Obama’s Foreign Policy Paradox

Fareed Zakaria is the latest columnist to acknowledge that although President Obama’s foreign policy decisions have been largely correct, they’ve been sadly unaccompanied by any magic powers:

President Obama has not made a major mistake. He has done a skillful job steering the United States out of the muddy waters he inherited — Iraq, Afghanistan — and resisted plunging the country into another major conflict.

….Obama’s strategy of putting pressure on Moscow, using targeted sanctions and rallying support in Europe is the right one — and might even be showing some signs of paying off.

….From the Asia pivot to new trade deals to Russian sanctions, Obama has put forward an agenda that is ambitious and important, but he approaches it cautiously, as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them. Once more, with feeling, Mr. President!

I’ll concede that as a political partisan, maybe I’m cutting Obama too much slack. But I still wonder what all these critics want. I don’t mean the Bill Kristols and John McCains of the world. I know what they want: maximum confrontation, maximum bluster, and maximum military intervention. But what about the others? Like Zakaria, they sort of grudgingly recognize that Obama’s actual foreign policy actions have been about as good as they could have been, and yet they’re still unhappy. They want inspiration, dammit! They want the rest of the world to fall immediately into line. They want victory! That’s how it happens in the movies, after all. The president gives a big speech, and everyone swoons.

I wonder: Has any president in history been so widely criticized for doing everything right but not crowing loudly enough about it? I mean, it’s nice to think that a silver tongue would have gotten congressional Republicans to support intervention in Syria and Germans to approve harsher sanctions against Russia, but it’s just not so. I think everyone knows this perfectly well, but we find it so frustrating that we blame Obama for it anyway. It’s as if we’re all five-year-olds.

Which, come to think of it, maybe we are. We want this circle squared—triumph on every front but without any actual exercise of military power—and when we don’t get it we demand someone to blame, logic be damned. Before long we’re going to be holding Obama responsible for the fact that pi doesn’t equal three.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.