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Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy Change

President Barack Obama presents something of a dilemma. I voted for him twice in the belief that he was basically a cautious operator who would not rush into a new war in Asia, unlike his Republican opponents who virtually promised to attack Iran upon assuming office. Unfortunately, Obama’s second term has revealed that his instinct nevertheless is to rely on America’s ability to project military power overseas as either a complement to or a substitute for diplomacy that differs only from George W. Bush in its style and its emphasis on humanitarian objectives.

That the president is indeed cautious has made the actual process of engagement different, witness the ill-fated involvement in Libya and the impending war-without-calling-it-war in Syria and Iraq, both of which are framed as having limited objectives and manageable risk for Washington even when that is not the case. Obama’s foreign and security policy is an incremental process mired in contradictions whereby the United States continues to involve itself in conflicts for which it has little understanding, seemingly doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past thirteen years but without the shock and awe.

Obama’s actual intentions might most clearly be discerned by looking at his inner circle. Three women are prominent in decision making relating to foreign policy: Samantha Power at the United Nations, Susan Rice heading the National Security Council, and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett in the White House. One might also add Hillary Clinton who, as Secretary of State, operated far more independently than her successor John Kerry, putting her own stamp on policy much more than he has been able to do. Where Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel fits into the decision making is unclear, but it is notable that both he and Kerry frequently appear to be somewhat out of sync with the White House.

What does the Obama team represent? Certain things are obvious. They are hesitant to involve the United States in long, drawn out military adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan but much more inclined to intervene than was George W. Bush when there is an apparent humanitarian crisis, operating under the principle of responsibility to protect or R2P. That R2P is often a pretext for intervention that actually is driven by other less altruistic motives is certainly a complication but it is nevertheless the public face of much of American foreign policy, as the nation is currently witnessing regarding ISIS.


Hillary Clinton has criticized [1] Obama foreign policy because on her view he did not act soon enough on ISIS and “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Her criticism is odd as she was a formulator of much of what the president has been doing and one should perhaps assume that her distancing from it might have something to do with her presidential ambitions. Interestingly, in a self-promoting recent review [2] of Henry Kissinger’s new book World Order [3], Clinton both defines her own Kissinger-esque foreign policy strategy and also concedes that it is more-or-less the same as Obama’s. Clinton wrote that Kissinger’s world view “largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and cooperation for the 21st century.”

Now if all of that is true, and it might just be putting lipstick on a pig to create an illusion of coherency where none exists, then the United States might just be engaging in a sensible reset of its foreign policy, something like the Nixon Doctrine [4] of old. But the actual policy itself suggests otherwise, with the tendency to “do stupid stuff” prevailing, perhaps attributable to another Clinton book review assertion of “a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.”

Clinton inevitably confuses leadership with hegemony, clearly believing as one of her predecessors [5] at State put it, that America is the “indispensable nation.” Nor can she discern that few outside the beltway actually believe the hype. It would be difficult to make the case that the United States either stands for justice or is willing to tolerate any kind of international order that challenges American interests.

And the arrogance that comes with power means that the country’s leadership is not often able to explain what it is doing. Currently, the administration has failed to make any compelling case that the United States is actually threatened by ISIS beyond purely conjectural “what if” scenarios, suggesting that the policy is evolving in an ad hoc but risk-averse fashion to create the impression that something is actually being accomplished. Any plan to “destroy” ISIS without serious consideration of what that might entail means that the U.S. will inevitably assume the leadership role. Because air strikes cannot defeat any insurgency, and the moderate Syrian rebels waiting to be armed are a fiction, the Obama plan invites escalation and will make the Islamist group a poster child for those who want to see Washington fail yet again in the Middle East.

The tendency to act instead of think might be attributable to fear of appearing weak with midterm elections approaching, but it might also be due to the persistence of neoconservative national security views within the administration, which brings us to Victoria Nuland [6]. Nuland, many will recall, was the driving force behind efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych, an admittedly corrupt autocrat, nevertheless became Prime Minister after a free election. Nuland, who is the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, provided open support to the Maidan demonstrators opposed to Yanukovych’s government, to include media friendly appearances passing out cookies [7] on the square to encourage the protesters.

A Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton protégé who is married to leading neocon Robert Kagan, Nuland openly sought regime change for Ukraine by brazenly supporting [8] government opponents in spite of the fact that Washington and Kiev had ostensibly friendly relations. It is hard to imagine that any U.S. administration would tolerate a similar attempt by a foreign nation to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, particularly if it were backed by a $5 billion budget [9], but Washington has long believed in a global double standard for evaluating its own behavior.

