Criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy approach has reached a boiling point.
The president’s loudest critics—chiefly those on the hawkish right, but also so-called liberal interventionists—fault him for hesitating to use military force in a host of venues. They accuse him of isolationism, weakness, lack of vision, and a failure to project American power abroad.
Preferring military intervention to diplomacy, they call for immediate air strikes in Iraq, without political pre-conditions—a call similar to their 2013 message about Syria, when President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people. And they also call for a harsher—presumably more militaristic—stance towards Russia, China, and the multitude of other adversaries the United States faces around the world.
But what if the president’s diplomatic endeavors are not signs of weakness but of strength? And what if those moves actually reflect what the American public says it wants?
In striking contrast to the criticism, it’s possible to see Obama’s second-term foreign policy as a qualified success story. Despite tremendous pressure inside the Beltway, he has refused so far to commit U.S. soldiers to combat in new open-ended engagements. Meanwhile he has gradually scaled back, if not yet abandoned, his administration’s controversial targeted assassination program.
While at times Obama’s reactions to rapidly changing crises have seemed indecisive, his ability to adapt as the ground shifted beneath his feet has led to more diplomatic victories and fewer futile armed conflicts than the United States otherwise would have had. In an era in which innovative responses take precedence over established doctrines, prioritizing diplomacy over militarism has avoided protracted conflicts and senseless death.
Weakness or Wisdom?
The sharpest public criticism of Obama’s foreign policy has revolved not around long-standing challenges, but around momentous events that were—for the most part—unpredicted. The Arab Awakening, Syria’s bloody civil war, and the Ukraine crisis arrived largely unforeseen and had to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. And on these fronts, minimizing armed conflict has overall been a good thing.
The Arab Awakening came as a surprise to many—even to leading experts on the region where the uprisings occurred. Caught unaware by the tumultuous processes, and lacking credibility after a decade of disastrous Middle Eastern interventions, the United States had little capacity to ensure peaceful transitions to democracy.
In Egypt, where the United States had the most leverage due to high levels of military aid, U.S. interests in geopolitical stability complicated efforts to hold the military accountable for its autocratic policies and overrode interests in ensuring democracy. Deep-seated fears of Islamist governments such as the elected Morsi administration rendered military autocracy more palatable, even to many Egyptians, and support for democracy less intense than it might otherwise have been.
In light of the military’s abuses, the Obama administration will need to reconsider its support for the Egyptian government. But given the tumultuous politics in Egypt, the White House may have been wise to avoid openly picking a side in the short term.
The Obama administration has also vacillated on its policy in Syria, where it did not fully articulate a framework for dealing with the civil war and the quickly escalating humanitarian crisis. Believing that the Assad regime would never go to such lengths, Obama issued his infamous “Red Line,” suggesting that the use of chemical weapons would trigger American intervention. Yet as many military experts have written, even in the horrific case of chemical weapons use in August 2013, far from improving the situation, an armed American intervention could have made things much worse.
In the Russia-Ukraine dispute and the annexation of Crimea, Obama chose the wise course of diplomacy, sanctions, and international pressure rather than destabilizing and dangerous armed standoffs between NATO and Russian forces or U.S. military exercises in the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to project strength did not prevent the Ukrainian government from throwing out his lackey, President Viktor Yanukovych, and electing a new government. While control over the country’s eastern provinces remains tenuous amid (allegedly) Russian-backed uprisings, the result has surely been more positive (and less violent) than if Obama had pursued a more bellicose policy towards America’s longtime adversary.
In short, in the major foreign policy cases of his second term, Obama has successfully avoided military intervention that could have made the circumstances far worse.
Channeling the Public’s Will
The avoidance of war can be interpreted not as a cowardly reluctance to engage, but rather as a fulfillment of what the American people elected the president to do.
A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that more than half of Republicans and Independents and 46 percent of Democrats think that the United States already does “too much” to solve world problems. In fact, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of Americans (52 percent) think that the United States should “mind its own business internationally.”
In the face of a stagnant economy, war weariness, and a general feeling that even supposedly well-meaning interventions come back to haunt the United States (Afghanistan, anyone? Or Libya?), pursuing interventionist policies would likely garner more political ire than the administration’s so-called “quasi-isolationist” policies.
Diplomatic successes are often called isolationist simply because their processes and effects are less visible than those of armed intervention. But if the mark of a good negotiation is one in which all sides leave feeling as though they’ve been screwed over, it’s no surprise that dissatisfaction follows diplomatic solutions.
