Barack Obama’s Crash Course in Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s Crash Course in Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s Crash Course in Foreign Policy

After eight years on the job and many mistakes, he has gone from callow rookie to seasoned veteran.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.

Barack Obama will bequeath to his successor the two wars he inherited from his predecessor. At least in the near term, that unwelcome fact will define his legacy as a statesman.

As a candidate for president back in 2008, Obama had promised, if elected, to end the Iraq War and to win the war in Afghanistan. He failed on both counts. In retrospect, the expectations—his own and ours—that he would make good on those promises appear embarrassingly naive.

Elect a rookie to fill the most powerful post in the world and you get rookie mistakes, with American soldiers paying in blood to educate their commander in chief. Bill Clinton’s education came in 1993, when a recklessly conceived nation-building project in Somalia came precariously close to replaying Custer’s Last Stand. The education of George W. Bush commenced precisely a decade later in Iraq, when an even more recklessly conceived stab at regime change produced an epic quagmire.

Like Clinton and the younger Bush, the callow Obama arrived in the Oval Office largely unschooled in the arts of statecraft. For advice and counsel, of course, he, like they, recruited a coterie of impressively credentialed “wise men” (and women) ostensibly well versed in the ways of the world and the workings of government. Yet résumés do not necessarily connote actual wisdom; when it comes to decisions, presidents are on their own.

Once in office, Obama wasted no time addressing the two wars that were now his. And with reason: Concluding the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq on some approximation of favorable terms formed the condition for pursuing his far more ambitious goal, enunciated in his June 2009 Cairo speech, of making “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” As long as US forces occupied Muslim-majority countries, no such new beginning was likely to occur.

With an eye toward bringing the Iraq War to “a responsible end,” Obama tacitly endorsed the Republican view that the 2007–08 “surge” engineered by Gen. David Petraeus had resulted in a historic victory, thereby positioning Iraq to stand on its own. Recall that in national-security circles, the term “surge” had at this juncture acquired magical connotations. After years of fumbling that had tarnished the US military’s reputation for invincibility, here, it seemed, was evidence that novel tactics, a skillful and media-savvy field commander, and a modest increase in troops offered a way to put things right. Whether out of conviction or expediency, Obama himself briefly subscribed to such expectations, or at least pretended to.

So, in Afghanistan, the president signed off on a reapplication of the formula, with Gen. Stanley McChrystal expected to replicate Petraeus’s role in saving the day. In the event, Surge 2.0 fizzled, taking with it any further enthusiasm for counterinsurgency and faith in “savior generals.” The Afghan War has now become a conflict that the United States no longer expects to win but merely hopes to manage. Its 15th anniversary has just passed.

Worse still, back in Iraq, the gains made by Surge 1.0 proved to be partial and reversible. At the end of 2011, adhering to the schedule established by his predecessor, Obama withdrew the last US troops, assuring Americans that “the tide of war is receding.” But the president spoke prematurely: Soon enough, the tide reversed itself. By the summer of 2014, a freshly minted jihadist entity was making its appearance, the bastard child of Bush’s grandly named Operation Iraqi Freedom. With shocking ease, this new organization—variously known as the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh—put to flight an Iraqi Army that the United States had spent years rebuilding. Iraq itself once more became a US bombing range, and a deployment of several thousand ground troops followed.

Although the Obama administration was loath to say so outright, the Iraq War had resumed. Worse, that conflict soon became inextricably tangled with a multisided civil war of baffling complexity in neighboring Syria. There, too, despite an evident lack of enthusiasm on Obama’s part, the United States became a combatant. As in Afghanistan, no clear path to victory presented itself.

Unintended Consequences

Obama’s inability to shut down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone probably doomed any prospects for a “new beginning” with the Islamic world. Yet elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, he did himself no favors. To his credit, the president forswore neocon fantasies of invading and occupying countries as a way of making friends and spreading democracy. That said, Obama was slow to challenge the assumption, to which US administrations going back to the 1980s have stubbornly adhered, that the United States has the capacity to shape events in that part of the world and therefore an obligation to do just that.

