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President Obama Following Roosevelt’s Lead on Foreign Policy

Steve Westly – Former CA State Controller;  Managing Partner, The Westly Group Posted: 01/23/2012 5:18 pm

In December, President Obama laid out his economic and social values in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech that railed against the greed of corporate America and was a pillar of the Progressive movement. The intent was clear — to draw a parallel between the battles Roosevelt waged against the robber barons of the early 20th century and President Obama’s fight with Congressional Republicans and the special interests that support them.

Lost in the comparison of the two presidents’ domestic records are the similarities they share on foreign policy. With public attention largely focused on jobs and the economy, President Obama has quietly become one of the most effective foreign policy presidents of the last 50 years.

In 1907, President Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet of warships to foreign capitals around the world to demonstrate American sea power. It was a masterstroke that engendered both respect and fear from foreign governments.

The Obama administration embodies Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach. On the biggest foreign policy challenges — the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Iraq, Libya, and negotiating the new START Treaty — President Obama has demonstrated a quiet resolve, the confidence to let other nations lead, and a willingness to use force when necessary.

When it comes to speaking softly, the operation to track and kill Osama Bin Laden was the best kept government secret in years. President Obama showed unflinching courage sending a Navy SEAL team into Pakistan knowing the dangers on the ground and that an unsuccessful mission would be devastating for America’s image abroad. But in one swift stroke, President Obama was able to do what President Bush was never able to accomplish.

The president has shown equal perseverance by steadily removing all troops from Iraq. While the Pentagon pushed forcefully for a longer timetable for removal, Obama stepped up the timetable knowing that U.S. troops would be a crutch for Iraq as long as they were present. There were 150,000 troops in Iraq when the president took office — by the end of 2011 that number was zero.

In Libya, President Obama moved even more decisively. By working quickly behind the scenes, the president was able to create a strong coalition with traditional allies like France and England, as well as key Muslim countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. This gave the NATO-led mission the strength and credibility it needed to help Libyan rebels remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Putting this coalition together was key to bringing an end to the Gaddafi regime less than six months after the operation began without any American casualties. While Obama was attacked by the both the left and the right for taking action, he now looks prescient.

President Obama’s ability to bring disparate parties together extends beyond emergency situations. When it came time to negotiate a new START treaty with Russia, the president brokered a deal that won the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Howard Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. The treaty is crucial to the long-term security of the U.S. and President Obama acted as the bipartisan adult in the room as Senate Republicans dragged their feet on ratification.

Without much fanfare, Obama has methodically forged stronger ties abroad and become one of the more successful foreign policy presidents since FDR. There are challenges ahead – the rise of China, Afghan insurgencies, the push for Palestinian statehood, and the continuing Arab Spring — but the president has proven he is up to the job.

Teddy Roosevelt once said: “Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.” President Obama has mastered that lesson and we are all safer for it.

Steve Westly is Managing Partner of The Westly Group. He served as California State Controller from 2003 to 2007 and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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