Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters Red lines: a mural on a government building in Tehran, October 2011.

What Obama Gets Wrong

No Retreat, No Surrender

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Gideon Rose’s intriguing essay on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy raises a vexing question: When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?

Rose devotes much of his article to rehearsing a litany of the Bush administration’s sins in an effort to persuade readers that Obama inherited a uniquely bad set of cards when he came to the White House—a “mess,” as the president liked to say—and must therefore be judged accordingly. But this is doubtful as a matter of history and past its sell-by date as a form of apology.

Every president inherits a mixed bag when he comes to office, and Obama’s was hardly the worst. Yes, he became president in the midst of a steep economic downdraft. But so did Bush after the bursting of the dot-com bubble (compounded shortly thereafter by the attacks of September 11), as did President Ronald Reagan after the stagflation of the Carter years, as did President Gerald Ford in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. Yes, Obama took over two wars from Bush—just as President Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam from President Lyndon Johnson and President Dwight Eisenhower inherited Korea from President Harry Truman. But at least the war in Iraq was all but won by 2009, thanks largely to the very surge Obama had opposed as a senator. And yes, the United States’ brand had been tarnished by Bush’s “war on terror” policies, much as it had been in a previous generation by the war in Vietnam. But that only helped burnish Obama’s incoming reputation as a redeemer president, earning him immense political capital at home and goodwill abroad right from the start, capped by a Nobel Peace Prize.

Every president inherits a mixed bag when he comes to office, and Obama’s was hardly the worst.

Obama’s supporters also need to acknowledge that they cannot celebrate the president’s supposed successes at one point and then disavow responsibility later when those successes turn to dust. If Obama can take credit for putting the core of al Qaeda “on the path to defeat” and bringing the war on terror effectively to an end—as he did at the National Defense University in May 2013, to much liberal applause—then it becomes difficult for him to evade responsibility for the resurgence of jihadism in the two years since then. If the administration can celebrate the success of its Iraq policy in 2012 (“What is beyond debate,” said Antony Blinken, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, “is that Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous, and the United States more deeply engaged there, than at any time in recent history”), then maybe Bush can be exempted from blame for Iraq’s travails in 2014.

This is not to defend or rehabilitate the Bush administration, which made plenty of its own mistakes. Nor is it to say that the challenges Obama has faced have easy solutions, or that he’s gotten everything wrong. Among the things he got right, for example, are the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will strengthen both the global economy and the liberal democratic order in Asia; the aggressive use of drones against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, which didn’t defeat al Qaeda but settled some old scores; the opening in Burma (also called Myanmar); and his refusal to be taken in by another round of nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

Nevertheless, every president should be judged on a few fundamentals—his ability to deliver what he promised, weaken the country’s foes and strengthen its friends, elaborate a concept of the American interest that is persuasive and true, and pass on a world heading in the right direction. Obama rates well on none of these.

Barack Obama sits during a plenary session at the G20 leaders summit in Brisbane, November 2014. Western leaders at the summit blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for the crisis in Ukraine.

Start with the promises, of which Obama made plenty when he came to office. The prison at Guantánamo Bay was to be shut within a year. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” The United States’ good name would be restored in such places as Cairo, Istanbul, and Damascus. Israeli settlement expansion would end, and peace with the Palestinians would be forged. Much of this was to be achieved, so it seemed, through the sheer moral force of Obama’s personality and the compelling logic of his ideas. Yet none of it occurred. Obama became the president who, to use one of Rose’s baseball metaphors, called his shot only to strike out.

The sense that Obama’s redlines are negotiable has led the country’s foes to believe that they can do as they please.

As for U.S. enemies, the core of al Qaeda might be weaker today than it was when Obama took office, but the groups he once cavalierly dismissed as jihad’s “JV team” are vastly more potent, successful, and aggressive. The Russian economy may have been badly hit by the fall in global oil prices, but Ukraine is bracing for the next phase in a Russian offensive that Obama has opposed with only token measures. The deal with Iran exchanges billions of dollars in tangible economic relief for Tehran—some of which will be used to fund anti-American proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan—in return for the paper promise of a temporary lull in Iran’s nuclear program.

