Barack Obama and American foreign policy

As President Obama heads off to, well, whatever it is he plans on doing, everybody and their NatSec Granny has been doing foreign policy retrospectives of his administration. Some of them have been mostly positive, others largely negative, and that’s just among the analysts who are generally straight shooters rather than rabid partisans whose assessments are invariably colored by politics.

I find that writing insta-retrospectives is not something I enjoy, nor is it something I’m particularly good at doing. Give it 20 years or so and I can get you something, and I feel pretty comfortable looking at particular policies or events in the moment, but summing up eight years worth of foreign policy and trying to then assess the historical import of those eight years when they’re only just ending is just not my thing. But I will offer a few isolated thoughts if you’re in to that sort of thing. This is not intended to be comprehensive–the need to be comprehensive is one of the reasons I hate writing retrospectives.

The Good

  • Iran Nuclear Deal: I think my feelings about the nuclear deal should be pretty clear, but in short it offers the best chance of reconfiguring the Middle East, and US Middle East policy, that I’ve ever seen, and those things are desperately in need of being reconfigured. It blunted the #1 justification that Iran hawks here were using to justify the war with Iran they’ve been dreaming about since 1979, and it might, if we don’t fuck it all up, even recalibrate Iranian politics over time.
  • Cuba: When shit isn’t working, you try something else. The Cuban Embargo wasn’t working. Maybe engagement will.
  • Climate: The Paris Climate Accord belongs in a dictionary under “closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped,” but it’s still a milestone, and it’s largely due to the diplomacy that went into finally getting China to agree to address the issue.
  • ISIS: I don’t think you can give Obama full marks here, but the creation of ISIS was set in motion by events that happened before he took office, and over the past 2+ years the group has gone from controlling its own small country, plus parts of a couple of other states, to barely hanging on in a couple of cities.

The Bad

  • The Arab Spring: Everything the Obama administration touched about the Arab Spring turned to shit. Instead of recognizing this as an internal Arab movement that needed to be given space to develop on its own, Washington immediately jumped in and started picking losers–demanding that Assad go, telling Mubarak he should go, and making sure that Gaddafi went. Then it managed to fumble the follow up in every one of those cases–militarizing Syria instead of pushing for negotiations between Assad and the opposition, watching the Morsi government flounder around and then meekly acquiescing to the bloody military coup that ousted it, and failing in every way to help stabilize Libya.
  • Yemen: Every civilian death in Yemen since the Saudi intervention is on America’s hands, to no discernible benefit whatsoever.
  • Human Rights and Civil Liberties: There was no reason to believe Obama would be any better on human rights than any past US president, and in that sense he didn’t disappoint. Anywhere human rights were being threatened–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Myanmar–Obama was prepared to sacrifice them for the most insignificant short-term considerations. And his own counter-terror policies, specifically on drone killings and the surveillance state, were pretty terrible.
  • Africa Policy: This is the one area in which I think you can make a fair case that Obama was worse than his predecessor. Other than counter-terrorism and some panicked help on Ebola, what was Obama’s approach to Africa?

The In-Between

  • Russia: Obama came in to office with a window of opportunity to try to reset relations with Russia, to try to overcome ~18 years worth of post-Cold War failure to treat Moscow as something more than a defeated, then resurgent, adversary and lab rat for disaster capitalism. You can’t blame him entirely for the failure here–Vladimir Putin certainly wasn’t a good faith partner–but you can’t absolve him entirely either.
  • Israel-Palestine: Obama obviously accomplished nothing here except to deliver even more US aid to the right-wing annexationist government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but his second term did end with some desperately needed frank talk from an American government toward Israel.
  • Afghanistan: Again you can’t entirely blame Obama for not ending the war–the Afghan government bears some share of the responsibility too. But he did a masterful job of failing to address the root causes–corruption and, well, more corruption–of the Taliban’s continued success, while also failing to treat the symptom (the Taliban is stronger now than it was when he took office).

Anyway, having now done something I said I didn’t want to do, let me direct you to what I originally wanted to write about here, which is the interview I conducted recently for LobeLog with foreign policy/national security analysts Andrew Bacevich and John Mearsheimer. Since I didn’t want to write an Obama retrospective, I figured instead I would ask these two distinguished experts for their Obama retrospectives, and the result was a lengthy interview (I barely asked any questions, they just ran with it) full of interesting and important points. Part one of the interview discussed Obama’s legacy and what to look for with Donald Trump:

LobeLog: Looking back to America’s position in the world when he took office in 2009, how would you evaluate Barack Obama’s performance in terms of foreign policy?

Andrew Bacevich: I think the place to begin is to remember that Barack Obama made two promises. The first promise was to end the Iraq War, which he dismissed as “the stupid war,” and the second promise was to win the Afghanistan War, which he described as “the necessary war.” Lo and behold, here we are eight years later and he has been unable to deliver on either promise. I don’t believe that those two failures alone should fully define or inform our judgments as to his success or failure as a president, but they have to constitute two very big black marks on his record.

Part two delved into the bigger systemic problems with American foreign policy:

JM: What I find most striking, given all of our policy failures—at least since 2001—is that there’s hardly any interest in changing what we are doing among people in the foreign policy establishment. You would think that after all of the disasters, people would want to go back to the drawing board and rethink the assumptions that have been guiding U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East.

AB: In many respects, from their perspective, they’re not failures. It works for them. If you’re concerned about maintaining the status of the dominance of the United States military, if you’re concerned about maintaining very high levels of U.S. military spending, then things haven’t necessarily gone all that badly since 2001. The implacable determination of the national security bureaucracy to sustain itself poses a tremendous obstacle to even moderately fresh thinking.

JM: I think you’re correct, but just to be clear, what you’re saying is that the criterion for success is not whether the United States achieves its foreign policy goals; it’s whether the selfish interests of the various individuals and organizations that comprise the foreign policy establishment are protected.

I highly recommend checking them out–Professors Bacevich and Mearsheimer both have unique perspectives on American foreign policy that, even if you don’t agree with them, I think should be a bigger part of our national foreign policy debate.

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