How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On January 28, 2009, barely a week into his presidency, Barack Obama met with the U.S. military’s top generals and admirals on their own turf, inside “the tank,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s conference room on the second floor of the Pentagon. A senior official recalled the new president as “remarkably confident—composed, relaxed, but also deferential, not trying to act too much the commander in chief.” Obama walked around the room, introducing himself to everyone; he thanked them and the entire armed forces for their service and sacrifice; then he sat down for a freewheeling discussion of the world’s challenges, region by region, crisis by crisis. He was “the man in full,” the official said, fluent on every issue, but more than that—a surprise to the officers, who had been leery of this young, inexperienced Democrat—he displayed a deep streak of realism.
At one point, Obama remarked that he was not the sort of person who drives down a street wishing he could park wherever he likes. If he saw an open spot, even one that required some tricky parallel parking, he would be fine with squeezing into it. Obama’s meaning was clear: he had been dealt a bad hand (two unpopular wars, alienated allies, the deepest recession in decades), but he would find a way to deal with the world as it was.
Seven years later, many officers and defense officials, including some who were so impressed with Obama at the start, look back at his presidency as following a different style of governing. They laud the historic accomplishments—the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the prevention (so far) of another terrorist attack on American soil—and they acknowledge that he has often tried to make the best of bad choices. But too often, they say, he has avoided taking action, waiting for conditions to get better—circling the block and, in his own metaphor, waiting for a better parking spot to open up.
This is a common critique of Obama’s foreign policy: that he evades hard decisions, that he is allergic to military force if it risks American casualties or escalation, that there is often a mismatch between his words and his deeds. “This is a pattern,” one retired four-star general said. “He issues stern warnings, then does nothing. It damages American credibility.”
Is the charge true? And to the extent that it has some validity, how much can be laid at Obama’s feet, and how much should be attributed to the intractability of the problems he has faced? Would a different sort of president have handled the decade’s challenges better, and if so, how?
The following examination of key crises and decisions is based on conversations I have had with dozens of officials across the span of Obama’s presidency and with 20 mid- to senior-level officials (past and present, almost all on a background basis) interviewed specifically for this article.
In December 2009, Obama journeyed to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was premature, to say the least, but he used his acceptance speech to lay down the principles of a foreign policy he hoped to follow—a sophisticated grappling with the tensions between idealism and realism. It was a daring speech for a Peace Prize recipient. “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism,” he said. “It is a recognition of history, the imperfection of man, and the limits of reason.” Nations must “adhere to standards that govern the use of force,” and a just, lasting peace must be “based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual.” Still, “America cannot act alone,” except on matters of vital national interest, and mere lofty rhetoric about human rights only sustains “a crippling status quo.” Engagement with repressive regimes may lack “the satisfying purity of indignation,” but “no repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.”
Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said, “When people ask me to summarize [Obama’s] foreign policy, I tell them to take a close look at that speech.” Another former top White House official called it “a template to how he approaches problems,” a “framework for how he thinks about U.S. power.” Whether he followed the template—how he grappled in action with the tensions he recognized in theory—would be, by his own standard, the measure of his presidency.
The early years of Obama’s term were taken up with challenges inherited from the Bush administration, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the start of 2011, however, a string of new problems emerged, as domestic protests against authoritarian leaders broke out across the Middle East. The Ben Ali regime in Tunisia fell in January, and the Mubarak regime in Egypt followed in early February. By late February, rebels opposed to the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi had seized control in cities such as Benghazi, and the dictator’s days seemed numbered. But then the tide of war reversed, and Qaddafi’s forces moved to crush the uprising.
With tens of thousands of civilian lives at risk, the Obama administration, which had come out in support of the rebels, faced a difficult choice. The members of the Arab League were unanimously imploring the United States to get involved. NATO allies were keen to intervene in support of the armed rebels, and a UN Security Council resolution was in the works. At a National Security Council meeting called to discuss the crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and some of Obama’s NSC staff argued for action, citing moral imperatives and the prospect of a truly multilateral force. But according to several people present at the meeting, Pentagon officials opposed intervening, pointing out that the United States had no vital interests in Libya and that any serious commitment would get Washington bogged down, possibly for years.