And as for the country’s friends, here’s a sampler of some of their more candid views. Then Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, secretly taped in 2014: “The Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, in a 2014 speech: “If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world.” The former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, in public comments in 2013: U.S policy toward Syria “would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad butcher his people.” Earlier this year, Obama invited the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council for a meeting at Camp David. Most sent their deputies and understudies in their place—a gesture of contempt that can be translated from Arabic into English in two words.

Such views are not merely reflex reactions to specific administration policies. They are a response to the broader drift of American policy under Obama, his effort to recast the fundamental tenets of the country’s approach to the world. Rose suggests that Obama has sought to rightsize the United States’ strategic priorities, focusing on the solid liberal core as opposed to the unstable, and possibly hopeless, periphery. This interpretation seems to have little foundation in anything Obama has said, and even less in what he has done. What, for instance, has been the relative weight of the administration’s attention to, say, improving military interoperability within NATO as opposed to berating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for approving construction in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo?

Protestors demonstrate during a rally opposing the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square, July 2015. 

The truth is that Obama’s idea of U.S. foreign policy is that there should be less of it, that the United States generally ought not to meddle in the internal affairs of other states and certainly not do so without a UN warrant, and that Washington should focus on what it does at home more than on what it does abroad. This doctrine is “nation building here at home,” and it finds advocates among both left-wing progressives, who want it for the sake of bigger government, and right-wing libertarians, who want it for the sake of smaller deficits. That’s why Obama’s foreign policy polled well in his first few years in office.

The world has already entered an era in which global disorders, spurred by American retreat, are proliferating at rates that are increasingly hard to contain.

Now, however, the consequences of that foreign policy are becoming more obvious. The rebalance from the periphery to the core that Rose celebrates as an act of prudence has created power vacuums that have been filled by the likes of the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS. The sense that Obama’s redlines are all negotiable, that his talk of all options being on the table is pure bluster, has led the country’s foes to believe that they can do as they please. And his faithlessness toward traditional friends has raised unsettling questions about the value of being a U.S. ally (just ask former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) and caused some to wonder whether they shouldn’t seek other patrons and otherwise do what they must to protect their interests, regardless of Washington’s wishes.

All of this has been compounded by frequent and sometimes unaccountable incompetence in execution, most obviously in the efforts to defeat the Islamic State but also in the feckless response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea (which invited further aggression) and the mishandling of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians (which resulted in last summer’s war with Hamas). “The Obama administration proved once again that it is the best friend of its enemies, and the biggest enemy of its friends,” the Israeli commentator Ari Shavit noted last year. He was writing about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s bizarre embrace of a cease-fire initiative promoted by Qatar and Turkey, two of Hamas’ principal sponsors. But the line sums up more than just the administration’s record in the Middle East.

Since the end of World War II, U.S. presidents of both parties have recognized that foreign and domestic policy do not have to be pursued at the expense of each other. It may be a truism that the country cannot be strong abroad unless it is strong at home, but it’s also a fact that the country’s economic prosperity depends on its security abroad—not only in the core of the liberal democratic world but often well beyond it, too. If Truman had taken Rose’s advice in 1950 after the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea, for example—territory that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had just publicly excluded from the U.S. defense perimeter, hence consigning it to the periphery—the world today would be poorer and less secure.

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s attempt to redefine the United States’ place in the world will turn out to have a shelf life longer than his own presidency. Part of that will depend on the results of the 2016 presidential election. But not all of it. The world has already entered an era in which global disorders, spurred by American retreat, are proliferating at rates that are increasingly hard to contain, much less defeat, and those disorders are blurring whatever distinction there might once have been between the core and the periphery. As that line vanishes, many more observers are likely to start seeing virtue and wisdom in an expansive vision of American power, as opposed to the cramped one Obama has offered.

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