Obama's Mixed Foreign-Policy Balance Sheet

President Barack Obama with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense

Obama clearly did not succeed in making the world more stable and less dangerous during his eight years in power.

Barack Obama’s presidency was a tumultuous one. Obama was challenged by almost unprecedented domestic difficulties and a deeply divided Congress as well as by increasing global instability and turmoil. He nevertheless retained high personal popularity ratings during most of his two terms. To a significant extent this was due to his superior personal conduct as a political leader and indeed as a husband and father. Obama came across as honorable, trustworthy, reflective and dignified insofar as his years in office were not tainted by any salacious scandals or irresponsible personal behavior. His inclination, however, to surround himself with celebrities, be they intellectuals or entertainers, and his personal self-assuredness if not arrogance were responsible for an air of aloofness and detachment that permeated the Obama White House.

Obama had the sheer good fortune that he was bound to look like a mature and graceful statesman in comparison with his predecessor, the discredited and bungling George W. Bush. He also has the distinction of going down in history as the first non-white president and as someone who did not drag his country into any major new ground wars. Domestically he doggedly stood up to all the hatred and barely concealed racism that he faced throughout his eight years in office. Considering the deeply hostile Congress and the huge global and domestic challenges Obama was faced with, at first sight his presidential record is formidable though perhaps less so when looking at the issues more closely.

Immediately upon coming to office Obama managed to deal successfully with the near meltdown of the American financial system. By means of a major economic stimulus program and the re-capitalization of a number of large banks and financial institutions, his administration and the Federal Reserve prevented the implosion of America’s economy and the country’s banking system. In March 2010 Obama was also able to get a partial health care reform act through a gridlocked Congress. This was a massive success. Although his solution was far from perfect and allowed private insurance companies to retain too much influence, all previous presidents had failed when attempting to introduce something approximating a universal health care system in the United States.

Obama also scored some major foreign policy successes. Still, the balance sheet for his foreign policy is a mixed one as outlined below. Despite some successful initiatives the Obama administration left unresolved many of the crucial foreign policy issues of our times.

Obama’s World View

It is difficult to discern Obama’s worldview. Some of the best recent indicators are included in Jeffrey Greenberg’s June 2016 article in the Atlantic which is based on a number of long interviews with the president. Initially Obama can be characterized as quite idealistic. In his first year as president he optimistically pronounced his desire to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, believed that a “reset” of U.S. policy with Russia would be quite possible and that perhaps a good democratic government could be installed in Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi. After a few years however Obama became increasingly cynical, realized the domestic and international constraints on his power and soon came to believe in a much more neo-realist conception of America’s role in global affairs. The president certainly moved toward a much more pragmatic approach, preferring to focus on the merely “doable” rather than on the desirable objectives.

Obama shared the long-standing belief of the Washington foreign policy establishment that the United States is the “indispensable” country in global affairs. Obama, like many of his compatriots, views America as the benign hegemon, who, by means of a cooperative multilateral approach and based on the democratic and enlightenment values of the West, is essentially a good and well-meaning power which only uses force and coercion when there is no other option left. Obama, however, stopped viewing the United States as the world’s omnipotent policeman. This, he believed, would overstretch the country’s resources. Even more importantly, in Obama’s view, no country can possibly fulfill such a role with respect to the ever more complex and intricate global problems the world of the twenty-first century is faced with. Consequently, Obama decided to focus U.S. foreign policy on those issues that were absolutely essential for America and the West’s future well-being while sidelining the others. On the whole, though not always, the president managed to stick to his core principle of a limited role for U.S. foreign policy.

The Obama administration pursued six major foreign policy objectives:

1. Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

During the election campaign of 2008, Obama promised to terminate the country’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was largely achieved by December 2011 and late 2014 respectively though at a high price. A small number of American troops (just under 9 thousand) remain in Afghanistan to date. More importantly, both countries continue to be highly unstable and are increasingly escaping from U.S. and western influence. In Afghanistan, in particular outside Kabul, the Taliban with their austere, fundamentalist pre-modern approach to life essentially are once again the rulers of the land. Iraq is drawn increasingly into the orbit of Iran, which remains one of America’s greatest foes in the region. Iran competes viciously with Saudi Arabia for the predominant role in the region. Despite its brutally conducted bombing raids in Yemen, Riyadh remains one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East.

2. “Leading from behind” in the Middle East: Libya and Syria