Nuland is most famous for her foul language [10] when referring to the potential European role in managing the unrest that she and the National Endowment for Democracy had helped create. To be sure, her aggressive guidance of U.S. policy in Eurasia is a lot more important than whatever plays out in Syria and Iraq over the remainder of Obama’s time in office in terms of palpable threats to actual American interests. The replacement of the government in Kiev was only the prelude to a sharp break and escalating conflict with Moscow over Russia’s attempts to protect its own interests in Ukraine, most particularly in Crimea.

Victoria Nuland is playing with fire. Russia, as the only nation with the military capability to destroy the U.S., is not a sideshow like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Backing Moscow into a corner with no way out by using threats and sanctions is not good policy. Washington has many excellent reasons to maintain a stable relationship with Moscow, including counter-terrorism efforts, and little to gain from moving in the opposite direction. Russia is not about to reconstitute the Warsaw Pact and there is no compelling reason to return to a Cold War footing by either arming Ukraine or permitting it to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

And make no mistake about Nuland’s broader intention to expand the conflict and directly confront Russia. In Senate testimony in May she cited [11] how the administration is “providing support to other frontline states like Moldova and Georgia.” Frontline? Last week [12] Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seemed to confirm that the continued expansion of NATO is indeed administration policy, saying that Georgia would be next to join in light of “Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine.”

In 2009 President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for [13] “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” In retrospect it was all hat and no cattle given the ongoing saga in Afghanistan, the reduction of a relatively stable Libya to chaos, meddling in Ukraine while simultaneously threatening Russia, failure to restrain Israel and the creation of an Islamic terror state in the Arab heartland. Not to mention “pivots” and additional developments in Africa and Asia. It is not a record to brag about and it certainly does not suggest that the administration is as strategically agile as Hillary Clinton would like to have one believe.

Victoria Nuland is a career civil servant and cannot easily be fired but she could be removed from her top-level policy position and sent downstairs to head the mailroom at the State Department. It would send the message that aggressive democracy promotion is not U.S. policy, but President Obama has kept her on the job. The president also reportedly is an admirer [14] of her husband’s articles and books which argue that the U.S. must maintain its military power to accommodate its “global responsibilities.” So in response to the question “Why does Victoria Nuland still have her job?” the answer must surely be because the White House approves of what she has been doing, which should give everyone pause.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy Change"

#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 18, 2014 @ 1:14 am

“Don’t do stupid stuff” would be a more or less acceptable policy, if Obama would only follow it. Instead, at best, he seems to be following the policy of “Don’t do really, really stupid stuff.” That’s better than his predecessor, who did do really, really stupid stuff, managed to do, but not exactly Nobel Peace Prize worthy, either. As for Hillary, her only complaints about Obama seem to be that more stupid stuff was not done, that there was too much debate before the stupid stuff was done, and that, as a “great nation,” we need an “organizing principle” that, apparently, includes allowing a lot more stupid stuff to be done.

#2 Comment By johnny On September 18, 2014 @ 5:18 am

This whole send 3,000 US troops to W. Africa to breath Ebola will be interesting to say the least.

Curious to see the fallout once a US service member contracts Ebola.

This is a mutating virus and there is large, unknown risk that US troops can carry this back to the US whether contracted or on clothes or materiel. They can spread this to their family or friends.

I wonder if they will put these 3,000 troops in quarantine for a couple months to observe them when they return.

This has not been thought through – at all.

#3 Comment By HeartRight On September 18, 2014 @ 5:44 am

Obama is a noticable improvement over his predecessor, but that is a pretty lame baseline. However, it is the best show in town – during a particularly bad season, of course.

R2P is an absurdity. To claim the right to be protected is one thing. To claim the right to protect is quite another.
It sounds alltogether like a concoction of the Prussian Elector Frederick the Great, who implored his commanders to emphasize that no matter where they were, they had come to protect the religious freedom of the locals. Privately he boasted that his real reasons were ‘a full treasury, a lively disposition, and a thirst for adventure’.

Mind you, if only Presidents had the same standards, there would be less interventions, since the full treasury would be lacking, leaving the obvious hipocrisy a point to moot for us to worry about.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 18, 2014 @ 8:11 am

Philadelphialawyer says: “’Don’t do stupid stuff’ would be a more or less acceptable policy, if Obama would only follow it. Instead, at best, he seems to be following the policy of ‘Don’t do really, really stupid stuff’.”