Two options were set before the president: go in all the way as the leader of an alliance, or don’t go in at all. Obama’s response was to come up with a third way, which emerged as he thought through the problem out loud. Early on, he articulated the principles that would underlie whatever course he chose: no U.S. boots on the ground, no military action at all unless it had a legal basis and a decent chance of succeeding, and, finally, an appropriate division of labor with allies—the U.S. military would provide its unique capabilities (among them precision bombing and intelligence sharing), but U.S. allies, who had a far greater interest in the conflict’s outcome, would assume the brunt of protecting Libyan civilians and restoring order after the fighting.
In an interview at the time with The New Yorker, an Obama adviser (whose identity remains unknown) dubbed this approach “leading from behind,” a term that would come in for much derision. But in context, it made sense, and it fit Obama’s outlook on the role and limits of military force, the distinction between interests and vital interests, and the need to align the instruments of power with the intensity of those interests.
The first phase of the resulting operation was ultimately a success. The combination of U.S. air strikes and intelligence, NATO air support, and rebel movements on the ground led to the defeat of Qaddafi’s forces and (although this was not an explicit aim of the campaign) the killing of the Libyan leader himself. But the second phase was a failure: a new government was never fully formed, the rebel factions’ squabbles degenerated into civil war, and the country’s social order (such as it was) collapsed.
The problem was that the NATO allies that had promised to lead the stabilization phase of a post-Qaddafi Libya did not follow through, in part because this phase turned out to be much more violent than they had anticipated. Restoring (or, really, creating) order would have required armed intervention—and possibly serious combat—on the ground, a mission for which European states had little capacity and less appetite.
Obama recognized the failure, acknowledging in his September 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly, “Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.” And the lesson weighed on him when considering how to handle a similar crisis in Syria.
As the Arab Spring evolved, demonstrations broke out in Damascus against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad struck back with extreme force, killing protesters first by the hundreds, then by the thousands. Gradually, a rebel force arose, and the country plunged into civil war. With the United States having already intervened in Libya under similar circumstances, the question naturally arose whether it would intervene in Syria as well.
In an NSC meeting, Obama spelled out the differences between the two conflicts. Libya’s fighting had taken place on an open desert, which allowed for clear targeting; Syria was enmeshed in urban warfare, with civilians, rebels, and soldiers intermingled. The Libyan rebels had had a chance at forming a cohesive government; there were no such possibilities in Syria. No other outside power was calling on the United States to intervene this time around. Finally, the conflict was cascading into a proxy war for the regionwide Sunni-Shiite confrontation. Not only did the United States have little at stake in this fight, but it also had little ability to influence its direction or outcome. According to several attendees of the meeting, nobody really disagreed with these points.
And yet the administration had aligned itself with the season’s popular uprisings. In May, in a speech of uncharacteristic exuberance, Obama likened the turmoil to previous eras of democratic revolution. He spoke with particular urgency about Syria, proclaiming that Assad “must” stop shooting his own people and allow human rights monitors to enter the country. In August, Obama joined with the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in calling on Assad to step down. Syria’s ruler was “on the wrong side of history,” Obama said, declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
For the most part, Obama has stayed true to the template of his Nobel address, keeping sight of the big picture as others have gotten lost in the shrubs.
Such rhetoric was driven by two factors. First, the aides in Obama’s inner circle—few of whom knew anything about Middle Eastern politics—really did think Assad’s regime was nearing collapse. Second, given that apparent fact, they felt it was best to put the administration publicly on “the right side of history,” especially since allied nations were calling on Obama to show “leadership.”
The rhetoric was not entirely empty. Obama did ask his military and intelligence chiefs to come up with plans to speed history along, and in the summer of 2012, CIA Director David Petraeus laid out a scheme to arm a group of “moderate” Syrian rebels. The plan, which Petraeus had formulated with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan and a few other Arab security chiefs, called for shipping small arms, mainly rifles, to a small, select group of the Syrian opposition. Petraeus did not promise the moon; he explicitly said that these rebels could not oust Assad right away and that the goal was to put “pressure” on Assad. If you’re saying Assad must go, he was telling the president, here’s how the CIA can help. The plan had the backing of Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the president rejected it.
