RSS
Why Obama will likely be most remembered for his foreign policy
Thanks to an obstinate Congress, Obama's signature successes come from abroad
President Obama ended the war in Afghanistan after a decade-long insurgence. 
President Obama ended the war in Afghanistan after a decade-long insurgence.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A

week ago, when the Obama administration announced it had come to an agreement with Iran to dial back the country's nuclear enrichment program for six months, the deal was met with much fanfare, as well as a good bit of criticism. But it was a historic step forward for the two countries, whose leaders hadn't even spoken in more than three decades before this fall.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that Americans favor the accord by a 2-to-1 margin, despite opposition from Congress. So far, the deal looks like yet another win for President Obama in the foreign policy arena. And, as the problems with the ObamaCare rollout continue to plague the White House's top domestic priorities, his accomplishments abroad will mostly likely continue to overshadow his work back home.

Consider the following successes. During his first term, Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which decreased strategic nuclear stockpiles by about 30 percent and renewed inspections of both countries' arsenals. He ordered the strike that killed Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, after a 10-year search. He played his cards right in Libya, helping end Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year reign with minimal cost to the United States.

And, perhaps most importantly, after decade-long misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama announced an end to those wars and began reorienting U.S. interests away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The move is designed to acknowledge the strategic economic importance of our Asian trading partners, develop ties with emerging powerhouses like Indonesia, and provide a counterweight to China's growing military strength in the region. As Asia's importance and influence grow in the coming years, this might go down as one of Obama's most important accomplishments — if he can finish pulling it off.

Granted, he's had foreign policy missteps. His dithering around Syria's chemical weapons comes to mind, as does the ill-fated military surge in Afghanistan. And much of his foreign policy success is due to the fact that an obstinate Congress hasn't been able to hamper his efforts. All presidents have much more freedom as commanders-in-chief (the last time Congress actually declared war was in 1942) and in conducting diplomacy than they do in enacting legislation on the home front.

And the home front has been hard, to say the least.

In many ways, Obama's domestic policy was set in 2010 with the passage of health-care reform. Yes, there have been successes since then, especially on gay rights, but that was never an issue he led on. Moreover, his early achievements aren't as sweeping as his conservative critics like to say. The Affordable Care Act was a major victory — one that several presidents had tried to push through Congress and failed — but ultimately, it didn't revolutionize the insurance system the way a single-payer model would have. And despite Obama's massive 2009 stimulus, unemployment remains stubbornly above 7 percent. Many of his remaining top priorities, including climate change legislation and immigration reform, are not likely to make much headway in this divided Congress.

Given his record to date and the slim chance for serious domestic achievements, it looks increasingly likely that Obama's greatest legacy will be his foreign policy record. This is surprising given his humble foreign policy beginnings.

In 2008, when he was running for president, one of the chief criticisms of then-candidate Obama (who had only been a senator for three years) was that he didn't have the foreign policy chops to be an effective leader of the free world. In the past five years, he's proved those critics wrong.

Laura Colarusso
Laura Colarusso is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She has previously written for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, the Washington Monthly and The Daily Beast.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week