The Obama Defense: What He Gets Right — and Wrong — About Foreign Policy

U.S. President Obama — increasingly accused of having a listless foreign policy that, in the eyes of some, made Russian President Vladimir Putin believe he could get away with stealing Crimea — is doing much better on the world stage than his critics allow. But he does still have to address one significant problem. If he does not, he will likely find himself increasingly harangued over a supposed decline in American influence and power on his watch. His West Point speech on May 28 will probably fix some of the problem, but not all of it.

During his speech, Obama argued that some of the most frequent allegations about his foreign policy are flat wrong and underscored his restraint in the deployment of American power. As he put it the other day, it’s a lot easier to start wars than to end them. Obama’s explanation of how much it pains him to have American troops die under his command was heartfelt and moving. And his general argument that force, especially the unilateral use of force, cannot be the go-to method of solving foreign policy problems was correct as well. Still, the president’s speech will hardly silence the debates about specific policies, a number of which are overheated.

To come to his (partial) defense on a few policies: On Benghazi, the United States certainly made mistakes. Four Americans were tragically killed, and it was no one’s finest hour. But charges that the Obama administration launched a major conspiracy to cover up what had really happened simply fail to hold water. And beyond the human tragedy, the strategic consequences for the United States of that terrible night in Libya in September of 2012 were small.

On Ukraine, this year Russia invaded Crimea, a move not unlike how Putin led the attack against Georgia when George W. Bush was president. It’s pretty hard to blame either Bush or Obama for such old-fashioned Russian aggression, especially since neither Georgia nor Ukraine is part of the NATO alliance, whose members the United States is sworn to defend. And Obama’s approach to date on Ukraine — make Putin pay a modest but real price for what he has done, while signaling that the United States and its allies would greatly increase the economic costs of any further aggression — strikes a good balance. At present, it even seems to be working, discouraging Putin from far more dangerous aggression in eastern Ukraine.

On Iran, a modest and temporary loosening of sanctions in pursuit of a nuclear deal has been a reasonable approach, especially given how unpalatable using force against a determined Iran would be. Sure, negotiations may fail, just as the well-intentioned Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appear to be failing. But the Iran effort represents the culmination of a decade of applying the economic screws against Tehran through a creative international sanctions campaign. Obama has made one mistake — he’s failed to give the Bush administration, and Republicans in general, enough credit, and that tendency continued with the recent West Point speech. His predecessor was the one that first opted for trying to use economic rather than military power to address Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and if the Obama administration framed the talks as a bipartisan accomplishment, domestic support for this policy might increase.

Still, on foreign policy, Obama does indeed have a problem. Actually he has two types of problems. One is tactical and specific; the other is broader. Both need greater attention, and the West Point speech didn’t full answer the mail on either.

The tactical issue is that Obama is making major mistakes in at least three Middle East countries. Although discrete mistakes, not evidence of broader U.S. weakness or decline, they are still significant. On Syria, the hands-off approach Obama chose in 2011–12 has clearly failed. Bashar al-Assad is firmly in power; 150,000 Syrians are dead and an astronomical nine million displaced from their homes; al Qaeda affiliates within the insurgency are stronger than ever. The United States needs a serious, sustained program to strengthen the moderate factions of the insurgency and perhaps use limited airpower in its defense. Obama voiced some general words along these lines in his West Point speech, but one must be skeptical here, since the public has heard promises of greater U.S. aid for the insurgency before. Washington probably also needs a more realistic vision of a political settlement that might be based on the settlement reached in Bosnia: a “soft partition” of the country among its different ethnic and religious groups.

With regard to Libya, the problem is not Benghazi but the chaos that resulted from the West’s supposed victory against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. The United States needs to deal with this through a much more muscular NATO effort to train and equip new Libyan security forces. Perhaps Obama’s new counterterrorism initiative and fund, as proposed in the West Point speech, can be applied to help address this problem.

And in Egypt, Washington’s coddling of the new strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has gone too far. The United States risks getting in bed with a new autocrat unless policymakers make it clear that continued U.S. aid is conditional on more inclusive and humane rule by the Egyptian general. The poor turnout in the May Egyptian presidential elections should remind Americans that, even if Sisi is a tolerable transition figure right now, the country has nothing close to a new political system that reflects the aspirations and expectations of the Egyptian people. As things stand, Sisi risks becoming the next Hosni Mubarak. Something closer to the old Turkish model, in which the military enforced reasonable limits on political discourse but otherwise tried to stay out of the fray as much as possible, would be preferable to what Sisi appears to be doing now. American influence and aid policies need to seek to promote a more inclusive Egyptian political system in the future, not simply fall back on old habits that predate Tahrir Square.

But the bigger problem is this: Obama’s overall foreign policy doesn’t add up to much, in large part because he is explaining it so tepidly. When challenged on his foreign policy during his recent trip to Asia, Obama replied that his policies were workmanlike and pragmatic. The gist of the West Point speech was similar. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But that doesn’t go far enough. The man who gave great speeches about changing the world from 2007 to 2009 has fallen back on the mundane.

I’d suggest two broad themes for Obama. First, he should champion the United States’ successes in the war on terror more confidently. He does not need to be George W. Bush, but a little dose of Ronald Reagan might help. For example, how about talking more about the positive accomplishments in Afghanistan, including creation of a 350,000 strong security force and successful (so far) presidential election process, instead of just talking about how we are leaving? In fact, there was more of this in the president’s Bagram speech on May 25 and his words about Afghanistan at West Point; he needs to keep it up. The West Point speech also wisely rebutted the thesis that the United States is in decline; Obama’s latest instincts seem right, but the key will be consistency and persistence. One key matter will be to introduce flexibility to Obama’s preferred date of departure, 2016, from Afghanistan so that if the United States needs to retain a few thousand troops there after 2016 to keep Afghanistan cohesive, al Qaeda on its heels, and America safe, it can still do so.

And on Asia-Pacific policy, instead of just reiterating that the so-called pivot or rebalance is alive and well, how about giving a clearer sense of what the United States is going to do in the region now that it is supposedly back? A much more direct, and clear-eyed, sense of the United States’ policy towards China should be the centerpiece. In Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and I advocate a twin approach we call strategic reassurance and restraint. Whatever the talking points he adopts, though, Obama needs a big idea to explain himself — something that can match the magnitude of what is changing in this hugely consequential part of the world. The rebalance sets the stage for a new policy; it is not yet a new policy or strategic approach in and of itself.

It does still feel like Obama is floundering a bit in foreign policy. But it is a fixable problem, and it’s time the White House got around to repairing it. The West Point speech was not one of Obama’s best efforts and will not by itself solve the problem. But it was a start.

This article originally appeared on
Foreign Affairs