Obama was not opposed to taking action; he had asked Petraeus and Panetta for options. But he was opposed to doing something merely for the sake of doing something, and the Petraeus plan seemed to fall into that category. Who were these rebels, he asked? Could the United States really distinguish the good ones from the bad ones? (Petraeus insisted that he could, but Obama was unconvinced.) If these rebels did emerge as a threat to the regime, would Iran, which had invested heavily in Assad, simply stand by, or would it intervene (as Obama thought more likely)?
In NSC meetings, several attendees recall, Petraeus acknowledged that it might take years for the rebels to mount an effective challenge to Assad’s rule. Meanwhile, the CIA’s plan might throw Assad psychologically and give Washington “skin in the game,” a path to influence over the long haul. This was not a winning argument with Obama: he was looking for something that had a chance of succeeding in the near term, and he did not want skin in a game played in the quagmire of a sectarian civil war. While Petraeus was working up the plan, Obama asked the CIA to produce a paper on how often in the past U.S. arms had succeeded in helping rebels oust hostile governments. The answer: not very often. That sealed the case.
Although grounded in logic and history, the rejection of intervention in Syria set off the first waves of discontent over Obama’s foreign policy in general—the notion that he did not want to use force, that he was always on the lookout for arguments that rationalized this disinclination, that he talked bold but failed to follow through, which made all his commitments ring hollow.
Later on, as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) took control of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, Obama’s critics argued that if only the president had accepted Petraeus’ plan, ISIS might not have found a foothold. But the claim seems far-fetched—even though a few of Obama’s close advisers allow, in retrospect, that it might have been worth giving Petraeus’ option a chance. In any case, two years later, Obama approved a similar plan. However, when the American-backed rebels started racking up victories on the battlefield and appeared to be closing in on Assad, Obama’s prediction of what would happen next came true: the Iranians redoubled their support for Assad, sending Quds Force soldiers to fight the rebels. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing the loss of Moscow’s sole outpost outside the former Soviet Union, sent tanks, planes, and missiles to support the Syrian army.
Syria is where Obama’s foreign policy met its most brutal challenge, and where his tools for dealing with crises—words, logic, persistent questions, and sequential problem solving—proved inadequate.
At least five times in the eight-month span between August 2012 and April 2013, Obama or administration officials publicly warned Assad that using chemical weapons against rebels and protesters would cross a “redline.” It would mark “a game changer from our perspective,” Obama elaborated on one occasion. “There would be enormous consequences,” he said on another. It would be “totally unacceptable,” and Assad would be “held accountable.” Yet despite such utterances, say close aides and officials, the president never ordered up a plan for what to do if Assad crossed the line.
Then, on August 21, 2013, rocket shells containing sarin gas slammed rebel-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs, killing an estimated 1,500 people. The redline had been crossed. Obama swiftly decided to retaliate. Attack plans were drawn up, most of them designed to destroy not the chemical stockpiles themselves (explosions of which might spread the gas far and wide) but rather the munitions and facilities required to launch them into battle. Assad’s regime was not the explicit target in any of these plans, but some White House aides thought, or hoped, that his strength might erode as a side effect.
Obama seemed to be serious about launching the strikes. His aides were instructed to phone legislators and journalists to make sure they had read an unclassified intelligence report that the White House had just released proving that Assad was behind the chemical attacks. A UN resolution backing the use of force in Syria was unlikely; Russia and possibly China would veto it. So Obama rallied Arab and NATO nations to join in the attack, or at least to endorse it. He got no such support, except from France and the United Kingdom—but then British Prime Minister David Cameron requested authorization for an attack from Parliament, which voted it down.
