Conflicting Accounts of Obama’s Foreign Policy Achievements


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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95 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Good post, and I’ll leave the FP intricacies to you and Nob.  But I will say that in the gen election, these things collectively might be useful in combatting the “Liberals just cave to our enemies” rhetoric that the GOP has so successfully used in the past to get the base more motivated.

    The lines the GOP is using on all of these fronts will certainly be popular with the anti-Obama in their very anti-Obamaness, but I don’t think they’ll resonate as much because Obama has been hawkish.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      It will certainly work in the election. If anyone even cared about any of this stuff there would have been a primary challenge, even just a symbolic one. Anyone who thinks even liberals have soured on Obama needs to look at how little dissent there is the party ranks.Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Obama has given Romney a vicious and entirely deserved kick in the goolies.   It was just a warning shot, telling Plastic Man he won’t have the usual Conservative foreign policy shibboleths to throw around.   Romney screamed like a stepped-on cat.    The Usual Suspects went apeshit, too.   Drudge went ballistic, saying the SEALs didn’t like this sort of politicising of their missions.   The only SEAL whining about it was some Republican state senator from Montana, who did observe it was Entirely Predictable.

    How unfortunknuckle for Romney that he was missionary-in’ in France while the Vietnam War was going on.   He’s now got Dukakis Syndrome:  I can’t wait for Romney to climb into the commander’s turret of an Abrams main battle tank and roar around for a while.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to BlaiseP says:

      As horrifying as it is, this seems right to me. Obama, the presumptive liberal in the race, gets to pound his chest and run on his record of killing brown people without remorse, while the conservative Romney gets to do a tap dance explaining why he’s really the best man to be Indiscriminate Murderer in Chief despite the fact that he’s spent most of his adult life doing things that are arguably actually worth doing (like making sure everyone in Massachusetts has access to health care).

      All you probably need to know about my politics are summed up in the fact that this depresses me more than I can express.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        I don’t think I follow. O’s party has suffered the slings and arrows of assertions of foreign policy wimpyness for decades. Now for once we see the President and his party actually kicking back at the meme (with some merit). I mean obviously the right and left won’t be affected, they’re both convinced, but presumably this matters some to the centrists. I don’t imagine Romney et all would be howling like they are if they didn’t think this was a tender subject.

        Also wouldn’t a President who was “killing brown people without remorse” have invaded Iran by now rather than pulling out of iraq? I may be missing your point or being too literal.

        Personally I’m finding it a little charming to see that Obama can actually throw an elbow or two. Plus Biden’s little quote about Osama being dead and GM being alive was quite cute. So cute that Romney is actually putting out trial balloons saying the auto bailout was his basic idea.

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to North says:

          I think you misread me. I don’t honestly give even an inkling of a fuck if the Democratic Party gets to win the election. So the fact that Obama finally has the grounds his party has always wanted to fight back and let everyone know that they, too, are willing to pour the US military into whatever crevice they can find and then sort the bodies out later or never does not exactly fill me with any great joy. He has attempted to neutralize the Republican advantage on the topic of irresponsible use of military force by irresponsibly using military force. This is the state of American liberalism.

          Also, as a purely grammatical consideration, I don’t think “killing brown people without remorse” implies that you have to be committing to killing all the ones you can find; it merely requires that you not particularly care about the ones you do, in fact, choose to kill. I’d say that running proudly on your record of ending their lives is probably at least prima facie evidence that remorse is not a factor here.Report

      • Indiscriminate Murderer in Chief

        Riiiight, because it was Obama giving speeches about “cleansing” “home by home, village by village“. You may need to check your indiscriminate murderer detector, it seems to be going off with the wrong people.Report

        • You have a point. If anyone anywhere does anything we find morally objectionable, we should probably deploy the US military to make him stop. Seems only prudent.

          Also, let’s not worry about anyone who might get caught in the crossfire. That might deflate our sense of moral superiority.Report

          • There’s quite a gulf between, find morally objectionable, and gross violations of human rights. Within Libyan regime officials were calling it genocide and military personnel were defecting with tales of being ordered to attack civilians. Ethnic cleansing, the use of substantial military power against civilians – those aren’t merely things I disapprove of. Those are things that nations have signed conventions outlawing. Heck, the opening of the UN Charter outlines why this behavior is beyond the pale.Report

        • Those other people aren’t my President. He is.Report

          • Those other people were committing atrocities and preparing to commit even more atrocities. I think an assessment of “indiscriminate murder” more appropriately fits, you know, the Gaddafis well before it even gets close to fitting the Obama administration. Whatever your relationship to the individuals involved. I mean, to what extent would you say the path to intervention in Libya looked like Obama throwing a dart at a world map and saying, “I think I’ll commence air strikes against that one”?Report

            • Considering there has been no military action in any of the other revolutionary states, it was extremely calculated.

