The Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, has produced a host of apparently strong reasons why U.S. president Barack Obama should remain in the White House for the next four years. Yet, even though Obama’s speech was solid when he accepted the party’s nomination and former president Bill Clinton’s long talk sounded convincing to many, this year’s U.S. election looks as close as ever. In this final lap of the campaign season, Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, are running neck and neck, separated by the statistical margin of error. The actual popular vote in November may even be closer than that. Still, officials in Moscow at least would likely prefer to continue dealing with the leader they know.
In Charlotte, Clinton, and Obama himself, sought to stress the president’s strong record on foreign policy and national security—historically the Democrats’ weak spot. Obama’s record is impressive, in particular in addressing the international terrorism threat; he did, after all, get Osama bin Laden. In general, Obama’s foreign policy has begun adjusting U.S. international goals to domestic resources and prioritizing cooperation with other world actors.
The president has kept his promise to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and is winding down operations in Afghanistan. Neither country is stable, but at least they will not be of direct and immediate concern to Washington. Recognizing the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific, Obama has focused more on the rising region and on the power in the middle of it all—China. He has generally managed the complex and complicated relationship with China while avoiding a confrontation with Beijing.
Obama signaled that he was on the “right side of history” by supporting popular revolutions in the Arab world that toppled pro-U.S. ruling autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. The arrival of Islamists in power has tested Obama’s sense of realism and his capacity for flexibility. Even as he helped oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, he prudently avoided getting bogged down in another war in a Muslim country, against which his former defense secretary Robert Gates had warned. He has managed to support the domestic armed opposition to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad without, so far, interfering militarily in that country—and while largely placing the onus for the widening civil war there on Moscow’s aversion to intervention.
While Tehran’s nuclear program remains a major issue for the United States, Obama’s White House has toughened sanctions against Iran and has orchestrated Europe’s unprecedented oil embargo on the country. He has reconfigured the Bush administration’s missile defense design for Europe to address the immediate potential threat posed by existing Iranian missiles and those Iran might develop in the foreseeable future. He has sought to protect Israel, while thus far dissuading it from attacking Iranian nuclear assets itself, which would draw the United States into the fray. Obama’s support for Israel comes with reservations about Israeli settlement policies: a hard but necessary balancing act if Washington doesn’t want to lose the Arabs altogether.
Still popular with the Europeans, Obama has famously “reset” relations with Russia, which allowed him to move ahead with the arms control agenda and keep supply lines to and from Afghanistan open. He consolidated the Bush administration’s opening to India and recognized Brazil’s importance as a new great power. He established closer relations with several key regional players, including Turkey, Indonesia, and South Korea. In an environment of global financial crisis, Obama’s administration promoted free trade with trading partners and helped Russia finally join the World Trade Organization.
Initially inexperienced in world affairs, Obama has chosen an extraordinary team to assist him with implementing foreign and security policy, including the indomitable Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (and before him, Robert Gates); National Security Adviser Tom Donilon; United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice; and General David Petraeus at the CIA. Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, has contributed a few decades’ worth of experience in foreign affairs. Throughout the four years of the administration, this team has managed to stick together and control their egos: something never to be taken for granted.
If the Kremlin had the right to vote in the U.S. election, it would definitely cast its ballot for Obama. In a recent RT interview Vladimir Putin suggested that his concern was that Obama’s more enlightened approach to international relations was being eroded by the more conservative State Department bureaucracy, undercut by the more hawkish groups at the Pentagon, and challenged from the outside by the Republicans. The Russian president does not think a Romney victory would be a disaster, but he clearly understands that it would lead to a pause of several months in which the new administration would conduct a policy review and sort out its priorities. Romney’s tent is simply too wide-ranging to point to policies likely to emerge from his White House.
Even if Obama is reelected, however, much of his team will be new. Biden, of course, will stay, but Clinton has stated she will leave. The longtime favorite for the job of secretary of state, Senator John Kerry, faces challengers, including Susan Rice, Vitaly Churkin’s strong opposition at the United Nations Security Council; Tom Donilon; and even Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and now president of the Brookings Institution. The Pentagon may see its first-ever female secretary, Michèle Flournoy; and the CIA may get a new director.
Regularly rotating top officials ensures that experience is spread more widely and policy corrections are made sooner rather than later. It is truly amazing that the United States, which has held presidential elections every four years since the post was first created just before the French Revolution and in which few cabinet members serve out their presidents’ full terms in office, has more consistency in its domestic constitution and in foreign policy than most other nations. And, by and large, it has had more success.