The missed opportunities of the Obama presidency

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Charles Krauthammer’s latest op-ed in the Washington Post highlights the frustrating array of missed opportunities which have characterised President Obama’s approach to foreign and defence policy—best underscored by the extremely foolish and short-sighted handling of negotiations for a new status-of-forces-agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government.

As Krauthammer points out, when Obama took office in 2009, conditions for negotiating a responsible new SOFA were propitious: there was mutual recognition on both sides of the need for a gradual drawdown of US forces, in a manner which would enable the Iraqis to build and maintain their own security, underpin their sovereignty and protect the country from falling under the influence and control of Iran or other regional powers. Unfortunately, Obama squandered the opportunity to negotiate such a settlement and has instead decided to shrug as US troops begin to withdraw from Iraq. At a time of regional upheaval, this sends an incredibly dangerous signal about American engagement and commitment, and is tantamount to an open invitation to Iran to take suborn the weak and Shia-dominated Iraqi polity.

Obama’s clear desire was to wrap up the costly and unpopular war—whatever the costs—as early as possible. This demonstrates his consistency with the candidate Obama of 2008, and neatly fulfils one of his key campaign promises; but is hardly the behaviour of a president making a sober assessment of America’s strategic interest. Odd displays of American backbone—namely, the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki and the (albeit reluctant) US contribution to the Libyan intervention—have belied the early caricatures of Obama as a Jimmy Carter-esque president. Yet on very important, ‘big picture’ strategic decisions such as the future of Iraq or the outcome of the Arab Spring, his posture has all-too-often been invertebrate. With a decidedly uninspiring field of candidates prepared to challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential elections and serious domestic crises on hand, it looks likely that such narrow-minded insularity may become even more strongly rooted in American foreign policy.

HJS



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