Überhawks like John McCain rail at Obama for having “sounded retreat across the Middle East.” That charge doesn’t square with the facts. A more accurate, although hardly more favorable, verdict is this: Following in the path of his predecessors over the previous third of a century, President Obama continued an open-ended trial-and-error experiment aimed at translating US military might into some sort of desired political outcome.

So while his administration jettisoned the phrase “Global War on Terror” upon taking office, the war itself continued and has even expanded. Whatever the Nobel committee’s expectations when it decided to award Obama the peace prize, the president has shown no aversion to violence. Short of invade-and-occupy, the Obama White House considers few military options off-limits, especially in the Islamic world.

As others have noted, hit-and-run commando raids of the sort that killed Osama bin Laden and missile-firing drones employed to assassinate jihadist leaders have emerged as the twin signatures of commander in chief Obama’s MO. That said, the precedent-setting Stuxnet cyberattack that disabled Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, the large-scale air campaign that helped depose Libya’s Moammar El-Gadhafi in 2011, and the escalating intervention in Syria—several thousand air strikes and counting—all testify to Obama’s affinity for coercion, employing whatever means happen to be at hand.

In terms of results, what has all of this activism produced? Overall, US military exertions under Obama have tended to be ineffective or to yield consequences other than those intended. In the case of Libya, which became home to a virulent new ISIS franchise, intervention made matters much worse. In no quarter of the Islamic world where US forces have been engaged since Obama took office—including western Africa, site of an expanding but underreported US military presence—has Washington achieved anything remotely approaching definitive success. The administration can rightly claim to have made some headway in reclaiming parts of ISIS-occupied Iraq. But victory there remains a distant prospect.

More broadly, Obama’s distinctive approach to conducting war has had the paradoxical effect of desensitizing the American public to war’s perpetuation. Reducing US casualties and moderating financial costs, as Obama has done, drains war itself of domestic political significance. That US forces are more or less permanently engaged in active combat on the far side of the planet has become one of those things that Americans today simply accept, like persistent budget deficits or periodic mass shootings. After 9/11, George W. Bush told Americans to chill out and go shopping; under Barack Obama, they have done just that. However at odds with the hopes that carried Obama into office, this too forms part of his legacy.

The fact is that, as commander in chief, Obama’s performance has been less than stellar. The Greater Middle East, a mess when he took office, will be no less a mess when he leaves it in January. Stop there, and Obama has much to answer for. True, we may be grateful that during his presidency the United States has not suffered catastrophes comparable to those that occurred during the tenure of his predecessor. But that is a very low bar for success.

Unfinished Business

In the long run, however, Obama’s fumbling performance as a war manager is unlikely to determine his overall reputation as a statesman. With time, as circumstances evolve, unpleasant memories fade and judgments soften.

Today, even ostensibly liberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton regard Henry Kissinger as a brilliant strategist, his role in orchestrating the opening with China eclipsing the brutal and purposeless escalation of the Vietnam War that he helped contrive while serving as Richard Nixon’s chief lieutenant. In the corridors of power, the Americans who were killed in Vietnam during Kissinger’s tenure count for less than the cornucopia of Asian trade and investment that he helped make possible. Obama may well benefit from a similar phenomenon, his successes as diplomat in chief eventually compensating for his indifferent record as commander in chief.

Obama will leave behind several noteworthy initiatives that may in time bear fruit and thereby elevate his standing in history. Granted, the fruits of these initiatives may in some instances turn out to be poisonous. In that sense, Obama’s reputation will partly depend on what his successors, beginning with Donald Trump, do with the things he inaugurated. Under the heading of Obama’s unfinished business, eight distinct issues stand out, listed here in ascending order of importance.

§ Cuba. Cleaning up past mistakes and liquidating policies that have outlived their utility is not the sort of work that wins plaudits, but like the proverbial guy with the broom marching behind the elephants in the circus, someone’s got to do it. President Carter was that someone when he negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty, thereby relieving the United States of a vestige of colonialism destined to become a source of ever-greater controversy— an action for which Carter received mostly brickbats from those angry that he was relinquishing “our” canal.

