Navigating the Post–Obama World

Navigating the Post–Obama World

The big question now is: will the Trump presidency be a bridge toward a more positive or negative recalibration of America’s role in the world.

What if there was a major Palestinian uprising and nobody came? In the seventy years since the founding of the state of Israel, it has been the standard operating procedure for any Israel-Palestinian clash to be met with swift condemnation (and sometimes outright conflict) by the Arab states, and a wave of international outrage against Israel, typically by the United Nations.

However, following last month's massive protest in Gaza against Israel's border fence, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded, the loudest voices of condemnation seemed to come from American pundits and politicians eager to blame the violence on Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Arab League and UN? Not so much. Aside from the usual criticism of Israel's use of "excessive force," there were few complaints about Israel by the Arab countries, and certainly nothing to match the degree of America's UN ambassador Nikki Haley's defense of Israel and condemnation of Hamas.

Now, Americans can—and should—place Mr. Trump's Middle East policy, along with all of his other policies, under intense scrutiny. After all, he is a political and policy amateur, who oozes recklessness in his private and public lives.  But the U.S. also has to ask itself: how did we get here? Not just with Donald Trump as president, but also with the world he bestrides so seemingly upside down. Pick any region of the world, and odds are it's wrestling with strange new challenges—from hydrogen bombs on the Korean Peninsula to the refugee crisis (and related populism) in Europe, to ISIS offensives in Afghanistan, and to Arab states sitting idly by while Jerusalem becomes permanently Jewish.

The world is, of course, a complicated place. And no single American president can get all the credit or blame for the inevitable ups and downs of world affairs. But there is just no denying that the foreign policy program of the prior Obama administration, despite its best of intentions, has played a crucial, and often decisive, role in today's global upheavals.

The question now is whether a maverick like Trump can effectively navigate this post-Obama world. Though a maverick mentality may be useful to confront the effects of Obama’s more glaring missteps, the challenge will be to ensure he does not contribute reckless missteps of his own. Additionally, can Trump eventually return a measure of pragmatic stability to America’s role in the world?


How Did We Get Here?

The Sunni Arabs turning a relatively blind eye to Palestinian deaths in Gaza and an American embassy in Jerusalem is a monumental change. Or, at least, it appears that way until we place it in the context of Obama’s foreign policy—whose goal was to reduce America’s footprint in the region; build up Shiite Iran as a regional power to counterbalance Sunni autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt; and to rethink America’s knee-jerk support for Israel.

These were certainly understandable shifts in policy—the Mideast has long been a millstone for American foreign policy, oil-filled quicksand where policy options typically range from bad to worse. But under Obama things quickly bottomed out. For instance, his hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 helped spark the rise of ISIS, and his decision to end support for Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and rally behind the Muslim Brotherhood ended with a humiliating military coup in 2013. Furthermore, Obama's failure to act in Syria invited massive Russian and Iranian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and his nuclear deal with Iran sent Arab states scrambling to consider their own nuclear programs and rapprochement of sorts with Israel.

It's hard to imagine members of Obama's foreign policy team believing their Mideast strategy—a core part of what they liked to call Obama's "long game"—would end up emboldening Israel and leaving Palestinians virtually friendless in the region. But that is precisely what happened even before Trump formally announced his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2017. Already leading Arab governments were secretly conveying acceptance of Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem, and quietly urging Palestinians to accept Ramallah in the West Bank as their eventual capital instead of East Jerusalem—something once utterly unthinkable.

In fact, massive unintended consequences like this were often the rule rather than the exception of Obama's foreign policy. Take for example the 2011 Libya intervention. What began as a limited humanitarian mission authorized by the UN, ended with France and the United States assisting rebels locate the fleeing dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was then brutally executed on the side of a road. For an administration that supposedly operated under the motto "no more Iraq's," the regime change operation in Libya was positively startling.

More impactful, though, were the Libyan intervention's effects on global peace and security. Chaotic post-Qaddafi Libya became a base for refugee migration to Europe in the mid-2010s, opening another host of problems. Moreover, the Libyan operation itself severely damaged vital norms of world affairs regarding humanitarian intervention and nuclear non-proliferation. Qaddafi's death, for example, led UN Security Council members Russia and China to declare they would block any future humanitarian missions that might become a "replay of the Libya scenario," thus perhaps permanently wounding the UN's so-called "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine.