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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Mix of muscularity and restraint a boon for Obama's foreign policy Add to ...

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy that his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has so little to criticize about it. When Mr. Romney does offer criticisms, they’re invariably either full of hot air or substantively dumb – or both.

Mr. Obama inherited, we should all remember, a country whose international reputation had sagged, to put matters mildly, under the presidency of George W. Bush.

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The first thing Mr. Obama did was remove the senseless swagger that had characterized too much of the Bush approach to the world. Mr. Obama understood that his country is powerful but not all-powerful. He understood complexity in a way Mr. Bush did not. He also grasped that the fiscal deficits bequeathed by the Bush years – deficits greatly compounded by the 2008 financial meltdown and his own government’s stimulus package – would limit his country’s ability to throw itself at every world problem.

Mixing muscularity with restraint, Mr. Obama handled the sprawling challenges of terrorism and political change in the Middle East as well as such unpredictable events could likely be managed. He extricated his country from Iraq and will do so in Afghanistan, leaving both largely to their own uncertain devices.

Of course, there were nasty surprises – in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere – but no president could eliminate them all. And he wisely kept the United States out of direct intervention in Syria, played only a supportive albeit important role in regime change in Libya and resisted the push to recklessly attack Iran, the consequences of which would be lasting and almost entirely negative.

During their foreign policy debate Monday, Mr. Romney displayed the hubris of the powerful and the ignorance of the uninformed when he said that what his country lacked was a comprehensive approach to pacifying the turbulence of the Middle East and turning nations there more to America’s way of seeing the world. A more fruitless objective could scarcely be imagined, given the variety of countries and challenges across the region.

Nor was there much Mr. Obama could do while Russia reverted to its age-old habits of authoritarianism and Great Power pretense under Vladimir Putin. Mr. Obama tried to “reset” the relationship with Russia, but there’s a limit to which the autocratic Russian ruler wants anything reset, except on his own terms, either in his country or with other countries.

As for China, both candidates descended to bashing that country for a variety of bad practices, because this is what the polls suggest might be politically popular. But beyond the rhetoric, the Obama administration has handled the challenges of a more assertive China with considerable sophistication, witness to which is the lineup of Asian countries encircling China that want American leadership in the region.

And as for the European Union, just what was Mr. Obama supposed to do about the Europeans’ inability to normalize their own economies, what with some doing well, others doing poorly, and Britain, as always, sitting on the sidelines, its own economy in recession, lecturing the continent on what to do?

Yes, there have been a few protectionist measures implemented or attempted by the Obama administration, but these have been relatively few in number, given the political pressures in the U.S. to blame others for the country’s chronic trade deficit.

With Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama used a “team of rivals” strategy, making her Secretary of State, a post she has occupied with indefatigable energy and a steady hand. She’s respected and liked around the world.

Speaking of which, a BBC World Service opinion poll showed this week that people in 20 of 21 countries surveyed preferred Mr. Obama to Mr. Romney, with support highest in France, Australia, Canada (66 per cent), Nigeria and Britain; of the 21,797 people surveyed, an average of 50 per cent preferred Mr. Obama and 9 per cent Mr. Romney, with the rest offering no opinion.

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