So too with Obama. In bringing to a close the long US estrangement from Cuba, the president did something that ought to have been done long ago. Employing economic sanctions with the expectation of overthrowing the Castro regime received more than a fair trial without evidence of success. After more than half a century, the time for trying a different tack had clearly arrived, even if Obama will receive no more credit for it than Carter did with the Panama Canal Treaty.

Similarly, in laboring to close down the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, the president has sought to reverse the most egregious unforced error of the post-9/11 era. As many have long since recognized, Guantánamo is a huge embarrassment, its existence exacerbating the very problem it purports to alleviate. Closing it will signal that the hysteria that gripped Washington immediately af- ter 9/11 has finally passed. Now that they control the White House and Congress, Republicans who opposed Obama every step of the way may claim a victory of sorts. But it is he, not they, who will receive history’s ultimate vindication.

§ Trade. Popular support for free trade is eroding. Previous deals like NAFTA have failed to live up to their promises. Globalization turns out not to be a win-win proposition after all. So, at least, it appears to the Americans struggling to make a living in the surviving pockets of the postwar industrial economy. By throwing his support behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama was, therefore, bucking strong headwinds. The president touted the TPP as “leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses, so we can export more products stamped ‘Made in America’ all over the world that support higher-paying American jobs here at home.” That’s what free-trade proponents always say, of course.

There is no doubt that international trade fuels economic expansion. But today the operative question has become this one: Cui bono? Trump promises a radically different approach to trade policy, in effect arguing that Americans need not submit to the dictates of globalization. Years will pass before his experiment yields definitive results. Only then will it be possible to render an authoritative judgment on Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

§ Russia. While visiting Moscow in 2009, President Obama called for a “reset” in US-Russian relations, adding, “The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over.” The proposed reset went nowhere. In the years since, the geopolitical chess game has resumed with a vengeance.

When vital interests are at stake, sovereign states make their own rules. Vladimir Putin has acted without hesitation in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria to secure interests he deems vital. Some observers see in Russia’s muscle-flexing the evidence of a new Cold War taking shape and urge the United States to dust off its late-1940s playbook. In Washington, where residual Russophobia flourishes, “Get tough on Moscow” is a cheap but reliable applause line.

Obama has taken a different tack. Today’s Russia is merely a “regional power,” he insists. It acts “not out of strength but out of weakness”—or, he might have said, in response to grievances made more acute by the post–Cold War expansion of NATO and the European Union up to Russia’s own borders. In dealing with the Kremlin, Obama has learned to play chess. This has not occurred without missteps. His administration’s foolish promotion of regime change in Kiev, plunging Ukraine into permanent crisis, offers an especially egregious example.

Yet, overall, Obama has acted with circumspection. Lines of communication to Moscow remain open. Where US and Russian interests align—for example, regarding Iran’s nuclear program—collaboration occurs. To reassure nervous allies on NATO’s exposed eastern flank, Obama has offered only modest US military reinforcements: a brigade headquarters in Poland, a small Air Force contingent to police Baltic air space. Without courting confrontation, the administration seeks thereby to signal that its NATO obligations remain sacrosanct—even as it chides free- riding Europeans to do more to defend themselves.

In effect, Obama classifies Russia as an annoyance—impossible to ignore, but not worth the bother of taking too seriously. At a time when there are far more important issues in play, annoyance does not justify a major reorientation of US policy priorities. For Obama, Russia is a second-tier problem. Whether this assessment will stand the test of time remains to be seen.

§ China. Near the top of the first tier sits Asia, and especially China, both as partner and competitor. In 21st-century geopolitics, no question surpasses in importance this one: How does China define its ambitions? Experts endlessly opine, but the truth is that no one knows. Indeed, the leadership in Beijing itself may not have arrived at a common view regarding China’s future as a global power.

Obama’s response to this uncertainty has emphasized hedging, marketed as a “pivot” toward Asia—a deliberate reorientation of assets and attention to a region arguably meriting more of both. Critics complain of a very long and elaborate windup that has thus far produced a slow and unimpressive pitch. If the aim is to restrain China, the results to date are disappointing. China continues to expand its military capabilities and to engage in actions that the United States deems provocative—for example, staking out territorial claims in the South China Sea. (In Washington’s view, US military activities in the region, occurring on a vastly wider scale, are by definition the inverse of provocative.)

