When it comes to his administration’s foreign policy, Barack Obama must feel a little like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Upon entering office, the president promised to end the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, reset American relations with Russia, and give priority to rebuilding the American middle class. Now, after being “pulled back in” by liberal interventionists and neoconservative hawks both inside and outside his administration, he finds himself pursuing a new open-ended war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), prosecuting an expanded counterterrorism campaign from Central Asia to North Africa, overseeing a new Cold War with Russia, and pivoting toward what could become one with China in East Asia.
It’s worth noting that many of the people pulling Obama into these strategic choices are the same ones who cheered us into the war in Iraq. Such credentials should have thoroughly discredited them. But over the last several years, they have had a disproportionate influence in shaping a narrative of US foreign policy that is almost as misguided as the one they spun in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
According to this narrative, Obama has led an American retreat from the world that has emboldened our adversaries and put at risk the international system built by the United States. The fundamental goal of US foreign policy, therefore, must be to restore American global leadership and reassure our allies with more decisive and muscular action, particularly in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and in countering Russia in Ukraine and China in East Asia.
All of the Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Rand Paul, have taken up this “interventionist” narrative and are making Obama’s foreign policy—and, by extension, that of Democratic candidates in general—one of their central campaign themes. This virtually guarantees that foreign policy will be one of the defining issues of the 2016 election. But the narrative that the Republican candidates are echoing is wrong in almost every respect, and so are the lessons that they’re drawing from it. The failure of Obama’s foreign policy is not that it has been too cautious or has diminished American power, but that it has embraced many of the very positions that Obama’s interventionist opponents have advocated. In so doing, it has failed to protect America’s most important national interests.
To begin with, the neocon and liberal-hawk critique of the administration is way off base in saying that Obama has led a retreat from the world. Far from retrenching American power, the administration has expanded—in some ways dramatically—US foreign-policy goals and the reach of American power. While the administration has withdrawn American ground forces from Iraq and is in the process of doing so in Afghanistan, it has nonetheless maintained America’s commitments to both countries and, in the case of Iraq, has now reinserted US special forces as part of the larger coordinated air and ground war against ISIS. Meanwhile, it has greatly increased the geographic scope of the “war on terror” to include Yemen, Syria, and large parts of Northern and Eastern Africa.