              The indiscriminate murder comes from embracing drone bombings.Report

              • Maybe I am misunderstanding, is the claim here that the US, the Obama administration, the military, and the intelligence agencies intentionally set out to murder civilians with drones? To what end exactly? Serious question, what do you imagine they are thinking when they authorize these missions?Report

              • I think they are thinking that civilian casualties don’t count unless they’re Americans, which is why I use the word “indiscriminate” rather than the word “intentional”.Report

              • We will definitely kill this bad person, and probably only kill this many not-bad people.Report

              • Also, it doesn’t particularly matter whether they think what they are doing is wrong; it matters that it is wrong.Report

              • Ryan and Ethan, would you consider yourselves pacifists? Is war wrong under all circumstances? Or do you think that the Obama administration has not faced circumstances that warrant the military actions they’ve taken?

                Harold Koh has made arguments that’re particularly convincing to me on the right to self-defense, but if you’re a pacifist then even those arguments are likely to fall short of the mark.Report

              • I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, in that I don’t think my opposition to war is quite hardline enough. But I think any war fought for something other than strict self-defense must clear a verrrry high bar. When we give the state the authority to take human life, we have offered it the most dangerous power available. We need to be damn sure that every single life it takes is worth taking.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

                It’s not a matter of intent.   It’s a matter of perception.   War in any form is a projection of power.  Its goal is to convince the enemy, bring him to some conclusion, raise the stakes.

                Drones might kill an awful lot of bad guys.   Even if they only killed bad guys — let’s put it in the best possible terms, Obama doesn’t want to kill innocent people, his people don’t make mistakes, it’s all clean and tidy and all the checklists are filled in, and only bad guys get whacked — it’s still not making us any friends.

                The thing about terrorism nobody seems to get resolves to the fact we’re not really waging a war.   We’re tracking down criminals.   Do cops drop Hellfire missiles on Crips if the Bloods send a message to the cops “You’ll find a bunch of Crips over here at these coordinates”, hmmm?   That’s what we’re doing with these drones.

                Good information doesn’t come from good people.  It comes from bad people and we’re paying good money for it.   A drone war is not much different than a bombing war.   It’s just waged on a smaller scale.   LBJ used to pore over all the bombing targets near Hanoi, just screwed with USAF something terrible.    Didn’t win the war.   Bombing people from the air only firms up their hatred of you.   We’re not making friends.   We’re scaring the fuck out of everyone with our mechanised Nazgul flying around.

                Not a winning strategy.   Plays into our enemy’s hands.   Sure, the use of drones seems inevitable.   And lots of bad guys are getting killed, no doubt about it.   Just don’t discount the opinions of people like Ethan who see this as indiscriminate war on civilians.Report

              • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Perhaps this is intentional, but making friends is a very high bar for successfully waging a war. Yes, there’s a hearts and minds element, but war certainly includes the incapacitation of one’s enemy’s capabilities to wage war – taking due account of the laws of war and the attendant requirement for proportionality, legitimate military targets, etc. I wouldn’t advocate waging a war that only hewed to the laws of war without any attention devoted to the larger strategic dimensions you, rightly, point to (and some other human rights dimensions that I believe are fairly important). But I would say that successfully eroding al-Qaeda’s capacity to communicate, move funds, and develop a more stable senior leadership are an important element in dismantling their ability to threaten the US, US allies, and US interests. I have difficulty imagining a scenario where drones aren’t a tool given the geography, given the opponents’ goals, and given the level of cooperation the US can expect from the failed/failing states involved.

                I think this last element, the failed/failing states, cuts against the point you make about pursuing a more criminal justice angle to the conflict. How can one pursue that strategy in nearly ungoverned spaces? If the US could rely on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. then you would have a much stronger case. That’s were the Bloods and Crips analogy falls short – the war frame should not be the first resort, but it certainly shouldn’t be set aside entirely. Particularly given the level of mass casualty attacks that’re the aim of al-Qaeda.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Stop thinking of counterterrorism as fighting a war.   It just isn’t.   It’s an ongoing thing, exactly like fighting crime.    These terrorists are just two-bit crooks, about as dangerous as half the people in a medium security prison.

                How can one pursue that strategy in nearly ungoverned spaces? If the US could rely on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. then you would have a much stronger case. That’s were the Bloods and Crips analogy falls short – the war frame should not be the first resort, but it certainly shouldn’t be set aside entirely.

                Now we’re talking, Mr. Creon, sir.   We’re past playing silly games about winning wars now and on to the serious business of dealing with ungoverned spaces.   This is exactly the sort of situation where we need friends.    By our lights, these folks are ungoverned and often ungovernable.  But by their own lights, they’re just minding their own business, doing the needful.

                When you’re going up into the hill country of Virginia and West Virginia, it’s best to announce your presence from a long ways off.   The usual greeting is a yodel, followed by yelling “Hello the house!”  These people do not take kindly to being surprised by strangers at close quarters.  Often they’re up to no good back there, pointless denying this is so.   Running stills, growing weed, making meth, rural America is just full of crooks and lo-lifes.  They are exceedingly well-armed and completely fearless in the face of aggression.   My people have been in this country since the 1650s and lots of them are up in those hills, poor as dirt and vicious and god-fearing and their poverty is only matched by their pride.   But come bearing gifts, afford them a modicum of respect — and you will have made a powerful set of friends and word will reach others before you’ve left their house.