Yet Obama’s pivot is spurring a realignment of power relationships throughout East Asia. China’s neighbors, notably the Vietnamese, see in Chinese behavior reason to cozy up to the United States. It’s Geopolitics 101, albeit complicated in this case by the fact that the power Washington seeks to contain happens to be America’s leading foreign creditor.

§ Iran. The Iran nuclear deal was far and away Obama’s boldest diplomatic gambit. In conjunction with other leading powers, and despite fierce opposition led by the Israel lobby, the administration forged an agreement that suspends Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons development program for at least the next decade in return for allowing that nation to reintegrate itself into the international community. Ensuring that Iran doesn’t join the nuclear club is an unambiguous good; ending Iranian isolation entails large risks. The jury is still out on whether Iran will choose to play a responsible role, or whether it will give credence to the charge that it remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism.

If the gamble pays off (which assumes that Trump will allow it to continue), historians may one day cite the deal as a first step toward restoring stability to the Middle East. In that case, the Nobel committee may wish to publish an addendum to the citation that accompanied Obama’s 2009 peace prize: “See, we told you he deserved it.” If the gamble fails, the committee might consider revoking the award altogether.

§ Nuclear weapons. During his May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, Obama reiterated his desire to one day see “a world without nuclear weapons.” Meanwhile, a different Barack Obama—impersonator? evil twin?—was directing the Pentagon to modernize the entire US nuclear arsenal. When completed decades from now, the Obama program will have cost taxpayers as much as $1 trillion. The nation’s nuclear strike force will have acquired better/smaller/more flexible warheads, along with new bombers, missiles, and submarines to deliver them. No doubt another president will express hopes of seeing a nuclear-weapons-free world before then.

In short, pious rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama has affirmed the position to which his predecessors since 1945 (with the arguable exception of Ronald Reagan) have all subscribed: Total nuclear disarmament poses an unacceptable risk to US national security. Only possession of a doomsday arsenal held in instant readiness to blow up the world can guarantee the nation’s safety and survival.

One can make the case that this approach has worked well enough thus far. After all, since the dawn of the nuclear era, America has successfully (if on occasion narrowly) avoided attack by the weapons that America created. Obama is betting that a further investment in nukes will keep that record intact. Should that turn out to be a miscalculation, the obloquy heaped on his head today for allowing the Benghazi consulate to be overrun, or for voiding his own “red-line” warning to Syria not to gas its own citizens, will pale in comparison.

§ Cybersecurity. Stuxnet, the 2010 Israeli-American cyberattack on an Iranian nuclear facility, was the Pearl Harbor of the information age: It inaugurated a new form of warfare but settled nothing. Americans once believed that preserving their way of life depended on ensuring access to Persian Gulf oil—an illusion resulting in a decades-long series of armed conflicts from which the United States has yet to escape. Meanwhile, ensuring the integrity of networks—business, commercial, military, and others—has become far more critical to our well-being than foreign oil ever was. Have the authorities in Washington ever so radically misconstrued the national interest?

Obama seems to grasp the significance of this misplaced emphasis. During the second year of his presidency, US Cyber Command became fully operational. Attracting less attention than the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may actually outrank those wars in importance. This latest addition to the Pentagon’s stable of major commands is charged with conducting “full- spectrum military cyberspace operations.” Although much of what the command does is classified, these operations are both offensive and defensive in nature.

Americans are to take it on faith that Cybercom has its act together. Perhaps it does. So far, at least, despite a rash of hacking by antagonists abroad, the nation’s cyberdefenses appear to be holding. We’ll know immediately when they don’t: The lights will go out and Americans will discover what it’s like to live in the 1940s.

§ Climate change. The rapidly warming planet is not an American problem; it’s a global one, which has thus far elicited more lip service than action.

