Obama's Foreign Policy (or 'Lack Thereof')

As the 2012 election approached, President Barack Obama looked strong on foreign policy. During his first term, he had overseen the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, established a timeline to wind down the Afghan war, attempted to close down Guantanamo Bay, and directed limited drone warfare against terrorist groups. He had done all of this despite the conditions he inherited upon taking office in January 2009 -- a global financial crisis, two unpopular and unsuccessful wars in the Middle East, and an increasing threat of Islamic extremism throughout the world. When it came to foreign policy matters, he certainly outshined his competitor for the presidency, Mitt Romney, who earned sarcastic criticism for his identification of Russia as the United States' preeminent geopolitical adversary.

How different the landscape looked a year or two down the road. As Obama's second term began, increasing political violence in Iraq overshadowed the troop withdrawal, a political stalemate with the Afghan government hindered the creation of a comprehensive transition plan, Guantanamo remained open (as it still does), and the administration's drone warfare policy came under fire, as civilians affected by drones and even drone operators themselves spoke out about the program's human costs. Romney's oft-mocked remarks about Russia now seem prescient given the annexation of Crimea and Putin's hostile policies towards American interests. The civil war in Syria has spilled beyond its borders, a full-blown Sunni insurgency threatens to overwhelm the Iraqi government and throw the country into civil war. Obama faces a complete failure of the American withdrawal from Iraq as well as a threat of regional conflagration in the Middle East.

My colleague Colin Wolfgang recently addressed the perceived shortcomings in Pres. Obama's foreign policy, many of which speak to legitimate concerns. He suggests that the Obama administrations failures on foreign policy have not come from policy itself, but a lack of clear vision for America's position in world affairs. Yet in doing so, he uttered a telling phrase about Obama's "inability to project American dominance on the rest of the world in the same way his predecessors have done before him." It is this very history of American power projection and its detrimental effect on America's credibility, coupled with the changing nature of the global balance of power, that has resulted in the Obama administration's current perceived inability to negotiate a better position for the United States.

Even before the current crises in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy had become so intense that it reached a boiling point over the past year. The loudest oppositional voices come from those who see the president as insufficiently militaristic. They accuse him of isolationism, weakness, lack of vision, and a failure to project American power abroad. They call for air strikes in Iraq immediately, without political pre-conditions, much like they did in August 2013 when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in Syria. They also call for a harsher (presumably more militaristic) stance towards Russia, China, and the multitude of other adversaries the US faces around the world.

Interestingly, the sharpest public criticism of Obama's foreign policy has revolved around the administration's actions not on long-term foreign policy challenges, but on momentous events largely unpredicted ahead of time. The Arab Awakening and its aftermath, the Benghazi attacks, the Ukraine crisis: all of these media-garnering events were largely unforeseen and had to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. And on these fronts, minimizing armed conflict may actually have been a good thing.

Pres. Obama's foreign policy in his second term has overcome crisis after crisis without involving U.S. soldiers in combat. His perceived lack of "clear vision" stems from the fact that his largest international challenges have come on suddenly, without warning, and often in countries that policymakers have paid little attention to in the past decade. While at times his reactions to the rapidly changing crises of the last years seemed indecisive, his ability to adapt as the ground shifts beneath his feet has led to many more diplomatic victories and, more importantly, fewer armed conflicts, not many of which the U.S. would have been likely to win.

The crumbling security and democratic situation in the Middle East has long dominated critiques of recent U.S. presidents, especially in the wake of the region-shaking Arab Awakening. The Awakening came as a surprise to many -- even to leading experts on the Middle East and North Africa, where the uprisings occurred. Caught unaware by the tumultuous processes, and lacking credibility after a decade of unsuccessful Middle Eastern interventions, the United States had little capacity to ensure peaceful transitions to democracy. In Egypt, where the United States had some leverage due to high levels of military aid, U.S. interests in geopolitical stability trumped holding the military accountable for its autocratic policies and ensuring democracy. There are also deep-seated U.S. fears of Islamist governments such as the Morsi administration that won democratic elections, which renders military autocracy more palatable and American support for democracy less insistent.