                If we invaded Afghanistan with a contingent of American mountain people of this sort, they would recognise everything immediately.   They would understand these quote ungoverned unquote spaces rather well.   I imagine the mountain people and the Pashtuns would get along famously.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Creon Critic says:

                So, Pashtuns are basically Hillbillies?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Hillbilly is a rather ugly word, I would avoid it in civilised conversation with these people.  As with the N Word, they can call each other hillbillies.   Don’t you do so.   I don’t.   They are mountain people.

                But yes, the parallels are exact to the last detail.


              • These terrorists are just two-bit crooks, about as dangerous as half the people in a medium security prison.

                Here’s another area where we part company. See, I wouldn’t go so far as to say al-Qaeda represents an existential threat to the US. The US is an awfully powerful nation and it takes quite a bit to represent an existential threat. So al-Qaeda is not the USSR. But the threat of mass casualty attacks does represent something more than mere crime to me, there’s something state-like about hatching complicated plots to simultaneously bomb buildings or bring down jetliners over the Atlantic. When exhibiting incompetence I’d agree, the lower tier terrorists are medium security prison material. But when competent, the networked terrorism poses a serious challenge – more than a nuisance and more than run of the mill crime.

                I’m with Nob Akimoto, a hybrid approach is necessary, including the tools of war like drones, special forces, and such. Where possible, I’m all for the criminal justice model, the UK, Germany, etc. And I believe that approach should be the first resort. But the kinds of attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda represent something beyond crime to me. What do you think of the fact that NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history due to the 9/11 attacks? Was the Security Council in error in Resolution 1368 (Sept. 12, 2001) in identifying international terrorism as a threat to international peace and security? In terms of analyzing these institutions responded to the attacks, crime does not fully fit the situation. (Also, in case I hadn’t been clear before, the laws of war still matter. A lot. The whole Bush administration practice of “9/11 changes everything” including the Geneva Conventions was more than a hop, skip, and a jump to far.)

                Last, you took my “ungoverned spaces” one step further than I’d go. I don’t believe in “ungovernable” spaces or peoples . Currently, by a variety of measures we’re frequently talking about failed/failing states serving as shelters for international terrorism. “Ungovernable” makes a judgement about the future that I don’t share: such and such civilization/culture/people can’t be governed. I’d argue for more humility, in that no civilization/culture/people starts from a point that meets the high standards of the international human rights regime for instance. These standards are important, in part, precisely because they’re so difficult to reach. So there’s a bit of Gandhi’s response to “What do you think of Western Civilization?”, “I think it would be a very good idea”, element to my thinking here. And I don’t want to overstate the case for the guns and bombs, waging war part of a strategy. Development work, USIP work, WHO work, the whole community of NGOs that attempts to bring living conditions to a higher standard – that is all to the good, and should be included in a strategy to combat terrorism.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Hillbilly is a rather ugly word, I would avoid it in civilised conversation with these people.  As with the N Word, they can call each other hillbillies.   Don’t you do so.   I don’t.   They are mountain people.

                Right, sorryReport

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

                See, I wouldn’t go so far as to say al-Qaeda represents an existential threat to the US. The US is an awfully powerful nation and it takes quite a bit to represent an existential threat.

                The USSR wasn’t an existential threat to the United States, either.   They were more afraid of us than we were of them.   Al Qaeda is only one manifestation of a problem we’ve had for some years:  the failures of the Islamic States.  While the rest of the world has made considerable advances, they haven’t.  Some of what follows might seem condescending, it’s just a summary of what everyone knows, upon which I will attempt to build an argument.

                Here’s how it’s gone for centuries:  the world of the Ottomans was once quite advanced.   It crystallised and lapsed into backwardness.  The Ottomans unwisely chose the side of Germany in WW1 and their empire was stripped from them.  Between the era of Othman the Great and today, what emerged?   First colonialists who had no love for their brownish subjects, then Strong Men in the models of Ba’athism after the colonialists.

                Al Qaeda isn’t the root problem, it’s a reaction to centuries of effete despotism and it’s certainly not the whole picture.   Ba’athism emerged as a reaction to colonialism, an attempt to find some common ground among all the Arabs.  Nasser tried to find common ground, Qadafy, all those tinhorn dictators arose to fill the gaps left by the Ottomans.   These schemes could only work while the Strong Men held power.  Many of them began as surprisingly good men.   Saddam Hussein was a remarkably progressive man at first.   For many years he governed Iraq with amazing skill, lifting it out of poverty, electrifying the country, paving roads, building schools, institutions of higher learning.   If he cracked a few heads, America found out why he cracked them for we cracked a good many of those same heads ourselves during our nightmarish war, attempting to pacify a country which should never have been created in the first place. Iraq’s borders were created by the colonialists. Should have probably been at least three countries. The Ottomans divided it into at least a dozen provinces

                Islamism tried to find some common ground, a rather larger common ground than even the Ba’athists or the Ottomans.   The Ottomans had once sheltered the Caliphate but it had become a meaningless office.   When Islamists try to tell us they are looking to reinstitute a Caliphate, do not think they want to govern us.  They want to govern themselves.   They want to return to the glories of Othman the Good.  Othman’s name is still used in common speech as a blessing.  Few rulers have ever deserved to be called Good and Othman was one.

                We who look at Islamism from the outside wonder how Osama bin Ladin’s message could ever find credence.   Do they really hate us all that much?   Yes they do, folks, they hate America with all their hearts.    Americans though, they don’t hate Americans.  Call it schizophrenic if you will, but the ordinary American engenders great affection among the Muslims.  Why then do they hate our state and its policies?   Because we back the dictators who oppress the ordinary Muslim.

                Americans might raise their hands and exclaim “Hell no, we don’t support your goddamn dictators!”  But we do.   The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Jordanian monarchy, Mubarak, for many years, even Saddam Hussein.  We’ve been doing business with bastards.   We’re still doing business with their replacements.   Our Iraq policy absolutely reeks of filthy corruption, for ten years we’ve been papering over Iraq’s sectarian problems with hundred dollar bills, reducing our combat commanders to bagmen with briefcases full of American currency all divvied out into Ziploc baggies and signature forms.  Every few weeks, they’d have to pay off local sectarian warlords and sheiks and other horrible folks of that sort — in Iraq, a country which could be wealthy and prosperous, not only from its oil but from millions of merchants.  Iraq once had a merchant class which was the envy of the known world in the time of the Ottomans and well into modern times.  Iran, ditto.   The stories of Sinbad the Sailor come from Basra and Baghdad.

                We’re doing the same in Afghanistan.  Our unit commanders are reducing any semblance of Afghan authority to corrupt little despots, paying them to not fight us.   Bad business, that.   When the money stops, well….

                Before he lapsed into megalomania and cruel and unprovoked war against Iran (a war America aided and abetted) , Saddam recreated Iraq’s greatness.  We never had the good sense to bring these dictators all the way through to meaningful democracy.  We stoked the fire and wonder now why the kettle boiled over.  Osama bin Ladin could have been a great friend to the United States.  Why wasn’t he?  Why do millions of people from Cairo to Karachi hate America’s guts?   Because we’ve connived with dictators, against our better judgement and against the principles of our own constitution.  Read what Bin Ladin said, he makes all this absolutely clear.  Osama bin Ladin may be dead but he is still a hero to millions, not because they like his brand of Islam or the fact that all those people died on 9/11 but because he stood up to tyranny.  He gave America a black eye, one it probably deserved, considering how many thousands of people were murdered by the dictators we support and their secret police.

                If there is an existential threat to consider in this mess, it’s Iraq and Egypt.  Clearly, Iraq is not done with its civil war.   When the American money stops coming, the shit will hit the fan.  Iraq’s refineries are still in terrible shape and they’re ineptly run.  The oil money never reaches the ordinary people.  Egypt’s military intends to maintain its grip on power for the foreseeable future.   Both Egypt and Iraq have become Ireland in the 1980s writ large, sectarian horror stories featuring dead economies.

                All this weaseling about how these countries can’t meet the high standards of the international human rights commissions just annoys me Something Dretful.  The reason we’re in this disgusting predicament is precisely because of all this cheap talk about how these poor benighted Ay-rabs and Pashtuns and Persians and Pak-ee-stanees just can’t measure up.  The colonialists talked that way.  Sounds too much like White Man’s Burden for my tastes.  It’s condescending bullshit.  Not only can they measure up but in the course of all this last decade, our own standards are slipping.   We’re become less-free every day.

                International Terrorism is just a snake lashing out to bite the ankle of the hapless traveller who stepped on it.   Those terrorists are crooks all right, murderous swine who very badly need to be stopped. But bad as they are, they are only a reaction to far larger crimes, crimes we countenance every day, paying off warlords, doing business with despots, acting like these people are incapable of self-governance.   We’re sowing dragon’s teeth by pretending those folks out there in the hinterlands can’t measure up.  They can measure up and they will measure up, if only we’d quit acting like they couldn’t.   Islamism’s message is simple:  embrace our vision and you can return to past glories.   Our message should be, embrace our vision and you can participate in the future.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Ethan Gach says:

                There were also no calls for military action by others in most of the other revolutionary states. The only exception being Syria, which the US diplomatic efforts have (to some minor degree) at least aided in getting Assad to stop killing indescriminately.

                As for drone bombings, there’s an entire post to be written on the subject of shifting from detentions and overt warfare to covert war, but that’s a different topic.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

      That’s a golf shirt under BHO’s jacket.  BTW,. BHO just popped up in Afghanistan.  This is some weird theater.

      • Please explain to me what you mean by pointing out that Obama is wearing a golf shirt in the picture. And, by golf shirt, I assume you mean what most human beings call a polo shirt, right?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        It’s not weird, it’s politics as usual in the Stans.   See, in their sort of politics, you can’t talk to people on the phone.   You need to drink chai with them.   Lots of it, and frequently. Things have gotten quite bad between Pakistan and Afghanistan:  bad as things are between the USA and the Pakistani regime, they are even worse along the old Durand Line.

        Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil is saying the Pakistani madrassas are still churning out terrorists.   He’s in negotiations with the Taliban, a decidedly fractured movement just now.   Well, the noun Taliban was always plural, everyone’s sick of this war — everyone, it seems, except the Pakistani ISI, who still think the Taliban are their little illiterate goons.

        Watch and see,  Afghanistan is just about to cut a deal with the mainline Taliban and Obama’s over there to check in with Hamid Karzai as a show of force. See, Bush never properly backed Karzai.   Didn’t respect him.   That may not have been Bush43, he was too stupid to understand how things are over there.    But his Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad did understand, and cut off Karzai’s balls off when Karzai most needed a pair.   Obama’s playing a very different angle with Karzai, propping him up with much cred, what the Pashtun call shaharat, prestige.   Persian word, shah-harat, king-ness.

        Theater, sure.  Weird?  Heh… if you say so.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Dick Morris’ playbook: Clinton’s polls went up whenever he left the country and did something presidential.  Bank it.

          Is this trip necessary?  Not in the slightest.  Pure theater.Report

          • Elections are theater. Politics is theater. Your entire function on this blog is theater.

            Get over it.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            Part of the problem Mr Van Dyke, is that 95% of anything done by politicians in your country is theater. Democracy encourages theater. I think it was Socrates who said that in a democracy, the people who end up governing are expert at nothing but winning elections.Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

              I disagree, sir.  Much is substance.  The rubes are distracted by all the handwaving,  but there’s quite a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney; between Obama and Bill Clinton for that matter.  Only those who fancy themselves sophisticates blandly assert there is not.

              I will restate, however, that on the whole American foreign policy is of a fabric regardless of who’s in charge.  Jimmy Carter was far more bellicose and Ronald Reagan far more mellow than their images suggest.  ‘Twas Carter who initiated “Reagan’s” military buildup.  Largely, our disagreements on foreign policy have stopped at the water’s edge, as we’re fond of saying.


              • You make much of a muchness. Partisans always assume the latest president of the opposing party is a unique snowflake of awfulness. Just as many liberals thought GWB was the Worst. President. Ever. If Romney were to miraculously win the election this year, the same dynamic would repeat. You’ll be back to assure us during the next Democratic administration that this one is so much worse than Obama was and Obama was really more moderate than his detractors say and on and on.

                All that said, I’m going to enjoy watching you defend Mitt Romney all year.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Biden? His shirt’s not even tailored, I don’t think. What kind of people are we letting run this country?! This I know: Romney will wear only button-down, tailored shirts under his jacket. Plus, he has better shoes. Like Bush, and unlike Obama, when he goes to Iraq or Afghanistan for a surprise visit, he’ll do it with dignity as a result.

        These are the important issues, folks. These are the issues that make our choice in November clear.

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

          I come to posts like this to get myself into a good self-righteous rage about the moral trespasses of Obama, and then I have to deal with the fact that his political opponents are about four standard deviations below the mean.

          It’s deflating is what it is.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            Urch, yeah I can see how that’d sting. If it’s any consolation it’s reassuring to me that you recognize it. Yeah skant comfort I know.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            What depresses me is that Obama has opponents who really care about this shit, but they’re not in either of our major political parties, and therefore have absolutely no chance of doing anything about it.Report

  3. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Too soon to say, too early to tell – those will always be possible responses to events in the foreign affairs sphere. Particularly events of just the past few years – things like the Arab Spring will take decades to play themselves out, settling into something of a recognizable pattern. It will also be some time before the documents that shed the most light on what an administration was really thinking are declassified. But those thinking seriously about foreign policy still have to make assessments about the recent past before all the facts are in, incomplete information does not mean we can’t make any judgement.

    If the President should be congratulated for presiding over democratic revolutions in other countries (many of which have occurred despite U.S. pressure for them not to), then he should also be congratulated for presiding over global warming and high unemployment.

    I don’t buy this president as bystander line, it is difficult to draw an equivalence between high unemployment and global warming on the one hand and the Egyptian military’s failure to violently crackdown on protests on the other given the levers the US had at its disposal. Especially important, the military to military contacts and multi-billion dollar aide budget for Egypt. But for behind the scenes pressure it is possible Tahrir Square could have become another Tiananmen Square.

    Last, I think an achievement that you overlook that is not directly hit upon in the Sullivan post is the diplomatic maneuvering it took to successfully isolate and pressure Iran, intervene in Libya, and accomplish other major US foreign policy objectives (strengthening the alliance infrastructure to cope with a rising China and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia for instance). Successfully assembling and keeping together coalitions, getting abstentions (if not assents) in the UN Security Council is a tricky business. There’s quite a bit to congratulate Obama (and Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice) for.


