Type in the words “Obama foreign policy” on your Google search bar and you will likely find your terms automatically completed by the dispiriting addition of the word “failures.” This search engine synthesis aptly captures the country’s perceptions of the president’s leadership around the globe, and it is not an encouraging sight. Obama’s foreign policy approval numbers are dismal. Stymied by a mulish Russia in Crimea, struggling to control the spreading conflagration in Syria and dogged by the haunting specters of Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s efforts in foreign climes seem tenuous and uncertain. Critics bemoan the absence of an “Obama doctrine” – a unifying vision of American power in the wider world, a north star of sorts for the president to follow in grand, uncompromising fashion.


It did not have to be this way. Obama’s first term was marked by significant foreign policy success. A NATO-backed intervention in Libya was masterfully executed, likely averting significant bloodshed. American troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan were accelerated, giving a war-weary country a galvanizing view of the death throes of two hated conflicts. Obama executed a pivot towards Asia to confront the unappetizing prospect of a restless China and catalyzed significant reductions in America’s nuclear arsenal. The coup de grace, a daring nighttime raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, crowned the president as a stalwart in the realm of global affairs and propelled him to victory in the 2012 election.


It has been largely downhill ever since. The promises of the Arab Spring splintered before the winds of radical Islamism and military coups, spotlighting the administration’s unwillingness to translate high-minded democratic ideology into tangible support on the ground. A civil war in Syria soon spiraled into chaos, mass slaughter and crimes against humanity. Obama’s strong rhetoric against Bashar Al-Assad’s gassing of civilians was thwarted by an anti-interventionist outcry at home, one which reached a fever pitch of surrealism when Vladimir Putin (that esteemed champion of international law and civil liberties the world over) penned a sanctimonious op-ed in the New York Times accusing America of imperial overreach. Obama’s abrupt about-face on his own red line arguments likely emboldened Putin’s hostile takeover of Crimea this year, and certainly lends no weight to American posturing on the issue of Ukrainian sovereignty.


To make matters worse, the current administration has done an abysmal job of communicating a coherent foreign policy to the American people in a clear, concise manner. So much of Obama’s campaign rhetoric centered on the repudiation of the Bush Doctrine’s disastrously simplistic, bludgeoning view of American power that the president-elect had scarce time to articulate a vision of his own. In the absence of communication from the White House, the unauthorized synthesis of Obama’s doctrine was soon reduced to, “Don’t bungle into another Iraq and Afghanistan.”


This lack of clarity is a true shame, since the authorized version of the “Obama doctrine” is deeply nuanced, thoughtful and incredibly aware of the changing winds of history and the limits of American power. As The New Yorker pointed out, Obama is a foreign policy realist, a pragmatic president devoted to extensive calculus and the careful weighing of decisions. He balances America’s vital interests with his deep skepticism of military force, his liberal humanitarianism with necessary cost-benefit analysis. This administration’s true foreign policy is complex and sophisticated, an elegant and beautiful worldview.


Alas, the torrential tide of global events strains nuance and caution to a breaking point. Too often, Obama seems paralyzed by the surge, rendered indecisive and ineffective by his perceived lack of a clear north star. His is the foreign policy the world deserves. It is not the foreign policy the world so desperately needs.


What are your thoughts on President Obama’s foreign policy approach? Sound off here, or find me on Twitter @aa_murph