Philip Giraldi says: “Russia, as the only nation with the military capability to destroy the U.S., is not a sideshow like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Backing Moscow into a corner with no way out by using threats and sanctions is not good policy.”

I’m thinking Philip Giraldi would agree that with respect to Ukraine/Russia Obama is already doing “really, really stupid stuff.”

Until six months ago my idea of “really, really stupid stuff” was a U.S. war with Iran.

Maybe we need a new level – maybe we should call the present course of confrontation with Russia “really, really, REALLY stupid stuff.”

#5 Comment By KHW On September 18, 2014 @ 9:24 am

“Don’t do stupid stuff” would be a more or less acceptable policy, if Obama would only follow it.”

^genius. somehow this policy gets criticized, as if Obama has actually been following it. Attacking Libya? turned out to be epitome of stupidity. Going into another war in the middle east is as stupid as it gets.

#6 Comment By Jim Bovard On September 18, 2014 @ 9:54 am

Great analysis, Phil!

#7 Comment By Chris Atwood On September 18, 2014 @ 10:03 am

“her aggressive guidance of U.S. policy in Eurasia is a lot more important than whatever plays out in Syria and Iraq over the remainder of Obama’s time in office in terms of palpable threats to actual American interests.”

It is quite clear that Obama personally does not see it that way. Here’s what he said,

“Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

In fact, viewing the anemic engagement in the “pivot to Asia” it’s clear that in his view, Islamic terrorism is THE major threat to the US, far exceeding either anything having to do with Russia or China.

Not sharing this perception, I find it hard to understand. But once you remember that to the president, it’s still a 9/11-style world, the Obama foreign policy makes a whole lot more sense.

#8 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On September 18, 2014 @ 10:51 am

Well said, but the article should have been titled “Obama’s Failed European Foreign Policy Change,” because it omitted Obama’s many Asian, African and South American blunders.

The article also overlooked Obama’s foreign policy’s suicidal drain on the American economy and quality of life, imposed on the Land of the Free by Obama’s reckless military, homeland defense and pharmaceutical-industry-priced Medicare spending.

Instead of debating whether to golf or do stupid stuff, it’s time for Obama to make a persuasive public case for a balanced, growing economy at home to enable America to engage our foreign friends and competitors with a soft-power-first policy.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 18, 2014 @ 11:06 am

Dear Executive in the WH,

do yourself a favor. If you decide to decide to re-enter the fray in the ME, the only way for any intervention work with force is to actually use force to your end.

Not some silly putty carve outs to placate the ignorant politically correct nonsense pandered about by all of these dueling parties who use to their ends as opposed to your own and the country’s.

I think you should stay out of the mess. But if you jump in — then you had better own the matter on all sides and every level, such that those who oppose and those who don’t dance to your tune —

not you theirs.

#10 Comment By John On September 18, 2014 @ 11:32 am

R2P is the heartfelt insistence that you are making love, even though you just agreed to have unprotected sex with strangers for money. Maybe it makes you feel better to say it out loud, but it certainly hasn’t changed the outcome or how others perceive it.

If our foreign policy establishment were less corrupt, I might feel more kindly towards R2P, but since it is almost always a fig leaf for resource control efforts, I find the doctrine unsupportable.

#11 Comment By LarryS On September 18, 2014 @ 11:48 am

So the one-world government we Americans used to fear is actually made in America. Pogo was right, “We have met the enemy…and he is us.”

#12 Comment By Patrick On September 18, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

It’s pathetic that the least crappy Presidential option has started two wars, and would’ve gone to Syria.

#13 Comment By James Canning On September 18, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

Yes, send Victoria Nuland to the mail room.

I recommend Martin Wolf’s comments in the Financial Times yesterday. Isis is not the primary problem we have to focus on at this time.

#14 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On September 18, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

“It is hard to imagine that any U.S. administration would tolerate a similar attempt by a foreign nation to interfere in U.S. domestic politics..”

Perhaps one reason we feel entitled to subvert the internal politics of other nations is that our leaders are all too used to our politics being subverted by the Israel Lobby. If they get way doing it to us, we might as well try doing it to others.

And of course, Nuland herself is part of the Israeli fifth column in the USA.

#15 Comment By Andrew On September 18, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

I liked the article, but I think it is not just Obama and the failure (politely speaking) of his foreign policy. The problem is systemic, it runs deeper than just incompetence of the so called elites. The vicious circle of reproduction of the aggressive and self-defeating US foreign policy, sadly, will continue no matter who is in the White House. I want to be wrong in my prediction.