  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Let’s not forget that this man has a Nobel Peace Prize.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Glen Greenwald’s foreign policy may be morally correct (I’m not saying it is) but it is surely a political loser.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Kolohe says:

      And people say the left has no guiding moral or ideological philosophy! Sure it does: win elections!Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        We’d save everybody a lot of time and energy if both parties just put that in their platforms. Or if they feel they need to be broader than simply “winning elections,” they might say, “The opposite of whatever the other party says, so that we can win elections.”Report

      • Avatar Scott Fields in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

        Because losing elections virtually guarantees enactment of your preferred policies.Report

        • When winning them does nothing to enact my preferred policies either, it makes not a whit of difference whether my side wins or loses.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            I’ll be the first to admit saying “sure he’s bad but the the other guy’s worse” is a tired and hoary old trope but it also is one with that obnoxious underlying truth to it. Frankly I’m old enough to remember the last time the left in America felt like they had the luxury of flipping the bird at the human politician because he wasn’t the perfect one and we ended up with one much worse than either.Report

            • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to North says:

              I think “the other guy’s worse” is a very scant defense of Obama, and not just because it’s a scant defense at all times. It’s actually unclear to me that Romney is considerably worse. Given the fact that domestic policy is completely unworkable, what’s the real difference here? Romney would start a war with Iran but Obama might not? This is thin gruel. You have to rely on him using the administrative apparatus of the state in some deeply immoral way, like deporting millions of people or raiding peaceful marijuana farms… oh wait.

              The one silver lining to all of this is that I’d love to see a slim Republican majority realize Romney would rubber-stamp anything they want and then just obliterate the filibuster. We’d get four years of horrible policy, but the long-term benefit of a parliamentary system would be enormous.


              • Wouldn’t it be lovely to have four years of horrible policy that you wouldn’t personally suffer from just so you can see the fruits of long-term benefits of parliamentary democracy?Report

              • I might not ever see them, really. As you say, I operate largely independently of the effects of policy. But the succeeding generations whose lives would be orders of magnitude better would probably enjoy the fruits of this outcome. This is one of those compound interest things.

                That said, this is small potatoes. Barack Obama rains death on innocent human beings. There are points at which marginal cuts in food stamps in the richest country in the world are not really the issue at hand, even if I would prefer no cuts, ceteris paribus.Report

              • Yes, whereas systematic dismantling of social safety nets, stacking Supreme Court appointments to be exceptionally pro-corporate interests and a vast array of other things are also not really the issue at hand.

                Ah yes, the righteousness of the straight, male, middle-class white liberal on the plight of the “innocent human beings” who die in war…because of course, the only human suffering and destruction is caused by US action, never, ever by US inaction.Report

              • What systematic dismantling? Remind me how well that worked for Bush when he tried it with Social Security. The Democrats didn’t even need the filibuster to crush that nonsense idea. As for the Supreme Court, I note the use of the word “exceptionally” there to mask the fact that nothing material would change when the conservative majority goes from 5:4 to 6:3. It’s a cute rhetorical tactic, but it means nothing.

                Also: while I enjoy the use of personal insults to point out an opponent’s general lack of authority on any given subject, I don’t think it’s especially prudent in this case. The person defending drone strikes has quite enough to do to demonstrate that he’s not a completely morally degenerate sociopath without making enemies on his own ideological team.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                I disagree with Ryan on there not being significant different between O or R being in the oval office. But I do think we can debate it without being quite so mean Nob my friend. Lets try and be cheerful all this, it’s just the League lefty club out here in the internet. There’re no enemies in this discussion wot.Report

              • I think a 5:4 majority with a Kennedy presiding as the swing vote is still preferable to a 6:3 majority with Kennedy replaced with another Scalia and Ginsberg with a Roberts or Alito. The majority itself is important, but the basis of the legal opinion is also important. The amount of damage that a conservative majority with a more firmly ideological set of justices can do is substantial, particularly as it’s likely to be something that lasts well over the 2-8 years that any Republican tripartiate control of the presidency, senate and house would constitute.

                Paul Ryan’s budget passed the House. I’d imagine a Republican majority in the Senate would have fewer problems approving that, too.

                As for the defense of drone strikes, fine. I suppose I can lay out my reasons. You can of course go the full Greenwald on me and ignore that we don’t live in a vacuum of moral nicety and condemn me as a sociopath, but I”ll make the effort nonetheless.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                Well, based on what Romney has said he’d keep the policies that you criticize Obama for only amp it up to a much higher level.

                It should also be noted that while Obama essentially swept the whole torture thing under the rug rather than dragging it out into the light to burn (a conflagration; mind that would probably have taken up much of his first term most likely) he did put a stop to it under his watch.