The Obama administration also vacillated on policy in Syria, where it did not fully articulate a framework for dealing with the civil war and the quickly-escalating humanitarian crisis. Believing that the Assad regime would never go to such lengths, Obama issued his infamous "Red Line," suggesting the use of chemical weapons would trigger American intervention. As many military experts have written, however, even in the horrific case of chemical weapons use in August 2013 (not to mention the 160,000 Syrians who have been killed by mostly conventional means in the conflict), far from improving the situation, an armed American intervention could have made things much worse. As we are now tragically witnessing in Iraq, U.S. intervention has often been used as a band-aid for complex situations that require long-term, multifaceted engagement in countries, and well-timed and planned withdrawals have clearly become a rare exception rather than the rule.

In the Russia-Ukraine dispute and the annexation of Crimea, Obama chose the wise course of diplomacy, sanctions, and international pressure over destabilizing and dangerous armed standoffs between NATO and Russian forces or U.S. military exercises in the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to project strength did not prevent the Ukrainian government from throwing out his lackey, President Viktor Yanukovych, and electing a new government. While control over the country's Eastern provinces remains tenuous amid (allegedly) Russian-backed uprisings, the result has surely been more positive (and less violent) than if Obama had pursued a more bellicose policy towards America's longtime adversary.

While critics deride the Obama administration's policies on charges of isolationism, in many ways they reflect what the American people elected him to do. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that more than half of Republicans and Independents and 46 percent of Democrats think that the United States already does "too much" to solve world problems. Perhaps even more significant, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of Americans (52 percent) think that the United States should "mind its own business internationally." In the face of a stagnant economy, war weariness, and a general feeling that even positive and well-meaning interventions come back to haunt the United States (Afghanistan, anyone?), pursuing interventionist policies would likely garner more political ire than the administration's current "quasi-isolationist" policies.

Diplomatic successes are often termed isolationist simply because their processes and effects are less visible than those of armed intervention. But if the mark of a good negotiation is one in which all sides leave feeling as though they've been screwed over, it's no surprise that dissatisfaction follows diplomatic solutions. Obama himself pointed this out:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?

This rings true -- the use of military force has proven only sporadically effective for international issues. The diplomatic policies pursued by the State Department during Obama's tenure, while lacking the satisfying sound of boots on the ground, have preserved a relative peace for U.S. troops and civilians alike. Obama wisely chose to participate in armed intervention in Libya, and perhaps even more wisely avoided it in Syria and Ukraine.

Getting in on the Action

If Obama's critics want to goad him into action, here are a few areas where he can pursue the current policy of diplomacy over intervention and still get concrete results.

In the post-Arab Awakening Middle East, few countries require as much diplomatic attention than Egypt. Since the "election" of General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi in June, it is becoming less and less likely that anything resembling a competitive democracy will take root in Egypt soon. The greatest U.S. asset in its relationship with Egypt continues to be the level of military aid being delivered to the government. It is the military's -- and thus the current administration's -- lifeline, and a stronger commitment to conditioning the aid on democratic milestones and inclusive governance could moderate the new government's stance towards the opposition. The conditions for continued military aid must include criteria about eradicating extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrest, and torture, and, crucially, strengthening the country's judicial system and the rule of law. The withdrawal of military aid should also have clearer guidelines linked to Egypt's specific political situation rather than vague (and easy to manipulate) stipulations about military coups.

The administration already has the option to call a coup a coup and cut off aid to Egypt, of course, and the Al-Sisi government should be made well aware of this threat. The Obama administration should bear in mind that the democracy project in Egypt will be extremely gradual as long as the current administration remains in power, and diplomatic support must be given equally to groups from all points on the political spectrum, including Islamists who agree to play by democratic rules. It will require a long-term strategy that is politically palatable to future administrations and consistent diplomatic signaling that the U.S. is prepared to cut off aid if goals are not met.

