It has not been a very good month for President Obama when it comes to foreign policy. Despite his personal entreaties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay out of the Ukrainian civil conflict, photos released today by American intelligence sources indicate the Russian military is firing artillery from Russian soil on behalf of the Ukrainian separatists. This comes on the heels of the shootdown, allegedly by those same separatists using a Russian surface-to-air missile, of a Malaysian civilian airliner that killed 298 people. Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry has had no success in brokering a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, where the Israeli invasion, about to enter its third week, has led to the deaths of at least 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in addition to the more than 40 Israeli fatalities.
While these two crises dominate the headlines for now, other foreign policy trouble spots continue to fester. In Syria, the civil war enters its fourth year and has cost more than 170,000 lives with no sign that the increasingly fractious U.S.-backed rebels will be able to overthrow the Syrian leader Bashar Assad without direct U.S. military intervention – which Obama so far has resisted. In Iraq, on the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal, unexpected territorial gains by the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq threaten to split that country into three partitions and, possibly, ignite another sectarian conflict. In Libya, less than three years after Obama helped depose dictator Muammar Gaddafi via a multi-nation military intervention, rival militias fight for power amid a deteriorating security situation and in the absence of any real civil authority. And in Afghanistan, where Obama’s three-year military surge recently wound down, there are growing doubts regarding whether the American-trained Afghan forces can beat back a Taliban resurgence, even as political infighting threatens to break apart the fragile civilian government.
Not surprisingly, conservative critics blame Obama for what they believe to be his failed leadership style which they argue has contributed to his inability to effectively address any of these foreign policy crises. Charles Krauthammer berates the “vacant presidency”, arguing that Obama’s “detachment — the rote, impassive voice — borders on dissociation.” A.B Stoddard, in urging Obama to “act presidential” writes, “He could acknowledge that Americans find it comforting and appropriate for their president to be present in a crisis, let alone during many at once, and not simply speaking to a bank of cameras stationed outside some incongruous setting.” Even Obama’s supporters wonder whether he can rescue his “sputtering” presidency, while more neutral observers debate whether he has achieved lame-duck status with unusual rapidity.
In assessing these criticisms, one is struck by how the adjectives used to criticize Obama’s leadership style now reference the very same traits that supporters praised on the eve of his election in 2008. Five years ago Obama was viewed as “pragmatic” – but now he lacks guiding principles. Then supporters praised his thoughtfulness – now he is passive. “Patient” has become “reactive”. At the same time polls suggest attitudes are softening a bit toward Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, who not so long ago left office criticized for his rash (proactive?), impetuous (decisive?) leadership style.
The real lesson to be gleaned from these shifting standards of evaluation is not that the pundits are fickle, or that the public does not know what it wants in terms of leadership style. It is that the foreign policy problems presidents confront are often inherently intractable, with no cost-free solution available. Bush invaded Iraq, successfully overthrew a dictator, and yet that decision set in motion a train of events that has led to the current crisis there. (I leave it to partisans to debate how much Obama’s failure to maintain a military presence in Iraq contributed to the current state of affairs.) On the other hand, Obama has refused to intervene in Syria, and the situation there is no less dire. In Libya, Obama chose not to go it alone and instead to operate as part of a multinational force, but results are arguably no better. In Afghanistan, he initially doubled down on Bush’s military intervention, and then largely withdrew U.S. military forces, and yet the long-run prospects for a stable government there remain grim.
Yes, each of these situations is unique in important respects. Moreover, partisans on both sides can and will argue the merits of their preferred leader’s particular choices. But to the objective observer it often seems that presidents are damned if they do intervene, damned if they do not, and damned if they opt to do both. It is hard to see how changes in leadership styles, at least as characterized in the short-hand jargon of political pundits, has had much impact on presidents’ ability to effectively address any of these international crises. Instead, the lesson seems clear – a president’s ability to “solve” foreign policy crises has much less to do with his (someday her) personal leadership qualities, and everything to do with the nature of the crises themselves. When there are no good solutions, changing leadership styles is hardly likely to matter, despite what partisans critics on both sides of the political aisle would have us believe.