                Romney is a firm supporter of the Bush/Cheney policies on that so you could presume that he would reactivate that entire horror show, especially since he’d need lots more intelligence for the new wars he’s comitted to entering into.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to North says:

                So we really have completely flipped the script on the “choice, not an echo” thing here, haven’t we?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                I suppose partially? But the difference between no torture and torture strikes me as more than a question of echoes.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to North says:

                To see no difference between an Administration that has publicly and continually pushed policies that would end the detention regime entirely, and a candidate that has declared multiple times that he thinks the problem is that GITMO isn’t BIG ENOUGH and that he’d “double GITMO” is to put it mildly, an arrogant hyper dismissal in the name of moral superiority.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to North says:


                Get real, Barry made a half harted attempt to close down GITMO and try terrorists in civilian counts. And then nothing more for the rest of his time in office.Report

          • Avatar Scott Fields in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            Not a whit? Really? Over the whole spectrum of policies that you care about? I tried to be pure once. It didn’t work.


            • Name a single major thing the Democrats have done in the last 3+ years that accords with my policy preferences.

              I’ll grant that you can probably come up with a list of small-bore things, but there are two problems with that:

              A) I don’t wholly oppose the Republican agenda. They would probably also make small changes I would approve of.

              B) Stacked up against the deportations, the drug raids, the wars, the drones, etc, these things are essentially meaningless.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                so you would vote for Webb, if you got a chance?Report

              • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Kimmi says:

                Unclear. He and I are not terribly close together on policy (he’s a culturally conservative communitarian, I’m a culturally left-wing pseudo-libertarian), but there’s a core of honor in him that is totally absent from most of his peers. He would never run for president, so I’m not exactly worried I’ll ever have to make the choice.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                Webb won’t be running for much of anything after pissing off Big Corps and Prisons in his homestate. An honorable man, who was willing to try making some strides against the war on drugs…Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                What is there but small bore things in the current climate where “domestic policy is unworkable” and the national constituency favors militarism? Small bore things add up in the aggregate, nonetheless.

                I’m not looking to cheerlead for the Democrats.  To my mind, both parties have been bought and our country is becoming, or already is for all extents and purposes, an oligarchy. That said, there is a massive difference between a party that feebly fights against that condition and a party that welcomes it.  That difference alone is worthy of my vote and my advocacy.Report

  6. “Presided over democratic revolutions in Iran”

    What the…. That happened?Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kieselguhr Kid says:

      The Green revolution from ’09.

      Sulllivan didn’t say they were all successful revolutions. (in fact for the lot of them, ‘to early to tell’, as the saying goes)Report

  7. Avatar trizzlor says:

    Even if the President explicitly takes credit for issuing the raid and the ensuing success, to shamelessly use it for self-promotional purposes is a bit repulsive.

    Why? The videos on OBL that I’ve seen from the Obama campaign essentially follow this script: Here’s a risky decision Obama made that people in his own administration were divided about; Here are some quotes from Romney that suggest he would not have put the pieces in place to make the same decision; Here are some famous people reminding you the viewer that the decision resulted in a pretty good outcome. How is this more repulsive than any other campaign statement? Are foreign policy decisions somehow off-limits to the campaign?Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to trizzlor says:

      Its repulsive because state ordered assasinations are morally dubious and the operation was risky. That it was ultimately successful is quite besides the point. Doing this kind of shit is what liberals are supposed to be against.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

        Osama bin Ladin deserved exactly what he got.   Morally dubious, my hairy white ass.   Liberals are about the rights of man, not walking on water.   If some bastard plowed an airliner into Republic Plaza, you’d be singing a different story.   I grow increasingly sick and tired of being lectured on the subject of national morality.

        Is the motto of your division “Ready to Throw Marshmallows” or something of that sort?Report

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Ugh. Ready to Throw Marshmallows? It’s bad enough when conservatives lecture us about how we’re not sufficiently bloodthirsty.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

            I have no reservations about the killing of Osama bin Ladin.   As you find it bad enough when Conservatives lecture us, I find it beyond the pale to cast aspersions of the Morally Dubious sort upon the justice of this episode.    I lost a whole crew of six extremely competent friends on 9/11, then consulting for Cantor Fitzgerald.   The very idea that there might be any doubt about the morality of avenging their deaths, or the deaths of the thousands who died on that day is frankly nauseating.Report

            • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Call it what you will, but resort to the deep animal parts of us that scream for vengeance isn’t liberalism. I don’t mourn Osama’s death, either, if that helps at all.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to Ryan Noonan says:


                You still miss the point.  The fact that many liberals doubt about the morality of avenging the 9/11 deaths is what make folks shake their heads.  I don’t ask that liberals be too blood thirsty, just that they fathom the idea that we have a right to punish those that attack us.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Murali says:

        I’m basically with Murali here.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Murali says:

        Morality and risk seem to be two completely different axes on which to evaluate the decision.  Which is to say, since when did risk avoidance become a liberal (small or big l) value?Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    For instance, I’m not sure what it means to say that “Obama ended one war in Iraq.” What does it mean to end “war” in that country? If “ending” simply means pulling out then yes, I suppose having been the one to issue the order, Obama is responsible for ending the war in Iraq (even if thousands of U.S. officials and hundreds of private mercenaries continue to stay there).

    Presidents get way too much consideration for economic matters, which a largely beyond their control.

