Obama's Stick: Big Enough?
The 2014 midterm elections have made bleaker the already subdued possibilities of domestic policy for the Obama administration in its closing two years. Here, Ankeet Ball and Max Bernstein have turned their attention to Obama’s foreign policy. What doctrine constitutes Obama’s foreign policy thus far? What options are left to Obama in his final two years to complete foreign policy goals and strengthen American power abroad? And what will be Obama’s legacy in foreign policy? Ankeet Ball looks at these questions retrospectively, and suggests that Obama has accomplished much, but that these achievements are overshadowed by the immensity of the hopes Obama brought with him in 2008; far from being the liberal idealist we imagined, the “Obama Doctrine” has been a muddled triage in response to six years of immense challenges. Max Bernstein looks prospectively, at what still might be done to make American foreign policy more coherent moving forward. Together, they provide a compelling briefing on American foreign policy in the Obama Administration.
At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Seth Meyers joked that Barack Obama’s biggest threat in the 2012 presidential election was 2008 Barack Obama. Three years later, as the legacy of the Obama presidency begins to take shape, historians are already speculating on Obama’s place within the annals of American history.
Obama’s legacy is more tenuous than ever in the wake of the 2014 Midterms. Obama does not even have support from the party that nominated him for the presidency in the first place. Considering his domestic woes, Obama should fix his gaze abroad.
The world has changed dramatically since Obama took office. Bush-era missions in the Middle East have ended, numerous regimes have fallen in the Middle East, technology has changed the nature of warfare, and crises are emerging the world over. Obama could end his presidency on a triumphant note by shoring up U.S. foreign policy.
The problem with the “Obama Doctrine” is that – it isn’t clear what it is. Past presidents have come into the White House equipped with a well-defined foreign policy. In a 2007 speech, Obama emphasized ending the Iraq War and strengthening the alliances and partnerships needed to meet common challenges and confront common threats. Obama has effected these goals to a degree – the Bush-era Iraq War has come to a close, burgeoning defense spending has produced the world’s most advanced army, and Obama has opted for multilateral cooperation in the face of world threats. On these counts, Obama has received some warm praise.
But other foreign policy failures belie these small successes. Most of the president’s decisions have lacked any united (and coherent) philosophy. Unfortunately, Obama’s foreign policy has been a frustrating “one-step-forward, two-steps-backward” process, where achievements leading in a vague direction are overshadowed by substantial failures.
When the United States relinquished military responsibility in Iraq, ISIS militants quickly established a strong foothold. In the face of ongoing violence in the Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine, Obama has issued a series of (empty) threats. This sustained non-action has strained relationships that Obama worked hard to cultivate earlier in his presidency.
Obama’s handling these crises has prompted criticism from across the political spectrum. Senator John McCain, for example, has lamented the failure of American foreign policy to tackle the world’s issues from a position of strength, sneering at Obama’s habit of “leading from behind.” He reserved his harshest criticism for the States’ vacillating responses to ISIS and the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Syria has evoked a bevy of criticism. Obama has failed to act time and again. Congress, for its part, recently passed a bill regarding the arming and training of Syrian rebels, though its response too was delayed. For the last few years, Bashar al-Asaad’s unchecked reign of terror has made a laughing stock of Obama’s effete foreign policy.
When questioned by a Washington Post journalist as recently as November 2014 about whether or not there was an active discussion on any plans regarding Bashar al-Assad, Obama answered with a stern “no.” Conservatives like McCain have every reason to denounce this as a categorical failure.
Democrats, too, have questioned Obama’s effectiveness at achieving world stability, and have started distancing themselves from the president. In 2012, former president Jimmy Carter rejected Obama’s drone strikes in Middle Eastern target nations, referring to them as “cruel and unusual” and constituting a violation of human rights. Other liberals, too, criticize Obama’s drone policy as haphazard and half-baked, and increasingly make their concerns known.
Hillary Clinton has heavily criticized American foreign policy since resigning as Secretary of State. When asked about her days in the Obama Administration, Clinton simply remarked, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
What happened to the promises of tireless American effort towards promoting liberal ideals and creating a more peaceful world? Upon election in 2008, Barack Obama showed the promise of ushering in a new age in the wake of a global economic crisis and the errors of the Bush Administration. Obama’s promise to end a nine-year war in Iraq helped win him the White House, and yet Iraq arguably faces deeper troubles now than it did in 2008. Obama promised to reassert American dominance in an unstable world – and yet, the United States continues to blunder as nations start to look to other powers such as China and Russia for aid.
Today, Obama is isolated, and it looks as if he will remain so for his remaining two years in office. His few foreign achievements are probably little solace in the face of broader failures. Yet, the president has the resources to at least partially restore his legacy.
Even though he lacks public approval, Obama can now act freely without the worry of election looming, now that the midterms have passed. He can reach across the aisle to new Republicans demanding a proactive, tougher stance on a range of international issues, and work with them to achieve crucial foreign policy goals. Some of the more Hawkish members of the Republican Party might actually respond. The issues of a possibly nuclear Iran, a rampant ISIS, and a sovereignty-infringing Russia remain for Obama to deal with. If Obama approaches in a way befitting of the strength and the prestige of the United States and leaves behind his policy of decisive inaction, there is still yet hope for a memorable conclusion to the Obama presidency.
