Obama has performed much better in foreign policy than in domestic policy, which is all the more surprising given the weak hand that he was dealt: an America that had lost its moral authority, its military invincibility, and its credibility as an economic model.
It's almost as if our successes and gains on the world stage are just a misleading prologue to the inescapable difficulties to follow. It's only a bit about Obama. He has managed to transition us out of the immediate predicaments of the Bush years. He's checked some important items (bin Laden) off the list. He's avoided making an overt enemy out of Russia and prevented war with Iran while finishing up operations in Iraq -- two hugely significant accomplishments. But that 'weak hand' Obama received was actually tremendously favorable to his aims -- dialing back traditional applications of American force, wringing maximum symbolic value from a minimum of prestige-raising and shows of good faith. And the global situation remains so inauspicious that even his administration's achievements are nowhere near enough, and could even be reduced to irrelevance.
"It is easy to focus on what has not been achieved," Slaughter concedes, "because Obama raised high expectations and then failed to deliver." But the real shortcomings have little to do with an inability to execute developed plans. Often, the administration has dealt energetically with the urgent at the expense of the important. There seems to be no effort to comprehend the political roots of Europe's economic crisis, or to weight relations with allies accordingly. Our relationship with India has been permitted to drift. A question mark hangs over the whole matter of America's grand strategy post-GWOT. (Remember, the war on terror is over.)
It's not easy to formulate a good grand strategy, and that goes double at the present moment. But it's obligatory. The administration's response to the ongoing collapse of political authority in the Arab world can be characterized as ad hoc at best. US-Pakistan relations are an unfolding disaster. The president's longstanding goal of fighting and winning 'the real war' in Afghanistan is morphing into an embrace of a quasi-imperial garrisoning operation, with too little fight and too little win to command the support of the American people.
It was essential to buy the US some breathing room in 2008 and 2009. Last year was the moment to pivot into action. Action came to Iran, in the form of Stuxnet and related operations, which hobbled Tehran's nuclear program just at the moment that the Arab rebellions were crippling its regional influence. But nowhere else has buying time accomplished more for the administration than a good kick to the proverbial can. One needn't despise the president, or even his domestic program, to fear with good reason that our current global position is a false dawn.