As President Obama approaches the end of his eight-year tenure, it is time to assess his foreign policy. Any reasonable assessment should take into account two considerations. One, Obama inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, a toxic legacy. The much bruited about Global War on Terror (GWOT), including the eminently avoidable military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which terminated ‘the unipolar moment’ over-celebrated by Charles Krauthammer following the collapse of the Soviet Union, only globalized terror and made the world more vulnerable to terror and in the process abridged civil liberties in the US and elsewhere. The second consideration is that many IR (International Relations) scholars in the US and some outside still believe that the international system resembles the solar system, with the US occupying the place of the sun and others orbiting around it. They believe that the acts of commission and omission by the US alone provide a complete account of what happens or does not happen in a crisis situation. For instance, the ongoing, seemingly unstoppable, carnage in Syria is Obama’s fault according to some scholars who exaggerate what the US can do to influence the rest of the world.
Keeping these considerations in mind, this article evaluates Obama’s foreign policy on eight major issues likely to shape his legacy.
Economic sanctions were imposed on Cuba first in 1960 when Fidel Castro, who overthrew the US-supported dictator Batista, started asserting Cuba’s right over its economic resources by nationalising the properties of US companies. Under Batista, the US Ambassador was even more powerful than the Cuban President. In 1960, the CIA sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to dislodge Castro, a disastrous failure known as the Bay of Pigs. Yet, the US persisted by replacing pigs with mongooses, with Operation Mongoose including assassination attempts on Castro. Castro, in turn, sought missiles from the USSR which led to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the world got very close to a nuclear war. In all fairness, the US should have ended the sanctions when the crisis was resolved. It is to Obama’s credit that he exerted his utmost and accomplished a reconciliation with Cuba in 2015. Sanctions have, however, not been fully lifted yet, as the Republicans control Congress.
Score: 9 out of 10.
In December 2007, US intelligence concluded “with a high level of confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon programme in 2003, and “with a moderate degree of confidence” that the programme remained “frozen in 2007.” Instead of engaging with Iran, President Bush continued with confrontation, and used the US clout with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Security Council to impose asphyxiating sanctions. Resenting the sanctions, Iran started a uranium enrichment programme that could have given it enough fissile material for bombs. A disinformation campaign made sure that hardly any attention was paid to the fact the enrichment stopped at the industrial level, far below what is required to make a bomb. In other words, Iran was punished not for what it was doing but for what its foes alleged it might do in the future.
Obama, in contrast, demonstrated a singular tenacity of purpose and superb diplomatic skill in engaging with Iran and signing a deal in July 2015. He withstood pressure from Saudi Arabia and Israel, and prevented the latter from starting a dangerous war by bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. As Congress is standing in the way, some US sanctions remain.
Score: 8.5 out of 10.
Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after assuming office and without having done anything in particular to merit it. But he did promise to respect multilateralism and to restrict the use of the US military as the first option when confronted with a crisis. In a famous address in Prague in 2009, Obama said, “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy… begin the work of reducing our arsenal.” A new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia was signed in Prague in 2010 setting the following aggregate limits:
The treaty marked progress towards a limited reduction of nuclear weapons, but it obviously does not take us to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. But the fault is not Obama’s. States holding nuclear weapons are not willing to give up their weapons. However, under pressure from hardliners in the Pentagon and Congress, Obama did approve a modernisation project for more accurate weapons with lesser yield (B 61 Mod12). The project might cost up to USD one trillion over three decades. Obviously, Russia and China will respond and Obama has inaugurated a new arms race. His refusal to send troops to Syria and arms to Ukraine is sensible as will be explained below.
Score: 8 out of 10.
When Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell from power in January 2011 and Egypt’s Mubarak the next month, Obama sent out signals supporting the aspirations of the people to move towards democracy. But on Libya, Obama let France and Britain persuade him to make a ‘humanitarian military intervention’. Russia and China agreed to a loosely worded Security Council resolution enabling NATO to effect regime change in a crude manner and the result is Libya in a ‘state of nature’ with a war of ‘all against all’ as Thomas Hobbes would have put it. Obama has publicly admitted that it was a mistake, but the harm done to Libya is enormous and he could have prevented it by exercising better judgment.