On August 31, the NSC met for more than two hours. Everyone around the table agreed that the United Kingdom’s backpedaling, although regrettable, should not affect the president’s decision and that he should proceed with the air strikes. A team of lawyers advised him that he had the legal authority to do so. After the meeting, however, Obama famously took a walk on the White House back lawn with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and when he came back to the Situation Room, he announced that he had decided to let Congress vote on the question.
All of the president’s aides and officials were surprised, and not in a good way. But Obama explained that he needed some institutional backing for such a drastic, risky move. A bombing campaign might kill nearby civilians, and it might have no impact on Assad. What if Assad doubled down and launched more attacks, chemical or otherwise? If the United States answered with still more air strikes, it would risk getting sucked into a civil war, and if it did nothing, that would be worse still: Washington would look weaker, and Assad would emerge stronger, than if the United States had done nothing to begin with. Some White House aides had viewed air strikes as a one-off proposition, but Pentagon officials had argued during the NSC meetings that if Obama went ahead with air strikes (which they supported), he should be prepared for escalation. Obama suspected the Pentagon was right. Whatever he did, his actions (or inaction) would sire criticism and disunity; they would receive little support and could not be sustained.
To many around the table, each separate piece of Obama’s argument made sense, but the overall logic did not. Maybe it was a bad idea to proceed with air strikes, but in that case, Obama should not have drawn those redlines: he should not have recited the rationale for air strikes to so many diplomats, journalists, and legislators; he should not have told Secretary of State John Kerry to make a case for the bombings (in a powerful speech just hours before he changed course); and after making this new decision, he certainly should not have gone ahead with a scheduled prime-time television address in which he detailed Assad’s perfidy, laid out the national security concerns, claimed he had the legal authority to respond with unilateral air strikes—and then announced that he was sending the matter to Congress.
At times, Obama has talked more boldly than he has acted, creating a needless gap between words and deeds.
One NSC official who was relieved that the strikes did not take place nevertheless said, “We paid a price for pulling back. The perception among people in the region was that they couldn’t rely on Obama to pull the trigger.” A former top White House official said, “When people—serious people—say Obama is indecisive and uncertain, they’re talking about this episode with Syria.”
The White House lobbied Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force, but the task was clearly futile: most Republicans did not want to do any favors for Obama, and many Democrats were leery of military action. In the end, Russia came to the rescue. At a press conference on September 9, Kerry was asked if Assad could do anything to avoid air strikes. Kerry replied, “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his [chemical] weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” adding, “but he isn’t about to.” To everyone’s astonishment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied that he could make that happen—and he did. Under Russian pressure, Assad surrendered very nearly all of his chemical weapons for destruction.
Obama and his aides declared victory, noting that this diplomatic solution was more effective than military strikes would have been and that the threat of those strikes was what had driven Russia to pressure Assad. The first claim was probably true; the second probably was not. The fact is Congress seemed certain to defeat Obama’s motion before Russia stepped in. It is possible that Putin never believed that Obama would feel bound by Congress, that he would find some way to launch the strikes anyway. But more pertinent, Russian leaders have always taken pains to keep weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, or nuclear—out of their allies’ hands: not so much because they abhor those weapons as because they abhor the loss of control. Moscow had its own interests in stripping the loose cannon Assad of these ghastly weapons, and since the redline crisis had forced Obama to focus on the chemicals and not on Assad’s regime, the diplomatic save would serve one of Russia’s vital interests—the preservation of Moscow’s only foothold in the Middle East.
The redline fiasco was a low point in the administration’s foreign policy, but the troubles in Syria were hardly over. Less than a year after the chemical weapons settlement, ISIS—which Obama had recently dismissed as a “JV” version of al Qaeda—stormed Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. The U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers fled at first contact, and the armed jihadists barreled on to Ramadi and Fallujah and, for a while, came perilously close to Baghdad.
