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Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy

As we get closer to the start of Obama’s final year in office, the inevitable commentary on Obama’s “legacy” has already started. Fred Kaplan offered [1] his assessment last week, arguing that Obama’s major accomplishments are much more fragile and reversible than the problems he will bequeath to his successor:

The problem with the president’s list of triumphs is that they’re provisional, while the failures are all too tangible and threatening. The potential for peace, prosperity, and global improvement, arising from his diplomatic achievements, is considerable, even transformative; but the results aren’t yet in—no one can foresee whether Iran will abide by the deal, Cuba will evolve toward democracy, the world’s nations will meet the warming targets, or the TPP will be ratified. By contrast, the Middle East is in flames, a million refugees are flooding into Europe, Americans are fearful, and the prospects for a swift, stable settlement in Syria—military, political, and humanitarian—seem dim.

Michael Rubin gives [2] us a hostile assessment that doesn’t tell us very much about Obama’s policies, but conveys the reflexive contempt for anything Obama does that makes the reversal of some of his major diplomatic initiatives much more likely under a Republican administration. Whether Obama’s “provisional” successes endure will depend in large part on the outcome of the next election to a greater degree than is usually the case. If the Democrats retain the White House, it seems all but certain that the nuclear deal with Iran and normalization with Cuba will remain, and if the GOP takes over there is a good chance that both will be undone.

Kaplan gives Obama both too much and too little credit. He doesn’t include successes from Obama’s first term, and likewise doesn’t touch on Obama’s more serious errors from that period. Though it is all but forgotten now, the negotiation and ratification of New START were real successes early in Obama’s presidency. The new arms reduction treaty renewed and extended the provisions of the original START and continued the verification measures that have mutually benefited the U.S. and Russia for decades. The ratification of the treaty was all the more significant given the near-universal opposition to it from the GOP, and it would not have happened had it been brought to a vote any later than it was. While the treaty’s provisions were modest, they were nonetheless important and Obama deserves credit for getting the treaty ratified. On arms control and nonproliferation generally, Obama has done a reasonably good job. It is the rest of his foreign policy that doesn’t look all that impressive under scrutiny.

Any assessment of Obama’s foreign legacy has to include the intervention in Libya. Once touted as a “model” intervention and an example of the “responsibility to protect” in action, the Libyan war is now widely recognized to be a significant blunder that destabilized the region, provided an opening for jihadist gains, and contributed to the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean. Obama’s decision to intervene is that much harder to justify when one remembers how abruptly and arbitrarily Obama changed his position to favoring intervention at the last minute. Unlike the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libyan war is one wholly owned by Obama and his administration, and judged by almost any standard it has to be considered a serious failure. The Libyan war also confirmed that Obama would violate U.S. law without consequence (while pretending to be fastidious in respecting it) and reinforce the executive’s habit of ignoring Congress in matters of war. That has been further reinforced with the war on ISIS, which Obama continues to wage without legal authority after sixteen months. The war on Afghanistan that Obama escalated early in his first term will outlast the end of his second.
If Obama wanted his legacy to be that of a president who presided over the conclusion of foreign wars, he will instead be remembered as a president responsible for starting at least two wars, escalating a third, and abetting a fourth. Though Obama likes to claim that he does not favor perpetual war, no one has done more to normalize the constant, unauthorized use of force overseas than Obama has. The fact that he has done so while cultivating a reputation for using force “reluctantly” has only made things worse. Perversely, the one time that Obama considered using force and then decided against it–the so-called “red line” episode–has been turned into a justification for not consulting Congress about military action and another shoddy argument for backing up vague threats with bombing for the sake of “credibility.”

The war on Yemen that the U.S. has supported over the last nine months has to be the largest black mark on Obama’s record, and unlike some of the others this has been an entirely unforced error. Like the war itself, Obama’s support for the war on Yemen will probably be ignored in most accounts of Obama’s foreign policy legacy, but over time I suspect it will loom very large as the most shameful and indefensible episode in Obama’s presidency.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy"

#1 Comment By balconesfault On December 28, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

I’m amused by you starting off with a quote from Fred Kaplan … since in the realm of national defense strategy the ven circles of the sets “things Fred Kaplan thinks are a good idea” and “things Daniel Larison thinks are a bad idea” are largely overlapping.

To an even greater extent, this goes for Michael Rubin as well.

#2 Comment By Richard W. Bray On December 28, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

So Kaplan thinks that the success of our engagement with Cuba should be measured by the speed at which that country “evolves” towards democracy. Would he use this same yardstick to measure the success of our engagement with other countries? (Egypt, for example.)

Our media’s lack of concern for the people and families in Yemen being ripped to shreds by Made-in-the-USA munitions is also shameful and indefensible.

Thank you, Daniel Larison, for the good and important work you do here, and Happy Holidays to you and yours.

#3 Comment By collin On December 28, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

I suspect most of Obama’s legacy will be seen as a mixed bag but in general a reasonable successful President in wake of the 2008 collapse. (So he will fit into the he did fine but not historically great category.) However, I do agree his biggest weakness was taking unnecessary action in the Middle East wars that the US did not have a strong national interest in which I don’t think history will judge too harshly.