In Syria, Obama has been without a clear policy. In August 2011, he publicly asked President Assad to leave office. But the US has been reluctant to give effective weapons such as Stinger missiles (man-portable air defence system) to the rebels supported by it because of worries about foes getting hold of them. In 2013, Obama drew a ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons and the Pentagon got ready to carry out bombing after Assad reportedly used such weapons. But subsequently Obama reversed his decision, thus inflicting a degree of damage on his credibility as leader. And after spending USD 500 million to train 5,000 so-called moderate rebels fighting against Assad, the US managed to train only a handful. Russia stepped in by starting a bombing campaign and as of now, Russia has the military and diplomatic advantage.
However, Obama acted with wise restraint by not sending troops to Syria as it could have been a new ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Iraq’. In any case, he did not have that option as the US had become war weary after Bush’s misadventures. But, Obama need not have drawn a ‘red line’ if he was not ready to use his military power to take consequential action. Inconsequential words are best avoided. Obama could have prevented the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) from taking Mosul in June 2014, but he unwisely used the situation only to put pressure on Prime Minister Al Maliki to resign. Earlier, Obama had misjudged the ISIL and called it a “J V team” (junior varsity team) of not much consequence.
Score: 5.5 out of 10.
The new START (referred to earlier) followed a decision by the newly elected Obama to ‘reset’ the rather frosty relations that had developed with Russia during the Bush years. The reset ran into problems from time to time, but it worked until the onset of the crisis in Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis was practically the creation of the US, which supported a popular agitation started in November 2013 to unseat the elected president Victor Yanukovych, who later fled to Russia in February 2014. Putin had reason to conclude that the new government would move rapidly towards joining NATO as well as EU and make it difficult for Russia to maintain its hold on the naval base in the Crimea established as far back as 1783. As a majority of the people in the eastern part of Ukraine are of Russian stock, a separatist movement arose supported by Putin. In March 2014, Putin staged a referendum after annexing the Crimea. Of course, what Putin did was illegal. But, keeping in mind his national security imperative, Putin had few options.
Obama personalized bilateral relations and nursed a personal hatred towards Putin, publicly demonstrated at a lunch given by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN. Putin smiled as he raised his glass while Obama looked stern. As we all know, anger does not lead to good policy. Obama’s reset has boomeranged and relations with Russia can improve only under a new president. But, Obama wisely chose not to send weapons or troops to Ukraine.
Score: 4 out of 10.
Obama has more or less accepted the inevitability of the rise of China as the only power that can pose a challenge to the US. He also realises that the US and Chinese economies are virtually Siamese twins. In this context the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia announced in 2011 entailed plans to divert some of the military resources available with the winding down of the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan to ‘Asia’. The main purpose of the ‘rebalance’ was to reassure allies that the US intends to remain in the area and will be able to render them protection, if needed, against an assertive China.
Five years after the announcement, it is doubtful whether the allies feel confident that they can count on the US if China moves from assertiveness to aggression. The ASEAN has repeatedly failed to take a stand against China in support of Vietnam in the matter of the South China Sea. China has rejected the verdict of an international tribunal against its claims and has not stopped creating ‘facts on the ground’. The pivot appears weak for now.
Score: 4 out of 10.
Despite numerous shuttles by Secretary of State John Kerry, there has been no progress. By taking on Prime Minister Netanyahu on the question of settlements in his first term, Obama made an avoidable mistake.
Score: 4 out of 10
Obama succeeded in bringing India into a closer defence cooperation relationship marked by the signing of LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) in August 2016. Critics have unfairly faulted him for not getting India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). A comparison with what Bush did in 2008 in getting an NSG waiver for the Indo-US nuclear agreement does not hold as China’s clout has grown considerably in the intervening years. Closer defence cooperation with India is part of the ‘pivot’.
Score: 7 out of 10.
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) had said that world history is the world’s court of justice. History will rate Obama, the 44th President of the United States, among the top ten of the holders of that high office.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.