The jihadists had started out and were largely based in Syria, but Obama focused his anti-ISIS strategy on Iraq because that’s where it might have some effect; the United States, after all, had resources, air bases, and a partnership of sorts with a functioning government in the country—and it had none of those things in Syria, where Obama remained properly wary of diving into a sectarian civil war. Even by September 2014, when Obama realized that Syria couldn’t be ignored (it was, after all, the headquarters of ISIS’ operations, and he knew very well that the Iraqi-Syrian border was porous to the point of meaningless), he stuck to what his aides called an “Iraq first” strategy. American air strikes, which had long begun against ISIS forces in Iraq, would be extended to Syria, but only over the paths that ISIS used to travel between the two countries. Obama also announced a program to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels on bases in Saudi Arabia but noted that they wouldn’t be ready to fight ISIS for many months; clearly, Syria was on the back burner, at best.
Days after Obama’s announcement, ISIS laid siege to Kobani, a mainly Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border. The town had no strategic significance, but a massacre was in the making. More than that, ISIS was sending thousands of jihadists into the town—forming an easy concentrated target, which neither the Pentagon nor Obama could resist. Obama ordered massive air strikes, which killed an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters.
In another unexpected feature of the battle, Kurdish fighters gathered to stave off ISIS, fought very capably, and recaptured the town. Obama had not been opposed to going after ISIS inside Syria; he just had not seen a suitable partner that could carry out the fight on the ground. In the Syrian Kurds, he found one, and U.S. air strikes continued, often in tandem with Kurdish ground assaults. At the same time, the CIA started covertly assisting a group of rebels in southern Syria whose main aim was to overthrow Assad. Again, Obama had opposed Petraeus’ plan to arm some rebels not because he was against arming rebels but because he did not see how that particular plan or those particular rebels would succeed. The new plan seemed more plausible, in part because the CIA and the U.S. military had gathered a lot more intelligence and scoped out reliable forces over the previous year. (A separate $500 million Pentagon program to train and equip a small group of northern Syrian rebels to fight ISIS proved publicly disastrous: the rebels turned out to be more interested in fighting Assad’s army than ISIS, taking them out of the fight to train in Saudi Arabia only disoriented them, and more militant rebels killed almost all of them on their reentry into Syria.)
Viewed piece by piece, tactical move by tactical move, Obama’s operations appeared to be making progress. But foreign fighters kept flooding the region, ISIS was barely budged aside, and although Assad’s army seemed imperiled, it was still quite large (at around 125,000 troops) and recovered much of its strength after Russia sent in tanks and jet fighters in September 2015. Russia’s move raised the hackles of some of Obama’s critics, who saw Putin as trying to revive the Soviet empire. Obama didn’t bite, and wisely so. At an NSC meeting, he cautioned against viewing Russia’s intervention through a Cold War prism. We are not at war with Russia over Syria, he said, according to officials who were at the meeting. Putin’s vital interest in this had much to do with his own domestic politics, and an alarmed American response would have played into his game. Finally, Obama doubted that the Russian military campaign would have much impact on the battle.
Nonetheless, Obama was still receptive to attractive options for his own military posture. The Syrian Kurds were racking up more successes (and requiring more protection from Turkey, which was pounding them with air strikes while claiming to be going after ISIS), and so Obama approved plans to send the Kurds more ammunition—and to deploy U.S. Special Forces to join them in raids on ISIS strongholds, secret missions that resulted in six fatalities before Obama announced the actions publicly.
Obama has a keen legal mind, which serves him and the country well when he pokes holes in specious arguments for risky policies. But it also enables him to rationalize his own porous positions: for instance, that conducting joint raids falls in the category of “advise and assist,” not “boots on the ground.” He can also make firm assurances that he will not push these ground forces any further, ignoring that he has laid the groundwork and set the logic for his successor in the White House to escalate the fight, if he or she is so inclined. (Not to draw precise parallels, but in a similar vein, President John F. Kennedy firmly resisted pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to deploy “combat troops” to Vietnam yet expanded the scope and numbers of “advisers” there, leaving President Lyndon Johnson to believe he was following in his predecessor’s footsteps when he poured 500,000 U.S. troops into the fight.)