#16 Comment By Sean Scallon On September 18, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

The neocons make neoptism an artform. How else would someone working for Strobe Talbott get to work for Dick Cheney? Only because she was married to Robert Kagan. That’s the only reason. And then as soon as Cheney is gone it’s back to Hillaryland! And whose says there’s no bipartisanship in Washington D.C. anymore? They certainly practice it neoconservative/neoliberals circles.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 19, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

I would that comments about neocon cabals in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the Ukraine cease. There is just isn’t enough evidence to support some underground control of foreign policy.

The ‘neocon’ (and I use the term loosely) one saving grace is that they are about as secret as the Rose Bowl parade. They make no bones about their agenda, they may have hidden motives, but that isn’t atypical.

The vote for the use of forces was an open debate in both houses. The issues were repeatedly addressed. Every Sunday, the airwaves were littered with those making the case. The brow beating and tactics beyond arm twisting and being punished for disagreement wasn’t reserved to the Washington. The same went o9n in American colleges and Universities, places of employment. There was volumes of unanswered questions and voids of evidence for ether case as to invasion —-

I think it is high time to stop blaming conservatives (coded as neocons) for what was an open discussion. The neocons so called could not alone have made the vote. It took no small number of democrats and liberals to make the case and be on board.

Sec. Clinton and her followers could hardly be called conservatives. Yet they have extended the use of policy in ways that make less than the previous administration. I find myself defending them again . . . That’s really irritating since my loyalty has been repaid in spades — Ha.

The policy questions on the table couched as merely neocon, actually miss the point brought into relief over the last four years. “Don’t destabilize regions without cause beyond some ethereal notions of democracy.” The democratic administration has faired no better than the previous. I would never have imagined that we would support a violent overthrow of a duly elected body as in the Ukraine. And hiding behind the corrupt admin. advance doesn’t cut it. The next election is the process.

And by good greif, if you decide to use force — use it to with all deliberate intent — negotiating nothing with anyone opposed or colluding with the opposed — own it lock stock and barrel.

Anikan’s Dilemma (title owned by elitecommunication(s) Inc.): When the good guys act like the bad guys or worse the result will on occasion be a Darth Vader. Created soly by the ethical contradictions of the supposed good guys.

#18 Comment By James Canning On September 19, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Victoria Nuland’s foolish actions in Ukraine have done a great deal to cause the current crisis in that countr.

#19 Comment By Some Of Us Still Receive Mail On September 19, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

“sent downstairs to head the mailroom”

Only when State has completely dispensed with snail mail.

#20 Comment By Plainsong On September 19, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

Nuland is emblematic of what people around the world are sick of and rising up against: arrogance, incompetence, entitlement, corruption, all exacerbated by lack of accountability.

#21 Comment By Winston On September 19, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

Don’t expect much when coalition of willing is supporters of ISIS! Consider also muddy water since extremists have been frenemeis for a long, long time! Philip should know about this.

Meanwhile FSA is not dominated by moderates! All this aid is going to go straight to ISIS.
US Key Man in Syria Worked Closely with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra
“The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) currently arming, funding, and commanding entire brigades of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), is designated an Al Qaeda affiliate by the United Nations pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011), in addition to being listed by both the US State Department and the UK Home Office (page 5, .pdf) as a foreign terrorist organization and a proscribed terrorist organization respectively.”
UN Designates “Free Syrian Army” Affiliates as Al Qaeda

Syria’s Foreign Fighter Dilemma

Syria’s Foreign Fighters Are There to Stay

Indicates US dance with extremists since 1950s:
America Created Al-Qaeda and the ISIS Terror Group
This post says goes even further back:


How And WhyThe USA Has Sponsored Terrorism In The Mid East Since At Least 1948

Old partners since Muslim Brotherhood creation days. Now Saudis feeling heat at home so suddenly enemies of own spawn. Meanwhile ISIS is Ikhwan in modern form. De Ja Vu?
Islamic State: ‘US failure to look into Saudi role in 9/11 has helped Isis’
Why is Turkey supporting Islamic State fighters in Iraq?
ISIS grew strong not in Iraq;but from Syria:
America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now threatening Baghdad, was funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three U.S. allies that have dual agendas in the war on terror.

#22 Comment By Winston On September 19, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

Palpable threat to US policy are in ME thanks to petrodollar holding US economy -ahem infinite zero interest rate and QE up! I am waiting to see what happens when growing army of unemployed Arab men decide to follow ISIS and take on Saudi at home! Pretty sure SA is tinderbox waiting for a match! Do read Clarke’s article About ISIS and Saudi Arabia in Huffington Post!