    For foreign policy military ones though?  With a unitary executive (with which I don’t have a problem) and complete Congressional deference (which with I do have a problem), I willing to give full credit – and blame – for anything and everything that happens in those areas on their watch starting at 201201 Jan xx.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

      (and even though you are overstating the footprint in Iraq somewhat, the important thing in Iraq is Americans are no longer *dying*.  Nobody cares if we’re in Iraq (or Afghanistan) per se – it’s just the dying part.  Because we’ve been in Germany, Japan, and South Korea for *decades*, and the general public is not clamoring for us to get out of those places.)Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Kolohe says:


      “Presidents get way too much consideration for economic matters, which a largely beyond their control.”

      Then why does Barry keep telling us that he is going to save us all from Bush’s economic mess?Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I find targetting killings less morally problematic than, say, targetted daisy cutter bombings.

    Go in, kill one person (or two or a small discrete number of people) and then leave without, say, bombing the shit out of groups of people. Is it morally problematic *AT ALL*? Yes, of course. Compared to, say, invasion? No, not particularly.

    Much of me wishes that we had merely gone into Iraq and assassinated Saddam, Uday, Qusay, and then left a note on the throne saying “don’t make us come back”.Report

  10. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    If we take the “liberal” critique of the use of drones at all seriously, and just the obvious insight that there’s no way that the number of people we target for death from above can all possibly pose a threat to the country that’s mortal enough to possibly justify such extensive use of that weapons system, having as it does a much higher rate of killing innocents than do SOF raids (though still a lot lower than carpet bombing), then all the hand wringing on the UBL raid in particular seems a little bizarre.  The vast bulk of this administration’s CT policy is hugely more morally and legally suspect than this particular action was, indeed this was probably among the most justified of all the uses of force pursuant to counterterrorism that this administration has taken.Report

  11. Avatar Scott says:


    Sorry but Sullivan is smoking crack in his sad attempt to tout Barry’s foreign policy achievements.  Barry is merely carrying out Bush’s agreement to wind down Iraq.  Yes, Barry gave the military permission to  kill OBL once again continuing Bush’s work.  As far as Libya, Barry illegally used US military forces to help overthrow Qaddafi, hardly a high point in liberal  politics.  Of course you can find Barry apologists like Elias here to claim it was okay b/c we were protecting human rights or some other nonsense.  According to whom were relations with the Russians re-set, the Russians?  They haven’t quit their rhetoric against the US. As far as sanctions against Iran, the real sanctions have only recently been implemented, sadly too little too late.  Barry expanded Bush’s drone war and has claimed the extrajudicial right to kill American citizens, something even Bush never tried.  As far as and presiding over democratic revolutions, Barry sat back and watched while it happened.  He certainly didn’t lead, rather he helped throw our allies like Mubarak under the bus and left the other wondering if we would really support them.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

      Bush43 left quite a pot of shit stew for Barry to stir.  Bush43 was easily the worst American president in a hundred years.  Iraq was an unnecessary war by every possible measure.  Had Bush41 done the right thing back in his day, instead of abandoning the Shiites to a cruel fate, Saddam would be gone.

      Libya was a cunning and brutal triumph over a bastard whose policies blew up an airliner full of Americans over Lockerbie, Scotland.   Obama did it by the book and we (and the French) are now heroes to millions of Libyans.   You just don’t like the idea that Obama won.  The Russians are their own worst enemies:  the lights of their client states are winking out all over the world.  Ditto the Chinese.  Barack Obama is making friends and killing the enemies of the rights of man.  If he’s sitting back and watching it happen, that’s how such things ought to be done.  Those revolutions weren’t ours to lead.

      Mubarak was a monstrous old beast who had crippled the largest Arab state for decades, no friend of America.  That friendship was bought and paid for:  anyone who thinks we need friends of that sort is nuts.   Uncle Sam can’t go around the playgrounds of the world and pay for people to play with his kids.

      I would not worry about what other countries think about us Supporting Them.   See previous paragraph for my reasons.  Uncle Sugar is still buying friendships:  our fun-filled relationship with Israel continues to cost us good money and nothing to show for it.   For far too long, America has held its nose and paid for friendships and it ought to stop. We never get anything for our money. Not only do these bastards not stay bought, they look at our money and despise us for it.

      I love that word “extrajudicial” in the context of war.  Wars start, justice stops.  Inter arma silent leges.   Two can play this game of death from the air.   If Osama bin Ladin watched his lieutenants die, I find this entirely in the interests of justice.  Now I will tell you straight up how we became the targets of such attacks:  when our peacekeepers were murdered in Beirut, Ronald Reagan backed out and would not avenge our dead.   The Arabs thought we were a bunch of pansies, unwilling to take casualties.   All the rest of this, right up to 9/11, follows on Reagan’s folly and fecklessness.   Combined with Bush43 crapping his pants on 9/11 and completely overreacting, we sank about as far into fearful idiocy as it was possible to sink as a nation.   Barack Obama may not be to your tastes, he’s certainly not to mine, but we have yet to completely climb out of the hole that Shrubya put us in.   Thank God for Barack Obama.   He’s not a complete idiot.Report