What has been missing in Obama’s Syria policy, in all its phases, is a coherent strategy. His two aims—defeating ISIS and pressuring Assad to step down—are in some ways contradictory. Assad’s continued reign has been a magnet for foreign Sunni fighters to join ISIS. But in the short run, Assad’s army, if properly directed, could be the most potent anti-ISIS force—second perhaps only to Iran, which has been sending members of its elite Quds Force to protect Assad’s regime. Obama has been constrained from forming an overt alliance with Assad or Iran, in part because he has needed Sunni allies—Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf states—to delegitimize and defeat the Sunni radicals of ISIS; if he bonded with Shiite Iran or its client Assad, those countries might drop out of the coalition.
Therein lies the heart of the problem not only with Obama’s strategy against ISIS but with any U.S. president’s stab at such a strategy. If all the countries that feared and loathed ISIS—which is to say, almost all the countries in the region—joined forces, ISIS would crumble in short order. But each of those countries has more fear and loathing for at least one of its potential allies (Turkey for the Kurds and Saudi Arabia for Iran, for example). Forming an effective coalition has therefore been all but impossible—a fact that ISIS commanders have shrewdly exploited.
As many of Obama’s critics contend, a coherent regional strategy—not just a series of piecemeal responses to crises—is needed to solve this problem. But what is this regional strategy? Who should lead it? What incentives might lure the potential coalition’s players to subordinate their individual interests to the larger goal? (In October, Obama dropped his reluctance and invited Iran and Russia to join talks in Vienna to discuss a political solution to the Syrian crisis and a joint fight against ISIS. The prospects seemed dim, until—on the very eve of the conference—ISIS agents mounted coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Although the odds remain long, a plausible path to a settlement opened up. Obama seems to have recognized, along with others, that transcending the sectarian divide rather than accommodating it—and forming alliances with rivals against larger, common threats—is the only way toward a peaceful transition.)
These complexities are symptomatic of a larger phenomenon that accounts for the surge of violence throughout the Middle East: the breakdown of the colonial order imposed at the end of World War I. This order, with its artificial borders designed to split or suppress tribal identities, would have collapsed after World War II (along with the British and French colonies) but for the deep freeze imposed by the Cold War. When the Soviet Union imploded, the Cold War too dissolved, along with the international security system that it had created and sustained for nearly half a century. With the subsequent diffusion of global power and fragmentation of power blocs, the collapse of the Middle East’s borders and authorities resumed—a process accelerated by President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which disrupted the balance of power among nations, sects, and tribes that had kept an uneasy peace between Shiites and Sunnis, not only within Iraq but across the region, as the disruption’s ripples spread.
Some of Obama’s critics claim that if he had found a way to keep 10,000 American troops in Iraq instead of going through with a complete withdrawal in 2011, the renewal of sectarian violence and the rise of ISIS to fill the subsequent power vacuum would never have happened. But this is extremely unlikely, given that in an earlier era it took close to 170,000 U.S. combat troops using extraordinary measures to stem a similar tide, and even then they were able to do so only temporarily. In any case, Obama had no choice in the matter. The status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that Bush signed in 2008 demanded, “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” Obama was, in fact, amenable to keeping 5,000 troops in Iraq for the long haul and sent emissaries to Baghdad to see if an extension could be negotiated, but revisions to the SOFA including a U.S. demand that American troops enjoy immunity from Iraqi law, required parliamentary approval, and no factions in the Iraqi parliament, except perhaps the Kurds, would vote for the Americans to stay. (Obama has been able to send military forces back to Iraq only because the SOFA expired after three years.)
As for Afghanistan, the other war that Obama promised and tried to end, it keeps raging as well. In October 2015, reversing an earlier policy to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the end of his term, Obama announced that 5,500 would remain there to continue training and equipping Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorist operations.
Obama announced this change soon after Taliban fighters took over the northern city of Kunduz, but he had made the decision a few months earlier, according to a senior counterterrorism official. The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, had asked Obama not to withdraw all U.S. troops, signed a bilateral security agreement giving U.S. forces legal protections (an accord that his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had refused to consider), and promised reforms to broaden inclusivity and crack down on corruption. Meanwhile, terrorist groups still flourished across the border with Pakistan. No one in the NSC opposed sustaining a counterterrorist force on some base in the region; here was Ghani offering three existing bases. An interagency study conducted by General Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that the mission could be supported with 5,500 troops. And so the decision was made. Kunduz (which Afghan soldiers quickly recaptured) was the news peg that preempted political objections.
