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Obama's Foreign Policy Platform

Running On His Record


Updated February 25, 2012

President Barack Obama's foreign policy has been a mixture of multilateralism and bold action. Obama's campaign website does not delve into specific foreign policy issues. Rather, his record forms the basis of his foreign policy platform in the 2012 presidential election.


Obama has elevated the importance of multilateralism in American foreign policy. Multilateralism is simply moving in policy directions with the assent and cooperation of other nations. Multilateralism is directly counter to unilateralism, or taking policy actions alone. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, unilaterally took the United States out of the Kyoto Protocols, and threatened unilateral action if no coalition formed behind the U.S. in the War on Terror.

Obama has most famously acted multilaterally in the NATO intervention during the Libyan civil war of 2011. Obama committed U.S. air and naval forces to secure a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Muammar Qaddafi's forces from massacring Libyan rebels. After the no-fly zone was secure, Obama let other NATO nations lead in supporting rebels.

Republicans has criticized Obama for "leading from behind." Nevertheless, the multilateral strategy worked: Libyan rebels deposed -- then killed -- Qaddafi, and the U.S. was able to support them while avoiding immersion in another war and keeping its combatants relatively safe.

Grappling With Iraq and Afghanistan

Obama won the presidency, in part, because of American war weariness. In 2008 the U.S. had been at war in Afghanistan for seven years, in Iraq for five.

Obama quickly announced troop decreases in Iraq, and the end of American military missions there at the end of 2011. Combat troops officially pulled out of Iraq before Christmas 2011.

Obama, however, was not able to quickly end the Afghan war. The Taliban, which has supported Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist group and which U.S. troops had knocked from power in late 2011, had launched an insurgency against U.S. and Afghan troops. Instead of being able to bring American forces home, Obama announced a surge of troops to fight the resurgent Taliban. The surge having succeeded to a qualified degree, Obama has announced that troops will leave Afghanistan by 2013.

Killing Bin Laden

On May 1, 2011, Obama announced that U.S Navy SEALS, acting on information U.S. intelligence had received from Afghanistan and Pakistan, had raided an enclosed compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden, head of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, had been the initial mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He had topped the FBI's "most wanted" list for nearly a decade.

Former President George W. Bush had virtually given up on finding Bin Laden, who had eluded Americans and allied Afghans in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in December 2001. Military insiders later claimed that Bush's war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, diverted needed manpower, money, and equipment necessary to find Bin Laden, tear down Al Qaeda, and fight the Taliban (which had backed Al Qaeda) in Afghanistan.

Upon taking office in 2009, Obama ordered U.S. military and intelligence units to get Bin Laden. When intelligence revealed Bin Laden was in Pakistan, Obama rightly reverted to unilateral action ordering an American strike without alerting allies. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Obama's ordering of the Bin Laden strike was "one of the most courageous calls . . . that I think I've ever seen a president make."

The Bin Laden raid cast doubt on Pakistan's alliance with the United States in the War on Terror because Bin Laden had been in Pakistan for several years. While Congress threatened to cut foreign aid to Pakistan, Obama has limited his criticism of Pakistan. He knows that Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the east, is central to a stable Afghanistan when the U.S. ends its military deployment there in 2013.

In September 2011, Obama gave the order for U.S. drone aircraft to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American who had become a top leader in Al Qaeda. Al-Awlaki died in a successful drone raid inside Yemen on September 30. That marked the first time that an American president had given a specific order to target an American citizen. Civil liberties groups unsuccessfully challenged the killing on the grounds of al-Awlaki citizenship.

Other Efforts

In other foreign policy efforts, Obama has:

  • Led the U.S. and other western nations in levying harsh sanctions against Iran to keep it from funding nuclear development with oil sales.
  • Ordered the U.S. state department to orchestrate sanctions against Syria to halt Bashar al-Assad's brutal massacre of his own people. At this writing, the sanctions have not worked, and Russia and China are opposed to additional measures. Assad's crackdown continues.
  • Begun repositioning the United States for a larger presence in the Asia Pacific region to counter growing Chinese preeminence in there.
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