Monday, May 19, 2014

Measuring President Obama's success in foreign policy

Lot's of people are weighing in on whether or not they think President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been a success. One way they often do that is to assume that the President's goals are the same as theirs.

For example, if you think that he took military action in Libya or threatened it in Syria in order to implement "regime change" and impose American democracy on those countries, of course you would label his policy a failure. In general, if you think the President's response to the Arab Spring should have mirrored what our leaders have done in the past (including Bush's ultimate rationale for invading Iraq), of course you are going to judge Obama harshly.

The other route to go would be to actually listen to the President's stated goals. For example, in Libya he said he wanted to stop the massacre of civilians, and in Syria he said that his efforts were to stop the use of chemical weapons in that country's civil war. By that measure, both have been a success. Overall, President Obama's response to the Arab Spring has been to say that it should be up to the people of those countries to decide.

I know that is a hard concept for the hegemonic hawks amongst us to grasp. And much like our country's own revolutionary war against imperialism, it produces a certain amount of chaos. But ultimately, for the U.S. to decide another country's fate is the opposite of real democracy. We can lend a hand (as we've done in Libya and Syria - and are now doing in the Ukraine), but that is a very different course to take than picking the winners and losers.

Of course, picking winners and losers via overt intervention (ie, Vietnam and Iraq) or covert (ie, from Iran to Chile) hasn't exactly been a recipe for success either. So even if you don't buy that its not our job, we might as well try something else.

The really big picture is that for many of these countries, transitioning out of colonialism meant decades of living under corrupt dictatorships that were often fueled by the Cold War. Much of South America has now found a more democratic footing, but in places all over Africa and the Middle East, it is just beginning. Measuring President Obama's foreign policy success should not be based on the extent to which we dictate the outcome. It will be whether or not - in the end - we were good partners in supporting the people to make their own decision.

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