The tragedy of Obama’s presidency is that, from the beginning, he has wanted to shift away from the stagnant battlefields in and around the Middle East and devote more attention to the Asia-Pacific region, with its prospects for dynamic growth, trade, and, in the form of China, an expansionist power that needs to be at once contained militarily and lured into the global economy. This focus on Asia came to be called the “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” but Obama had recognized its appeal and discussed it as far back as his 2008 presidential campaign. He understood, and still does, that this is where the United States’ future interests lie—but the never-ending crises of the ancient world keep pulling him back in.
As the ISIS imbroglio widened, yet another crisis erupted, this time in Ukraine. After Putin bribed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with an aid package to stop him from signing an association agreement with the European Union, popular protests broke out in Kiev. When Yanukovych cracked down, the protests widened, and he was ultimately forced to flee. Putin responded by sending Russian forces to seize the Crimean Peninsula and support a secessionist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
In NSC meetings held to decide how to respond to Russia’s move, Obama quickly approved a script of denunciation, reinforcements of U.S. military exercises in and around eastern Europe’s NATO allies (especially the Baltic states), and a string of economic sanctions.
Some Pentagon officials wanted to go further and supply the Ukrainian army with “lethal defensive weapons,” especially TOW antitank missiles. According to NSC officials, Vice President Joe Biden strongly endorsed this position, saying that the United States had a moral obligation to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, as well as a strategic interest in making Putin pay for his land grab and in deterring him from going further. (No one in any NSC meeting, however, advocated sending Ukraine offensive weapons or deploying U.S. troops to the country.)
In the end, Obama approved the provision of nonlethal military assistance, such as night-vision and radar equipment, and training for Ukraine’s National Guard. Beyond that, he was opposed. The United States had interests in Ukraine, but not vital interests. There were reasons two previous presidents had considered, then decided against, inviting Kiev’s leaders to join NATO. First, polls had suggested that less than half of Ukrainians wanted membership. Second, Russia’s interests in Ukraine, unlike the United States’, were vital: Russia and Ukraine shared a border and a long history of trade, cultural exchange, and even common statehood. No Russian leader would stand by as Ukraine drifted too far from Moscow’s orbit.
Obama likes to look ahead two or three steps. (His critics have seen this as a technique for avoiding the use of force; others see it as a method of rational decision-making.) Moscow could and would match or surpass any lethal weapons that the West supplied to Kiev. Then what? If Washington sent still more arms, it would risk getting sucked into an arms race, and the violence would intensify. If the United States did not respond in kind, the West would have lost the contest; Obama would look weaker, and Russia stronger, than if he had not sent any arms in the first place.
This was Obama’s first principle in all discussions about the crisis: he was not going to risk a war with Russia for the sake of Ukraine. At one meeting, he said, “If I wanted to invade Canada or Mexico, no one could do much about it.” The same was true of Putin and Ukraine.
Still, Obama put a high value on enforcing international norms, one of which was the inviolability of borders. He felt it necessary to make Russia pay for its violation; the question was how. Military escalation, in this context, was a game Russia would win, but escalation of sanctions was one the United States could win, if Obama could keep European states on board. This was a challenge, for many European countries were more reliant on Russian energy supplies than the United States was and therefore more vulnerable to economic reprisals from Russia. They were also dead set against risking war over Ukraine. If Obama went up the military ladder, he knew they would drop out of the sanctions regime.
Obama’s keen legal mind allows him to rationalize his own porous positions.
At least through the fall of 2015, Obama’s policy has worked. Despite Putin’s efforts to split the transatlantic alliance, its members have held tight on the sanctions, and the cease-fire negotiated in Minsk in February has held, too. Putin’s likely goal in Ukraine was to weaken the country’s central government and keep it from moving closer to the West. At that, he has succeeded. If Obama and the western European nations had wanted to strike back on that front, tens of billions of dollars in economic aid would have meant a lot more than a few hundred antitank missiles. But beyond a relatively paltry International Monetary Fund grant, no one seemed to want to go down that road.
