Barack Obama is governing in a much different world than his predecessors. How will his foreign policy be remembered? Who does he most emulate? Hint: It's not Jimmy Carter.
PARIS — If foreign policy were a beauty pageant, President Barack Obama would not be sporting a crown. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner gets a poor score from voters at home, and one from abroad that's not much better. But it's probably not justified.
Among his predecessors, Obama is most often compared to the Democrat Jimmy Carter, whose four years in the White House from 1976 to 1980 are often described as a catastrophe. Many believe the devout Baptist from Georgia degraded the status of the United States on the international stage. He is said to have personified of a sort of depressive softness of which America's enemies, from the Soviet Union to Islamic Revolution's Iran, have taken brutal advantage.
It was necessary to elect a flamboyant former California governor and Hollywood star, Ronald Reagan, to reestablish the image that America likes to have of itself: that of the light shining on the hill, an "exception" among the nations.
Before he launched his bombing campaign against ISIS, the most severe criticism of Obama was that he was on the road to "advanced Carterization." In the polls, a majority of Americans reproached him for giving the impression of a passive and powerless America facing the perils of the day: a vengeful and increasingly powerful Russia, and the regional imperialism of a China eager to ensure its domination in southeast Asia.
But the comparison with Jimmy Carter falls flat, and for good reason. The 39th president of the United States left a solid balance sheet in terms of foreign policy. Without his assiduous mediation, Israel and Egypt — even by the admission of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar al-Sadat — would never have finalized the landmark Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. And the end of the great wars between Israel and its neighboring states was not just any achievement.
When history is written
The Americans, who love rehabilitating what they have torn down, will one day bury Jimmy Carter as a great president. After all, they hallowed Richard Nixon on the day of his death, on April 22, 1994, and he was a major foreign policy president who was chased from the White House halfway through his term over Watergate.
Those who accuse Obama of "Carterization" are in general those who praise his political opposite, Reagan, a charmer with broad shoulders and prince-like suits. As opposed to his predecessor, the (adopted) Californian managed to project a forceful and confident image. It is not clear that we should attribute the fall of the Berlin Wall to him just because he demanded it, but still, he no doubt contributed to it with the substantial help — it's true — of a certain Mikhail Gorbachev.
Journalist Thomas Friedman recently asked in The New York Times, "Who Had It Easier, Reagan or Obama?" The Republican was a man of the Cold War. The conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union represented one form of world order, a bipolar era.
Meanwhile, Obama is a man governing at a time of global chaos, a "non-polar" era. Obama's world has multiple power hubs, new and old, that coexist without yet having established the rules of a game that non-state actors constantly work to disrupt, as ISIS has done. "In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now," Friedman concluded.
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Reagan, pictured in 1984, caught a good wave of history (Wikipedia)
What has fashioned the president's foreign policy is that of his immediate predecessor, Republican George W. Bush. All of Obama's reflexes are the opposite of "W's" legacy. Including the will to remove the United States from two theaters of combat, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the conviction that there are limits to what the American military machine can accomplish, particularly in conflicts as complex as those of the Middle East. On the basis of the last 15 years, who could argue otherwise?
A hesitant warrior, Obama is at a key moment in his presidency: He's going to war. Worse, he's doing it in this accursed region from which he wanted to withdraw the U.S. Worse still, he has set himself an objective too ambitious to be achieved from the cockpit of a fighter jet. Instead, finishing off ISIS would no doubt require a ground intervention and the reconstruction of two states in ruins, Iraq and Syria. The task of a generation.
But he can weaken ISIS, contain its expansion, and by doing this, limit the scope of the massacres in progress and the number of miserable people condemned to exile. He acts with caution when he announces a long-term operation. More importantly, he is involving the Arab nations in this aerial campaign, which is no small diplomatic success. America, and particularly "W," has much to atone for in the region. But the president is convinced, with reason, that the future of the Arab world is first and foremost the affair of the Arabs.
In all this, if Obama reminds us of one of his predecessors, it is George H. W. Bush, W's father, who accompanied the difficult phase of the final breakdown of the USSR with a certain tact. It's a comparison that's almost a compliment.