Obama's Flailing Foreign Policy

Obama's Flailing Foreign Policy

A new book on Obama's foreign policy paints an overly rosy picture of the president's track record abroad.


The consensus that President Obama has a strong foreign-policy record holds only if one limits this assessment mainly to security matters. Bending History, a new book by three Brookings authors—Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon—provides a fine opportunity to review this part of the president’s record during his first three years in office. The authors are learned, meticulous and grant Obama the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. But a close reading of the book reveals that Obama acts as if speechmaking will change the world, often splitting the difference between conflicting views or buying into someone else’s strategy.

The authors argue that Obama entered the Oval Office hoping to rehabilitate America’s international reputation, particularly in the Muslim world; promote multilateralism and enhance cooperation with China; end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; engage in dialogue with Iran and encourage nuclear nonproliferation; establish lasting peace in the Middle East; forestall climate change; and alleviate global poverty. However, as the authors note, there has been an “inevitable tension between [Obama’s] soaring rhetoric and desire to depart fundamentally from the policies of the Bush administration, on the one hand, and his instinct for governing pragmatically, on the other.” In trying to resolve that tension, Obama’s foreign policy has “repeatedly manifested a combination of the realist’s pragmatic approach to the world as it is and the idealist’s progressive approach to a new world order that he seeks to shape.” Overall, they believe he has done “reasonably well” in terms of protecting American interests; however, when “judged by the standard of fulfilling his vision of a new global order, [Obama’s legacy] unsurprisingly remains very much a work in progress.” A generous statement, as we shall see.


Obama’s slower-than-promised drawdown of troops from Iraq was based, the authors argue, on the opinions of key military leaders and could be justified by the need to avoid big reductions in U.S. troops before the 2010 Iraqi elections. Thus, they conclude that Obama’s actions in Iraq were “careful, thoughtful, and effective.” Actually, the jury is very much out on Iraq. At the moment, it seems as if the government is shaky, intergroup violence is considerable, undemocratic tendencies are on the rise and Iran’s influence is increasing.

Regarding Afghanistan, the authors reject strongly the thesis that Obama was pushed into a surge by the generals. It must be noted, however, that Obama’s goal was limited to eradicating Al Qaeda. His strategy was to engage in counterterrorism by building a stable, democratic and effective government in that country—in short, nation building. That strategy is utterly failing. Biden’s version of an “offshore balancing” strategy, which worked well in Libya, would have been much less costly and more effective.

The authors find that “nowhere in Obama’s foreign policy has the gap been wider between promise and delivery than in the Middle East.” This evaluation is focused on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in which the authors find Obama made numerous tactical mistakes. When combined with the absence of a strategy, these errors led to a new low in this admittedly very difficult situation. Before Obama, the authors note, the sides were at least talking.

Obama has a fairly good track record in dealing with rogue states and combating nuclear proliferation, claim the authors. He has successfully rallied the international community against Iran, promoting sanctions that already have left Iran’s economy “reeling.” It remains to be seen how effective the sanctions are—and what the administration will do if they fail.

The authors suffer from the fact that the world did not hold still in the months that passed between writing and publishing the book. They view the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations as a success; however, it did not last and had few positive spillover effects. START, as I have pointed out elsewhere, focused on a low-priority issue while leaving untouched the more serious threats posed by tactical nuclear weapons. It did not inspire Pakistan or North Korea to give up, or even slow down, their accelerating nuclear-arms buildup.

Nowhere is the strategic confusion of the Obama administration more evident and potentially more damaging than in its treatment of China, a failing the authors acknowledge, albeit in a temperate way. The Obama administration on one hand sought to engage China and urged Beijing to become a responsible stakeholder in maintaining the world order. On the other hand, it acted aggressively to contain China, pushing India to “balance” Beijing, engaging in military exercises with its neighbors and positioning forces on China’s borders. The Chinese also addressed the West in conflicting voices, some speaking of peaceful development, others of military buildup. The net result is a growing distrust between the two powers.

On energy and climate change, the authors categorize Obama’s track record as disappointing. Two of Obama’s major goals for forestalling climate change were to institute an international accord at the Copenhagen conference and to implement domestic “cap and trade” legislation that would reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 83 percent by the year 2050. Neither happened. The authors find Obama’s approach to global poverty—in particular, his promise to double foreign aid—to be “unrealistic.” They question the value of aid altogether, noting that the economic advancements of the major emerging powers (China, Brazil and India) have been mainly due to trade and investment. The authors do credit the Obama administration with reacting quickly and generously to the earthquake in Haiti.

Bending History highlights how complex and unyielding the world is, even to a superpower. It remains to be seen whether whoever leads us next can draw the proper lessons from this valuable study of U.S. foreign policy. What we have heard so far, from both sides, does not leave one brimming with optimism.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.