So how does Obama’s record stack up? The president has been besieged by foreign policy crises, constrained by diminished American power, and pressured by opponents at home and allies abroad to take action and show leadership, even when dealing with intractable problems. He has learned on the job, with his instincts for caution reinforced by the ill-fated Libyan intervention. And he has, at times, talked more boldly than he has acted, creating a needless gap between words and deeds.
And yet for the most part, he has stayed true to the template of his Nobel address, keeping sight of the big picture as others have gotten lost in the shrubs. His caution about embarking on unnecessary military adventures and desire to avoid escalatory military spirals seem wise. Obama has also proved remarkably patient with drawn-out diplomatic negotiations, even those unlikely to bear fruit. Some of these, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, have predictably gone nowhere, but others, such as the opening to Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran, have been strikingly successful.
The successes and failures stem, in part, from the dogged optimism of Obama’s second-term secretary of state, Kerry. It is doubtful that Kerry’s more cautious predecessor, Clinton, or most other past secretaries of state, would have stuck with the nuclear talks with Iran for as long as Kerry did—but neither would she have spent so much time and effort trying to jump-start a moribund Middle East peace process.
One downside to Kerry’s vision of his job, as special envoy to the world’s most hopeless logjams, is that it leaves much of the rest of the world a bit anxious. This has been especially true of the United States’ allies in Asia—most of all Japan, whose leaders demand constant handholding. During Obama’s first term, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, phoned his counterpart in Tokyo every day and met face-to-face with the Japanese ambassador three times a week. Officials who deal with Asian affairs say that after Campbell left, and Kerry turned the State Department’s focus almost exclusively to high-profile peace missions, Tokyo felt abandoned.
Still, this hardly amounted to a crisis. First, when Beijing started flexing its naval muscles in the South China Sea, Japan (and Australia and South Korea) clung ever closer to Washington, however frustrated it felt at times. Second, another big part of the United States’ relations with Asia involves simply showing up—and although the assistant secretary may not be calling as often, Obama and Kerry show up at all the Asian security and economic summits. Anxiety about abandonment remains; it has been a factor for decades, at least since the United States pulled out of Vietnam and secretly reached out to China during the presidency of Richard Nixon. But Obama’s missteps, which have bothered allies in the Middle East, have not weighed at all on those in East Asia. Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, has met privately with dozens of political and military leaders from Japan and South Korea. He says, “I’ve never heard any of them say a word about the ‘redline’ in Syria.”
On August 5, 2015, the president delivered a spirited speech at American University defending the nuclear deal that he and five other world powers had negotiated with Iran. Several times, he quoted Kennedy’s famous American University speech in 1963 calling for an end to the Cold War mindset and a new strategy based on a “practical” and “attainable peace,” one based “not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions—on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.”
Later that day, Obama held an on-the-record roundtable discussion with ten columnists in the White House. When my turn came to ask a question, I noted that Kennedy had delivered his speech after several crises in which he realized that his advisers were often wrong and that he should place more trust in his own instincts. What lessons, I asked Obama, had he learned in his crises? What decisions might he have made differently, had he known then what he knows now? He answered:
I would say that I have been consistent in my broad view of how American power should be deployed and the view that we underestimate our power when we restrict it to just our military power. . . . There’s no doubt that, after six and a half years, I am that much more confident in the assessments I make and can probably see around the corners faster than I did when I first came into office. The map isn’t always the territory, and you have to kind of walk through it to get a feel for it.
In terms of decisions I make, I do think that I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences. And I am confirmed in my belief that much of the time, we are making judgments based on percentages, and . . . there are always going to be some complications.
And so maybe at the same time as I’m more confident today, I’m also more humble. And that’s part of the reason why, when I see a situation like this one [the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran], where we can achieve an objective with a unified world behind us and we preserve our hedge against its not working out, I think it would be foolish—even tragic—for us to pass up on that opportunity.