Obama can also take a firmer stance on Syria not by sending troops or weapons to do battle, but by creating a coalition of nations to fully fund the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations (UN) and other agencies. By providing civilians caught in the crosshairs with the minimum aid requested by the UN, the administration can help ensure that the 10 million internally and externally displaced Syrians do not become a lost generation, a permanent refugee population, or a breeding ground for terrorists. If the administration wants to go a step further and actually put military equipment to use, it could institute no-fly zones over transit areas to ensure displaced Syrians safe access to refuge, aid, and medical care. The situation on the ground is changing rapidly in Syria, and at some point in the future military intervention might again become strategically advantageous and effective. Until that time, the U.S. must commit to alleviating the suffering of the civilian population as well as the countries hosting almost 3 million refugees in the region to mitigate the effects of the three-year-old conflict.

In Ukraine, the Obama administration can also use non-military aid to show Russia that it does not intend to become militarily involved unless necessary, but that the United States places high priority on Ukraine's democratic success. This will also go farther toward alleviating the current economic strains experienced by Ukrainians than bombing Eastern cities to rid them of combatants ever could. Now, with gas supplies to Ukraine officially cut off by Russian gas giant Gazprom, Ukraine will need EU and U.S. economic support more than ever before to keep its struggling population afloat.

Of course, the most likely conflict to define Obama's presidency will be the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which came to a boiling point last week as ISIS and other insurgents overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and marched on towards Baghdad. While Iraq was a poorly conceived intervention that Obama finished rather than started, in the finishing he left a country ripe for the sectarian violence we are seeing today. The first step towards bringing all of Iraq back under government control is to build a credible partnership, however distasteful it may be, with Iran, and to articulate a regional response plan. No other country in the region is more influential with the Iraqi government than Iran, and since it is virtually certain that Iran is already intervening in the conflict, a U.S. partnership would ensure that American policymakers still have influence in the response to the crisis. Saudi Arabia must also be incorporated in a regional response, and not allowed to fund a proxy Sunni war against Iranian-backed Shi'a groups. Air strikes are more feasible in Iraq than in Syria because the insurgency is still in its infancy, but should be conditioned on meaningful consensus-building agreements between the leaders of all political parties and their respective allies. Without a political settlement to mediate Iraq's sectarian, regional, and tribal divides, any peace brought by military intervention would be illusory at best, and Iraq will likely descend into civil conflict once again as soon as intervention comes to an end.


The changing nature of geopolitics means that America is no longer the only bully on the playground. Rising superpowers like China and Russia have freedom of action at a level unprecedented since the end of the Cold War, and have shown that they will take advantage of it. International pariahs like North Korea and Iran do as they please, not because of their growing power but because of their lack thereof -- all of which constitutes an equally unnerving threat to stability. Non-state actors have assumed global reach and ability to disrupt the stability of nations even against extremely unfavorable odds. The changing geopolitical landscape means that the age of overarching presidential "Doctrines" has come to an end, and a time of pragmatic, facile diplomacy should be at hand.

In the long-term, the wisest path to avoid the pitfalls of ad hoc diplomacy will be to strengthen our diplomatic corps, intelligence services and products, and other public and private institutions to ensure that contingency plans are in place for areas where similar crises are likely to crop up. The current conflict in Iraq should have surprised policymakers only if they were not paying attention to the spiraling level of violence and division in the country. Territorial conflicts in Europe and Asia have also displayed telltale precursors that could have allowed for better contingency planning. A desire to avoid war should not come at the cost of realistic projections and multiple policy options in areas where conflict is termed likely. Cultivating professional expertise on specific countries and their political situations can only add value to U.S. policy options, and dealing with crises as they come will be significantly easier if we have a foreign service equipped to understand the minutiae of the issues at hand.

The Obama administration's policies reflect both the wishes of the American citizenry and a new paradigm in international relations, one that places primacy not on power but on peace, not on the winning of wars but the avoidance of war by other means. By reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from military intervention and toward successful cultivation of diplomacy, as well as creation and enforcement of international agreements, future U.S. presidents can pursue policies that nurture lasting peace rather than fuel continual armed intervention and conflict.

Speaking on behalf of the war weary, that sounds like a worthy long-term goal for what is still (but might not always be) the most powerful nation on Earth.