Barack Obama owes it to his successor to leave to him (or her) a more peaceful and stable world than the one that exists today. The president promoted a message of hope during the 2008 campaign – Barack Obama made us believe in a United States that was always capable of more, a United States that would pursue corruption and combat injustice worldwide. Obama’s foreign policy approach seems worlds apart from these campaign promises, but there is yet time.
Twenty-first century American foreign policy has proved a study in contrasts. The Bush era were years of decisiveness and determination. The U.S. policed the world, unapologetically pushing its values and often bullying other countries into submission. Even before Obama took office in 2009, he radically altered the dialogue and the country’s global image. His philosophy of international relations, which administration officials have described as “leading from behind,” has been fairly consistent since then: The United States must engage the world not solely as a leader but as a member of the global community. By mobilizing American resources to help parties in need, he believes the United States can promote eventual self-reliance the world over; it is more important for countries to resolve region-specific issues using their own institutions and resources.
As the sixth year of the Obama presidency comes to a close, the benefits of this doctrine, as well as the reasons for maintaining it into the future, have become quite apparent. The United States must develop stronger relationships and recognize that in an integrated, globalized world, it needs to operate cooperatively. In the case where strong U.S. leadership is needed, it is much easier to do so in an international community that is not instinctively skeptical of American intentions.
Recent events the world over, however, have made Obama a lightning-rod for criticism. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently, “When the United States steps back and speaks softly, nobody listens.” Rice is right to criticize some instances of (apparent) U.S. apathy, but it is telling that she cites “speaking softly” as part of the problem. If any feature of the president’s policy has succeeded, it is speaking softly – respecting the views and interests of other countries, with consensus-building as the goal.
If there is any reason why Obama acted so passively, it is because his foreign policy was designed to prevent as much as possible the abject failures of the Bush Administration. While this may be understandable, the results have been worrisome: The Obama administration’s foreign policy has proved to be “rudderless” mess that “oscillates randomly between passivity and frantic but ineffectual action,” as Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks wrote. Such a view is espoused by increasingly more politicians from across the aisle.
The most difficult aspect of assessing the president’s foreign policy is that it is somewhat hard to define – what does “leading from behind” really mean? Under pressure to offer a more comprehensive explanation of what guides U.S. action abroad, Obama offered a refined mantra: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” On the one hand, it has real appeal: The U.S. should not do “stupid stuff” like getting caught in wars it should not be in, lacks strategies for, and cannot sustain. Yet, it is plain that American foreign policy needs to be more assertive and directed. Equally problematic is the president’s inability to articulate what the country’s foreign policy amounts to other than avoiding misfortune. For all his faults, at least Bush could claim to be working in the Wilsonian tradition of American foreign policy—fighting so that the world might “be made safe for democracy.” Whether he was aiming for the right goal or not, Bush’s foreign policy had form.
Going forward, Obama must develop a coherent foreign policy, consistent with the exigencies of the 21st century. Specifically, it needs two foundational pillars: a general code of conduct (functionally equivalent to “leading from behind” or “don’t do stupid stuff”) and a specific, actuating goal (like making the world safe for democracy).
With regard to that first pillar, Bush and Obama hold polarized views—suggesting at least that a balance might be struck between them. Fortunately, a previous American president, Theodore Roosevelt, already identified such a balance more than a century ago. Roosevelt’s code is etched into the American conscious thanks to his favorite proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” It is clear that if Bush failed to speak softly, Obama has failed to wield his stick.
The continuously unfolding situation in eastern Ukraine is a paradigmatic case of Obama’s light hand. As Putin sprang into action in Ukraine, frightening NATO allies in Europe, Obama was, again, slow to act decisively and supplied feeble rhetoric. European anxiety and lack of faith in the U.S. ran so high that Radoslaw Sikorski, former foreign minister of Poland, described his country’s ties to the U.S. as “worthless.”
The case for a harder American stance amounts to much more than allaying European unease. As Obama eloquently explained, “Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.” Allies and enemies alike must know that their actions will elicit an American response. Awareness of this fact was instrumental in maintaining stability in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the context of the Big Stick Doctrine, this illustrates the necessity of having and comfortably wielding the big stick—lending the threat of force, if necessary, to support reasonable positions.
Of course, using too heavy of a hand is undesirable – witness Iraq post- the Bush led invasion. The costs to doing so can be extreme. Choosing in which cases to bring American might to bear is, of course, difficult. For example, the Syrian crisis presented a tremendous challenge without any obvious role for the U.S. to play. In evaluating most global conflicts, the president’s driving concern should not be a matter of strategic ideals (that is, leading from behind versus dominating) so much as a matter of practical ends. More simply: The president must simply decide what is worth fighting for. This is the aforementioned “actuating goal”—the second pillar of foreign policy.
Again, Bush had a clearly defined actuating principle. While noble and in-concert with American precepts, the Bush-Wilsonian Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine is now outmoded and dangerous. The aftermath of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan make this clear.
Consequently, the U.S. needs to establish a new actuating purpose that reflects both the evolving 21st century geopolitical realities and core American values. That purpose must entail maintaining stability so as to create a world conducive to international cooperation and trade, the spread of the ideals embodied in the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the military hegemon with global reach, the United States has already effectively assumed the position of defender of the world order. Should it choose to abdicate that lofty role in the future, a further deterioration of order will ensue. Not only will the U.S. pay a heavy price but its al lies and, worst of all, its ideals may well crumble against oncoming forces that only the United States can stem.