Jonathan Eyal

Obama's foreign policy failures

US leader has failed to strike balance between military might and diplomacy

Everything went well with United States President Barack Obama's recent tour of Asia until a journalist from the Fox News TV network asked him about America's alleged foreign policy failures.

The famously placid US President suddenly lost his cool and launched into an astonishingly bitter, personal defence of his record. His kind of foreign policy, said Mr Obama, "may not always be sexy" and "may not make for good argument on Sunday morning TV shows", but "it avoids errors".

Mr Obama then quickly regained his composure, even managing a self-deprecating joke: "You got me all worked up," he told his media tormentor. But the fact remains that a US president who will soon be marking the mid-point of his second and final term in office is still being dismissed by some as a diplomat on probation, a man who instinctively prefers to duck rather than confront global security crises. And sadly, this view is shared by more than just conservative hacks on Fox News; it's also the prevailing opinion among many foreign leaders.

Mr Obama is right to dismiss as nonsense those who claim that US presidents ought to inspire fear for their use of military power, rather than invite admiration for their moderation; as Mr David Rothkopf, who edits America's Foreign Policy magazine, recently aptly put it, someone had to tame Washington's "promiscuous militarism", the "steroidal belligerence" which assumed that on every issue, the US would send in its soldiers to die.

But this black-and-white, binary choice which Mr Obama often likes to present between critics who supposedly demand new wars and himself as a man of peace is false. For America's superpower status allows a US president to blend the two concepts, to prevail in any conflict by telling opponents that, while Washington may prefer diplomacy, it's not frightened to contemplate the use of force either.

Mr Obama, however, is found wanting on both diplomacy and war. He came to office promising to "reset" relations between the US and Russia, repair frayed links with Europe and improve America's image in the Middle East.

He failed on every one of these objectives. Relations with Russia are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War, while in the Middle East, Mr Obama has managed the rare feat of angering both Israelis and Arabs in equal measures.

The US' Pew Research Centre, which tracks such issues, has found that favourable views of the US last year declined in half of the countries it surveys, including an astonishing 11-point drop in Britain, America's "most obedient" international ally. US ratings in places such as Pakistan or Egypt are lower now than during Mr George W. Bush's presidency.

Of course, Mr Obama cannot be directly blamed for some of these developments: He is not responsible for Russia's decision to carve up Ukraine, or for the wave of revolutions which rocked the Middle East. But his hesitating diplomacy only made matters worse.

Was it wise, for instance, to publicly taunt Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a "man with one foot in the past", as Mr Obama did when he first came to office? Was it clever to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt long after it became clear that the organisation alienated everyone, but then do nothing when the military took over, and subsequently fail to even appoint an ambassador to Egypt, as Mr Obama has done for the past year? And was it shrewd to allow US Secretary of State John Kerry to waste most of his time on shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, only for Mr Obama to pull the plug on Mr Kerry's efforts without even offering a single explanation?

Mr Obama's failure to forge a special relationship with the world's emerging big powers is especially egregious. Later this month, India is likely to elect Mr Narendra Modi as its leader, a man who claims to have "no interest in visiting America". Relations with Brazil have seldom been worse: Ms Dilma Rousseff, the country's president, refuses to reinstate a planned visit to the US which she cancelled last year. And in the case of China, talk of a "G-2 world partnership" has been replaced with US "hedging" in Asia. Unsurprisingly, favourable ratings for the US have dropped by 18 per cent in China since 2009, according to Pew's surveys. Not one of the so-called Brics powers now supports the US on key international issues.

And although Mr Obama is proud to have kept the US out of fresh military entanglements, he has done so in odd ways. What was the point of introducing a resolution in the United Nations Security Council mandating the use of force in Libya, only to then refuse any direct military contribution? And what was the logic behind preparations to use force in Syria which included Mr Obama calling on world leaders to ready their own troops for the operation, only to stun even his closest advisers by calling it all off at the last moment?

The President's defenders like to point out that the US public has lost the stomach for foreign military interventions. Correct, but not relevant: America's voters were against their country's involvement in both world wars, and most Americans did not even know where Kuwait was when, in 1991, the US unleashed its biggest military operation since Vietnam.

The problem is not with American public opinion, but with a president who neglects appeals to the public on foreign policy crises because he does not believe this to be important; the criticism against Mr Obama is not so much that he does not want to use force but, rather, that he does not understand America's military might. Search as hard as you wish, there is no such thing as an "Obama Doctrine".

At long last, Mr Obama seems to have understood the importance of addressing such criticism: He is planning a number of speeches over the next few months outlining his security vision. But the US is already paying a price. American diplomats have to work harder in order to dispel a perceived image of weakness, as did the President himself during his recent Asia tour. And it may well be too late for Mr Obama to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

For things don't look bright when the most frequent epitaphs used for Mr Obama's foreign policy are concepts such "leading from behind" or drawing "red lines" which miraculously vanish.