It was not a bright thing to make Saudii’s linchpin of petrodollar. But hey policymakers often cannot see beyond their noses!

#23 Comment By Winston On September 19, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

The Prez is a neocon. This anti Russia policy is really dumb since real enemy of US, is Saudi Arabia, the critical ME ally linchpin of petrodollar holding-up US economy and unrepentant jihadi factory (from Ikhwan to today)which is part of its DNA!

Appears Saudis think US won’t say boo because it knows they hold up the economy; and that is why they are first among all allies!

Everybody knows what Saudis are doing and still they are reliable ally in interventions involving Muslims countries. What does it say about US?
Islamic State: ‘US failure to look into Saudi role in 9/11 has helped Isis

Gen. Wesley Clark: Saudis, Qatar Created ISIS Threat
You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia

#24 Comment By Winston On September 19, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

By the way see what these guys have to say about EU and its imperialism.

They are anticipators who also anticipated the financial crisis that the Fed reserve Chairman couldn’t see! Gee if they could see it in France, he must have been really myopic!


GEAB N°87 is available! Europe 2020 – Community or empire?

Also have janudiced view of US:

Once upon a time there was America

. A superpower destroyed by its hubris – and destroying the world Subscribe

. The US – the sick man of the world Subscribe

. – A broken political system… and a biased guardian of the Constitution Subscribe

. A social system on its last legs Subscribe

. A bankrupt education system Subscribe

. And how is the economy doing? Subscribe

#25 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 22, 2014 @ 11:01 am

“That R2P is often a pretext for intervention that actually is driven by other less altruistic motives is certainly a complication”

Whatever a President is willing to do is the pretext used by those with other motives. If Obama was not willing to do R2P, then they’d find something else he was willing to do and use that pretext.

It is all about a claimed cause around which to rally support, as was famously said of WMD and mushroom clouds.

#26 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 22, 2014 @ 11:09 am

“Because air strikes cannot defeat any insurgency, and the moderate Syrian rebels waiting to be armed are a fiction”

True. The retired Commandant of the Marine Corps just said that this weekend in a speech.

Many Democrats are rallying to the “plan” because it is Obama. Many Republicans are rallying to the plan because it is what the McCrazies want to do. It is partisan politics trumping reason.

But there are reasonable people on all sides who see this not as partisan, but as something that just makes no sense and cannot work, even by its own terms, even by Obama’s own prior words describing the “moderates” just last month.

When Giraldi and the Commandant are saying the same things for the same reasons, they are probably right.

#27 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 22, 2014 @ 11:13 am

“Nuland, many will recall, was the driving force behind efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian government”

We proudly claimed to have “midwifed” that event, until it became more politically convenient to claim they did it on their own. That claim that it wasn’t us has been flying around ever since it all hit the first bumps of Russian reaction.

#28 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 22, 2014 @ 11:18 am

“The president also reportedly is an admirer of her husband’s articles and books which argue that the U.S. must maintain its military power”

A significant number of those who were “neocons” under Bush have made a studied attempt to move to the Democratic side.

Many were Jackson Democrats before, and now are claiming that hawkish neo-lib is not really neocon in disguise. Kagan is prominent among those attempting with some success to make this transition.

Hillary seems to welcome them even more than Obama, so they rightly see a safe future of the same influence if she wins. They are only staying in power, not changing anything they believe or do.

#29 Comment By Loic On September 22, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

The execrableness of the policy lies of course in the displaced and dead hundreds of thousands, principally in Near Asia and the Middle East consequent to hegemonic attempts at resource control and the optative emasculation of statal rivals. But, ultimately the operating vision is one of an “empire of the mind,” whereby American imperialism qua mental state (in the dual or triple senses of the phrase) incessantly expands, colonizes, Ebola-like, the mental territories of billions of human minds with the psychological and even somatic patterns and dynamics that sustain this virtual ever-replicating, mise-en-abyming empire that has lifted itself by virtue of the conceptual into the deterritorialized sphere of the Internetic “cloud” and beyond. The question is will this true “empire of lies” have fully engulfed us within it before we could become aware of its systemically contradictorily demise, or will the psychosis of infinitely mirrored and mirroring lies have irreversibly trespassed and transferred our human consciences into a new and irrevocable transhuman state, akin to the robotic and cybernetic, the singular, unitary, and ontologically anti-communal? Isolated in a shared hell of permanently damaged inhumanity?