Published October 22, 2012
Four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama ran for the White House as the foreign policy novice -- both in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and the general election against John McCain.
That inexperience, it turned out, proved not to be an Achilles' heel.
Monday night, as commander in chief, Obama goes toe-to-toe in the third and final debate with Mitt Romney, and takes the stage as the supposed pro -- or as Romney surrogate John Sununu put it, Obama "thinks this is his sweet spot."
But a close look at Obama's four years of setting and managing America's foreign policy leaves many his successes open to interpretation -- and even more goals unfulfilled. Usama bin Laden is dead, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawing to a close, but the administration has not struck a Middle East peace plan, has not yet broken Iran's nuclear determination with sanctions and has been challenged on its claims that Al Qaeda is "on the run."
Violence in Iraq has also flared since the U.S. military withdrawal. The Guantanamo Bay prison camp is still up and running despite Obama's inaugural pledge to close it. And Russia once again has moved center stage under Vladimir Putin to more of an adversarial threat than a potential partner for peace.
The terror attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya is the latest incident to raise questions about the administration's foreign policy. And Romney on Monday night is sure to go after those challenges as he looks to undercut Obama's presidential bona fides going into the final two weeks before Election Day.
Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and one of the toughest-talking Romney surrogates on the trail, said as much Monday morning, claiming foreign policy has not been the strong suit Obama makes it out to be.
"Now the public knows what a disaster his foreign policy has been," Sununu said. "He thought he was going to sweet-talk the Muslim world into loving America."
Sununu's jab was a reference to the high-profile Cairo speech Obama gave in June 2009 to the "Muslim world" pledging a "new beginning."
Since then, like on the economy, the president can lay claim to only a mixed record.
The most prominent and controversial item on the president's checklist of accomplishments these days is his claim that Al Qaeda is "on the path to defeat." The president reiterated this claim, coupled with the reminder that Usama bin Laden is dead, in his nomination address in Charlotte, N.C., last month. But recent turmoil, including the terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, has brought the assertion into question.
While the administration has equivocated on the nature of the Sept. 11 attack, Republican lawmakers have accused the White House of downplaying the terrorism angle -- at least at the beginning -- to aid a "political narrative" that Al Qaeda is on the run.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Monday accused the administration of doing so again, with intelligence leaks over the weekend once more pointing to protests over an anti-Islam film as the spark for the attack. "That's the political narrative that probably helps them the most," he said.
Obama, in making his Al Qaeda claims, points to the raid that took out bin Laden, and he references -- though not publicly -- drone strikes that have taken out dozens of militant leaders including American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki .
After briefly dropping the claim that Al Qaeda is on the run from his stump speech, the president is using it again. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., went further in a memo Monday, writing: "Under President Obama's leadership, we have devastated Al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Critics of the Obama foreign policy, though, point to rising Al Qaeda influence in areas outside those two countries -- like the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
And in Iraq, the Associated Press reported this month that the Al Qaeda contingent has more than doubled in a year -- from 1,000 to 2,500 fighters.
The president has also faced scrutiny for his handling of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program, with Romney claiming the administration has not been tough enough on the regime.
Though subject to round after round of sanctions, Iran has remained defiant. A New York Times story over the weekend claimed the U.S. and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks for the first time - the White House, though, denied it.
Another unfulfilled agenda item Romney could seize on Monday is the Middle East peace process. In September 2010, Obama brought Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to resume direct talks in pursuit of a two-state solution.
But the process has sputtered since then. Netanyahu recently restated his intent to continue construction in East Jerusalem, territory the Palestinians want for a future state, angering Palestinian leaders. Meanwhile, the unilateral push by the Palestinians for statehood recognition before the U.N. has angered Israeli leaders.
And when it comes to that region, both Netanyahu and Obama have been more focused of late on dissuading Iran from building a nuclear weapon than forging a two-state solution.
Finally, the Arab Spring and its repercussions are sure to factor broadly in Monday's debate. The Obama administration took strikingly different actions in response to uprisings in each of those countries. The administration abandoned Hosni Mubarak in Egypt but did not take any military action to help overthrow him. By contrast, the administration and its NATO allies effectively joined the fight -- with air power -- to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Yet in Syria, where the bloodshed has continued unabated for a year and a half, the U.S. has not gotten involved militarily.
Romney, in a distinction that could surface at Monday's debate, recently expressed support for arming the opposition in Syria.
But Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said Obama will stress "peace and prosperity" onstage in Boca Raton, Fla., and will give voters a reason to send him into a second term.
"I think starting tonight, you're going to hear exactly that from President Obama," she said.