President Barack Obama’s late-winter globetrotting cannot be written off as an attempt to cover up a foreign policy on life support.
The world, to be sure, has not gone in the direction Obama sought when he took office eight years ago.
The idea of his much-hailed 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he foretold a more constructive relationship with the Muslim world, now rings hollow with the emergence of the Islamic State and continuing Sunni-Shia conflict.
Obama now is adding U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — precisely the opposite of what he had hoped to do. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to peace than they were in 2009.
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To be sure, Obama inherited a bad set of circumstances. Iraq in 2009 was already destabilized by the ill-advised Bush administration intervention of 2003 that ignited a Shiite-Sunni conflict that has not only enveloped Iraq but that now pits Iran against Saudi Arabia throughout the region.
Despite these challenges, Obama’s recent trips have been more than window dressing. His venture to Cuba was aimed at accelerating the evolution of a relationship that could see an end to our economic blockade of the island.
His stop in Argentina after leaving Cuba was focused on fostering a close relationship with a major South American country that has just experienced a major change in leadership.
Obama’s stop in Germany came in the midst of the immigration crisis that is in part a spillover from the conflicts in the Middle East that we have spawned. Obama is in a tight spot on that issue because Congress opposes allowing any significant influx of refugees from those conflicts into the United States
The stay in Saudi Arabia was aimed at encouraging Saudi King Salman to curb his disastrous bombing campaign in Yemen that has come about because of the Saudi contention with Iran, which backs one of the Yemeni factions. The Saudi bombing in Yemen has only prolonged a civil conflict and has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
One aspect of the Saudi foray is that Obama is trying to keep Congress from passing a statute that would strip Saudi Arabia of immunity from civil suits now filed against it in the United States over allegations that it was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Saudi Arabia may withdraw billions in investments in the United States if the statute passes, because the statute would let victims get at those assets. The proposed statute would erode a basic principle of law that governments are not subject to suit in the courts of other countries.
That is a principle that often works to the benefit of the United States. It protects the United States from being sued abroad, for example, by victims of our unfortunate bombing last year of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
Obama might have done more on some issues. He could have joined Europe to make a coordinated effort at peace between Palestine and Israel. Success on that conflict might have blunted the anti-Americanism that spawns anti-American terrorism.
But the president continues to protect Israel at the United Nations by threatening vetoes in the security council on anti-Israel resolutions. He keeps Palestine out of the U.N. He has kept up, even increased, financial aid to Israel. We continue to be viewed in the Middle East as Israel’s godfather.
Obama could have ignored the ill-framed advice in 2011 of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who advocated intervening in Libya. That intervention destabilized not only Libya but much of North Africa. The chaos in Libya has given the Islamic State a foothold there.
Overall, however, Obama has shown restraint. If he is succeeded by Hillary Clinton, who is more inclined to shoot without considering consequences, we might wish we had him back.
John B. Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at the Ohio State University. He is the author of 11 books on various aspects of international law. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, OH 43210.