But besides Washington pundits, who is satisfied by war? As Obama himself put it, “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
Indeed, the use of military force has been at best sporadically effective to resolve international conflicts—and often calamitous. The diplomatic policies pursued by the State Department during Obama’s tenure, while lacking the “satisfying” sound of boots on the ground, have preserved a relative peace for U.S. troops and civilians alike. Obama wisely avoided armed intervention in Syria and Ukraine. And in large part, this approach reflects the wishes of the American public.
Getting in on the Action
Avoiding military action does not mean complete passivity, however. Pursuing the current policy of diplomacy over intervention, Obama can achieve concrete results in several areas.
In the post-Arab Awakening Middle East, few countries require as much diplomatic attention as Egypt. Since the “election” of General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi in June, it has become less and less likely that anything resembling a competitive democracy will take root in Egypt any time soon.
But there is ample leverage here, since U.S. aid has historically been the Egyptian military’s—and thus the current government’s—lifeline. By conditioning aid on democratic milestones and inclusive governance, the Obama administration could moderate the new government’s brutish treatment of its liberal and Islamist opposition. Conditions for continued military aid should include eradicating extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrest, and torture, and strengthening the country’s judicial system and the rule of law.
Threats to withdraw military aid should be linked to Egypt’s specific political situation rather than vague (and easy to manipulate) stipulations about military coups—although the administration already has the option to call a coup a coup and cut off aid to Egypt, a threat Sisi’s government should be made well aware of. Technical support in the form of political advisers and election monitors, as well as expressions of support for the right to participate in elections, must be given equally to groups from all points on the political spectrum, including Islamists, who agree to play by democratic rules. And given the long road to democracy ahead, a long-term strategy should be designed to be sustainable under future U.S. administrations.
Obama can also take a firmer stance on Syria—not by sending troops or weapons to do battle, but by creating a coalition of nations to fully fund humanitarian efforts by the United Nations (UN) and other agencies. By providing civilians caught in the crosshairs with the minimum aid requested by the UN, the administration can help ensure that the 10 million internally and externally displaced Syrians do not become a lost generation, a permanent refugee population, or a breeding ground for terrorists.
The United States must commit to alleviating the suffering of the civilian population and assist the countries hosting almost 3 million refugees in the region to mitigate the effects of the three-year-old conflict. The Obama administration’s recent request for $500 million to aid “moderate” Syrian rebels is a step in the wrong direction, although it could provide political space in Washington for the president to pursue a partnership with Iran.
In Ukraine, the Obama administration can also use non-military aid to show Russia that it does not intend to engage in armed intervention, but that the United States places high priority on Ukraine’s democratic success. This will do more to alleviate the current economic strains experienced by Ukrainians than bombing eastern cities to rid them of combatants ever could. Now, with gas supplies to Ukraine officially cut off by Russian gas giant Gazprom, Ukraine will need EU and U.S. economic support more than ever to keep its struggling population afloat.
Avoiding Military Strikes in Iraq
Of course, the conflict most likely to define Obama’s presidency will be the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which came to a boiling point in June as ISIS and other insurgents overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and marched on towards Baghdad. While the Iraq war was a poorly conceived intervention that Obama finished rather than started, it left a country ripe for the sectarian violence we are seeing today.
The first step towards bringing all of Iraq back under government control is to build a credible partnership with Iran, and to articulate a regional response plan. Iran has more influence over the Iraqi government than other countries in the region, and given its likely intervention in the conflict already, a U.S. partnership would ensure American influence in responding to the crisis. Saudi Arabia must also be incorporated in a regional response, and not allowed to fund a proxy Sunni war against Iranian-backed Shi’a groups.
Without a political settlement to mediate Iraq’s sectarian, regional, and tribal divides, any peace brought by armed engagement would be illusory at best, and Iraq would most likely descend again into civil conflict once military intervention came to an end.
No Time for Doctrines
In today’s changing geopolitical landscape, the age of overarching presidential “doctrines” has come to an end, and a time of pragmatic diplomacy is at hand.
On the “covert” front—the drone war, the deployment of special forces, and the quiet militarization of Africa, for example—much remains to be done to align U.S. foreign policy with the administration’s stated preference for diplomacy over war.
But on the high-profile issues currently gripping the Beltway, the Obama administration’s policies reflect both the wishes of the American citizenry and a new paradigm in international relations—one that places primacy not on power but on peace, not on the winning of wars but on the avoidance of war.
By reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from military intervention and toward successful cultivation of diplomacy, as well as the creation and enforcement of international agreements, future U.S. presidents can pursue policies that nurture lasting peace rather than fuel continual armed intervention and conflict.
Speaking on behalf of the war weary, that sounds like a worthy long-term goal for what is still (but might not always be) the most powerful nation on earth.