On the face of it, President Barack Obama's foreign policy is not at all terrible. He ended U.S. military involvement in Iraq. He is severely reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He kept U.S. involvement in Libya to a reasonable minimum, and has not gotten drawn into the infernally complex civil war in Syria. Meanwhile, his secretary of state, John Kerry, is engaged in the first serious attempt at achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in 13 years, even while Obama has kept his trigger-finger calm on Iran, thus positioning the United States for some sort of rapprochement with Tehran in the event that the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is serious about improving relations. Moreover, given the humanitarian impulses of his new national security adviser and U.N. ambassador, Obama can now more easily talk like an idealist while practicing realism: the combination that usually works in foreign affairs.
Helping Obama is the fact that the Republican Party presently offers no serious alternative. The GOP appears torn between isolationists and neoconservatives. Isolationism is simply not a viable viewpoint in an age of globalization when geopolitics requires a sustained engagement with the world. Neoconservatism, meanwhile -- a combination of nationalism and extreme Wilsonianism -- has a tendency to see military force as a first resort, rather than as a last resort. And it is as a last resort with which most Americans are comfortable. Republicans were politically strongest when their foreign policy emanated a unified, pragmatic internationalism. That is not the case at the moment.
So with Obama's foreign policy not at all terrible, and with the Republicans not wholly serious, why is there such dissatisfaction with the administration's approach to the world? True, the media is never satisfied and the 24/7 news cycle means any administration is now always on the defensive, no matter what it does. But that does not quite account for the realization among many serious, bipartisan people in Washington that Obama's record is -- at least so far -- forgettable.
There is simply not the excitement that accompanied the diplomatic forays of Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke. There is not the sense of profound deftness in reaction to momentous geopolitical events that accompanied the performance of the elder Bush's administration; nor is there is the dramatic sense of purpose that accompanied so much of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. Indeed, Kissinger, Holbrooke, and the secretaries of state of both Reagan and the elder Bush were often so adroit at talking to the media that they practically wrote their lead paragraphs for them. That is not the case with the Obama team.
The media shapes not only public opinion but also elite opinion. And with past administrations there was, at the very least, the media intuition that something was happening in foreign policy; the current media intuition is that despite episodic news events that must be reported on, nothing is happening.
Nothing is happening because Obama has no grand geopolitical conception. He and his top officials are not great European-style improvisers like Kissinger. They don't have a plan for America, like Holbrooke had, to be a great moral force while promoting its geopolitical interests at the same time. They don't intend to upend a utopian ideology (communism) like Reagan did. And unlike the elder Bush team, they have no design for stabilizing the world once that ideology was, in fact, upended. (After all, jihadism and terrorism are disease germs like malaria, which can be suppressed but probably not wholly eliminated. This is a different order of threat from communism.) In sum, Obama offers only a negative: I am not George W. Bush. He started wars. I will end them, and avoid future ones. I will kill individual terrorists as they crop up. That's all, thank you.
You see the problem. It is not enough to communicate what you won't do; in foreign policy you have to provide a sense of mission, however nuanced or modest that mission may be. A mission or a conception provides direction. A direction, in turn, connects your actions in each geographical area of the world. With Obama nothing seems to be tied together.