment teach us?

For one — while some critics will choose to double down — time and a certain remove from a presidential administration often can produce greater sympathy for its challenges and deliberations.

Moreover, as Walter Russell Mead observed a decade ago, “Foreign policy is hard. It is hard to plan and execute it well, and it is almost as hard to oppose a foreign policy effectively, intelligently, and sensibly.”

With Americans becoming more politically polarized, the appreciation for this seemingly self-evident insight is diminishing. When the administration in office has a worldview that generally aligns with our own, we tend to ascribe its struggles to the limitations of American influence and the complexities of affairs beyond our borders. When the administration’s framework generally runs counter, we tend to attribute those same sorts of difficulties to incompetence and presume that a “better” leader would have averted them.


The reality is that, in addition to processing a new global environment, each incoming administration reacts to the misjudgments of its predecessor and attempts to leave a distinctive imprint in the four or eight years it has at the steering wheel.

That can result in a series of reactions and counter-reactions: In a recently published book, Stephen Sestanovich argues in that America’s postwar engagement has alternated between “maximalism” and “retrenchment.”

Obama came to office with an understandable desire to reduce America’s military footprint and rebalance US foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region — one hopes that successive administrations, Republican and Democrat, will continue to operationalize these initiatives. Yet, per Sestanovich’s thesis, critics contend that, since being in office, the president has overreacted to the foreign policy of George W. Bush — The New York Times’ David Sanger explained last month that “the most stinging critique of Mr. Obama is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of nonintervention.

Only time will offer a more objective assessment of Obama’s record, but one point won’t change — no matter who is president, US foreign policy will always be an unending process of recalibration.

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.”