Still, President Obama provided much of the impetus for the efforts that culminated in the UN’s Climate Change Conference deal (COP21 for short), approved last year in Paris by 196 nations. Among the signatories are megapolluters like India and China, along with the United States. Obama described the compact as “the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got.” It may well be—yet the progress it represents is tentative and partial. Knowing that the deal would never pass muster with the GOP-controlled Senate, Obama resorted to the dubious ploy of characterizing it as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, thereby empowering future presidents to opt out should they find it expedient to do so. Notably, President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed climate change as a “hoax,” while the 2016 Republican Party platform explicitly rejected the Paris Agreement.

Beyond that, even if the United States and other signatories remain parties to the accord, COP21 by no means solves the problem. Actual implementation poses vast challenges, and even under the most optimistic scenario, full compliance will not end global warning but merely slow it. The real hope is that COP21 will contribute to a global consensus as the basis for further action.

Ready for the Job

Put the best face on all of this, and you’re still left feeling that it remains vaguely unsatisfactory. Obama’s record falls well short of what his legions of supporters were counting on back in 2008 when they cast their votes for “hope and change.”

When it comes to foreign policy, it’s the absence of definitive outcomes that leads many to see Obama as a disappointment. The end of the Cold War bred in Americans certain convictions about the way the global order was henceforth supposed to function. In an era dominated by a single superpower, Washington would call the tune. Adversaries would think twice about challenging the “indispensable nation” and would face the wrath of the world’s most powerful military if they made the mistake of doing so. Allies would tip their caps in gratitude (and perhaps pay tribute). American values—above all, the ever-changing American conception of freedom—would prevail everywhere.

Although the events of 9/11 might have disabused Americans of such notions, George W. Bush took it upon himself to reaffirm them. Taking down the “axis of evil,” he believed, would demonstrate that the United States remains the engine of history. At the first glimmerings of success, Bush went so far as to hoist a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” This declaration of victory turned out to be mortifyingly premature. The banner remains in whatever closet to which it has long since been consigned. Barack Obama shows no inclination to pull it out.

To attend to what Obama has to say in the twilight of his presidency is to encounter someone now persuaded that the “mission,” as Washington defined it back when history itself had ostensibly ended, is a fool’s errand that should be abandoned—or at least redefined. Few in Washington are even willing to countenance such a prospect. In this regard (as in others), Obama finds himself something of a lonely figure.

The era that began with the passing of the Cold War had essentially ended by the time Obama came to office. At the time, neither he nor others understood this, of course. Even so, over the course of two terms, Obama has quietly fashioned himself into the first president of the as-yet-to-be-named era in which we now find ourselves. One of this era’s defining characteristics is that authority and responsibilities are being dispersed. The emerging order is both multipolar and radically decentralized. As a consequence, decisions made in Washington no longer determine the way the world works (assuming they ever did).

Obama gets this. In the remarkable series of interviews that form the basis of Jeffrey Goldberg’s mistitled essay “The Obama Doctrine,” published in The Atlantic in April 2016, the president offers a nuanced appreciation of the complexity defining this post-post–Cold War order. In his conversations with Goldberg, Obama suggests that doctrine itself is part of the problem: Washington’s fixation with it inhibits the ability of policy-makers to address complexity. The president goes out of his way to express his disdain for the foreign-policy establishment’s hidebound “playbook.” Thirty or 60 years ago, it may have had value; today, it offers evidence of advanced intellectual sclerosis.

Obama’s fate, at least for now, is to be judged according to criteria derived from that obsolete playbook. Over the long term, however, historians will judge him by a different standard: They may well see as Obama’s chief failing the fact that, though he recognized the Washington playbook had become outmoded, he was unable to persuade others in the political class to embrace an alternative. However obliquely, that failure contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, who recognizes no playbook whatsoever.

Throughout his life, Barack Obama has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for mastering whatever environment in which he happens to find himself. After two terms of on-the-job training, he has acquired a remarkable grasp of the intricacies of 21st-century statecraft. Now that he is constitutionally ineligible for election to the presidency, he has everything required to fill that office with great distinction—even as Americans embark upon yet another test of whether a novice can master its demands.

Listen to Andrew Bacevich discuss Obama’s foreign policy evolution on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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