#4 Comment By Charlieford On December 28, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

When Obama leaves office, we will still have 5500 or so troops (maybe more) in Afghanistan. That war will have stretched across at least three administrations (and perhaps more).

As Stephen Walt predicted in The Nation in 2009, “Kabul will need US assistance indefinitely.”

Let that stand for the Greater Middle East as a whole. Once we defined the region as critical to our security (the Carter Doctrine) and decided more than off-shore balancing would be needed, we were stuck.

Obama was no doubt sincere in his desire to pivot, but the ME wouldn’t let him. Given the ease with which opposition candidates can make political hay out of the fact that there’s a crisis somewhere and the current occupant is weak and feckless for not fixing it, I’d say I’m in for a seriously dreary final few decades of my life.

I just don’t see how we extract ourselves.

As for Obama, if his successor–whether Hillary, Jeb! or Trump–does indeed “fix it,” or gets us out with no consequences, he will indeed look bad. Otherwise, he will be seen (I suspect) as one in a long line of post-Bush-interventionists, no worse, perhaps a little better, than all these presidents who won’t be able to solve the mega-quagmire that the Greater Middle East has become for us.


#5 Comment By SteveM On December 28, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

Daniel, you really should post an addendum that notes Obama’s (pathologically?) narcissistic temperament and his contempt for Putin that contributes greatly to the dysfunctional U.S. / Russia relationship.

Obama allowing that to happen is a big foreign policy failure.

P.S. but of course it’s always all about him…

#6 Comment By Manifold On December 28, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

I don’t necessarily disagree that Yemen will be THE most shameful of Obama’s FP bequeathals, but he’s certainly got quite a few to answer for: the ramification of the failed Libyan state can be laid at his and Hillary’s door, a large part of the muddle and chaos in Syria is his doing, the failure to honor his pledge to get out of Afghanistan, his rewarding Israeli recalcitrance on settlements, Iran, and the farcical “peace process” with more cash and weapons, and his and Hillary’s conniving at perpetuating military dictatorship in Egypt.

In aggregate the victims of these blunders outnumber those in Yemen, and the consequences for the US are more severe, including the rise of ISIS, ISIS inspired terror attacks, the refugee flood out of the Middle East, and the ongoing, gross distortions these disasters have induced in our global strategy.

#7 Comment By Charlieford On December 28, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

Putting so much blame on Obama for Libya and Syria and Egypt raises the question: Just what strategy would suffice?

#8 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 28, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

We supported the Saudis in Yemen, because God forbid that we would disobey the Saudis (or the Israelis for that matter). In our dealings with the Saudis and Israelis, exactly what do we get out of the deal? What’s in it for us?

#9 Comment By SteveM On December 28, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

Re: Charlieford “Putting so much blame on Obama for Libya and Syria and Egypt raises the question: Just what strategy would suffice?”

How about a strategy axiom that acknowledges that Washington Elites can’t rescue the planet? I.e., they ain’t that smart and they ain’t that wise? And that regional problems would be best addressed by the regional actors? And that American taxpayers deserve to have problems fixed here in the United States with their hard earned money that is confiscated by Washington?

A necessary but not sufficient corollary of that strategy implementation is an MSM that does not reinforce the arrogant, obsolete and unaffordable America as Global Cop model as the immutable norm.

Good luck promulgating that…

P.S. Donald Trump is a totem who inchoately represents that position. Which is why the cronied-up, status quo Elites are contemptuous of him.

#10 Comment By Charlieford On December 28, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

“And that regional problems would be best addressed by the regional actors?”

Haven’t we done that in Syria?

#11 Comment By Paul On December 29, 2015 @ 12:53 am

To Charlieford:

No. We have not had a hands off policy toward Syria, but exactly the reverse.

This piece by former British diplomat Alasdair Cooke will get you started:

[When, in early August, the Pentagon’s former highest ranking intelligence official, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, said that it had been a “willful decision” by the “West” to back the establishment of “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” in order to bring pressure on the Syrian government, and then went on to confirm that the recently declassified 2012 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report on the rise of ISIS in Syria, had explicitly warned of the possibility of “an Islamic State” being declared “through a union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria,” there was almost silence in the mainstream media.]


See also the (not exactly secret) piece by Sy Hersh (described here:

#12 Comment By Aaron On December 29, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

…and reinforce the executive’s habit of ignoring Congress in matters of war….

As if that’s not what Congress wants? Consider former Congressman Jack Kingston’s admission, in relation to why Congress chooses not to authorize military action against ISIS:

“A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later,’ ” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who supports having an authorization vote. “It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

As long as Congress refuses to do its job, Presidents will act unilaterally — often by choice, sometimes by necessity. Congress could act after-the-fact if it chose, but chooses not to do so. Why? Because their act of approval or disapproval would make them accountable for the outcome.

If Congress believes that military action in another nation is justified, it should do its job and pass legislation defining the nature and scope of the military action it approves and is willing to fund. If Congress believes that such action is not appropriate, it should pass legislation opposing the action and using its power of the purse to shut things down.