National Review

The Cost of Obama’s Foreign Policy

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
US State Secretary John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on January 14, 2015, in Geneva. (Rick Wilking/AFP via Getty Images)


As the GOP primary season gets under way, the foreign-policy conversation in Washington has dwelt on how long Republicans will support Ukraine’s attempts to defend itself against Russian aggression. But there are too many hot spots for Ukraine to continue to dominate the news — and lawmakers’ attention — for long: China’s ongoing military buildup threatens to upset the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. It is also making inroads in the Middle East, where Iran has nearly attained weapons-grade uranium and its terrorist allies are stepping up their rocket attacks on Israel. The United States faces the prospect of simultaneous major conflicts in several strategically important theaters.

The brewing crisis for the American-led international order is readily apparent, but its roots are more obscure. Fifteen years ago, the prospects of a major war in Europe and of the U.S. military’s losing control of the Western Pacific were remote; today, one has materialized, and the other may be close at hand. How did a country as dominant as the United States let events slip out of its control so quickly?

Much of the blame must lie with the Obama administration for initiating a series of disastrous policies and the Biden administration for continuing them. Toward the end of his presidency, Barack Obama articulated many of his foreign-policy views to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of the Atlantic. Reexamining them now, one is struck by the many ways in which he was wrong, with great consequence.

As Obama saw it, the United States had been obsessed with the wrong issues. Unlike ISIS, which was “not an existential threat to the United States” but had nonetheless fixed the country’s attention, “climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” And Obama feared that by focusing on terrorism instead of on the plights and aspirations of young people in the developing world, the United States was “missing the boat.” At a time when rival powers were on the prowl, the White House focused on nebulous issues such as the climate and global development.

Obama partly acknowledged great-power challenges, of course. He thought “the relationship between the United States and China” was “going to be the most critical” in the ensuing years. Former defense secretary Ash Carter said Obama believed that Asia was “the part of the world of greatest consequence to the American future,” and that “no president can take his eye off of this.” Hence the signature foreign-policy slogan of Obama’s first term, the “pivot to Asia.”

This did not make him a hawk by any means. Rather, he said we had “more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” China, Obama repeated, was “on a peaceful rise.” In Beijing, Washington could find “a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order.”

Obama patted himself on the back for having curbed unhelpful behavior by China such as building and then militarizing islands in the South China Sea, an important artery of global commerce. But this must have been news to Xi Jinping, who turned those islands into military bases after promising Obama that he wouldn’t. Obama thought that his response to Xi’s island-building campaign was a triumph of American diplomacy, but former chief of naval operations and retired admiral Jonathan Greenert recalled that his Chinese counterparts were surprised that the United States was so slow to merely object to their maritime territorial expansion, let alone push back against it. The U.S. response — mainly, sending American forces through disputed waterways in “freedom of navigation” patrols — did not change Chinese policy. The Obama administration even canceled some of the patrols to “lower the temperature” in waters that the Philippines, a treaty ally, was defending from Chinese encroachment. China was not diplomatically isolated but rather recruited close U.S. allies, including Britain and Australia, into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other international economic projects, over strenuous American objections.

While Obama considered China important, he thought Russia was in rapid and irreversible decline. He claimed that Putin was “constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid” and because he “understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished.” Obama dismissed Putin’s military forays as unimportant, sniffing that “the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player.” In fact, Obama reassured Goldberg, “there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

As Obama saw it, Russia’s military forays demonstrated failure, not strength. Ukraine and Syria had been Russian “client states” that were slipping out of Moscow’s orbit until Putin’s interventions. “Real power,” Obama theorized, “means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Indeed, “Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that [Putin] could pull the strings on.” Obama also said that the Russians in Syria are overextended and “they’re bleeding.”

Attempting to counter even a weakened Russia was a fool’s errand, however. According to Obama, Ukraine was “going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” On the other hand, “if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it.” Any step between acquiescence and war, such as arming Ukraine with Javelin missiles (as the Trump administration did), he does not seem to have even considered.

Obama led the country so badly astray largely because he mistook half-truths for the whole, as in his view of Russian military adventurism. It’s true that wars are costly and unpredictable, so most countries employ violence only when their other options have failed; Russia would surely have preferred that Ukraine align with it peacefully. But Obama did not understand that violence can also empower. Far from bleeding Russia dry, the Syrian intervention strengthened Moscow’s regional position. Moscow and Riyadh now set the price in the global oil market together through OPEC+, and Israel has remained neutral regarding Ukraine in part to avoid antagonizing the great power Obama allowed into its neighborhood. Even a glance at Obama’s preferred barometer of power — agenda-setting in G-20 meetings — reveals America’s diminishing international heft vis-à-vis Russia. India and Indonesia, among other countries, oppose Biden’s attempts to address the Ukraine war in that forum.

Fortunately, Obama found a way to avoid war in the Middle East: Saudi–Iranian competition, which had spilled over into Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, “requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood,” he concluded. The alternative was to confront Iran militarily. The Iran nuclear deal was a step on the way to making pesky allies such as the Saudi monarchy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel fend for themselves.

Obama also failed to understand how important American consistency and credibility are to our partners and allies. Although he acknowledged that, for most of his desiderata, “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen,” he underestimated the importance of American security guarantees. This was crystallized in the “red line” debacle: When he warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, and Assad did anyway, Obama told Putin that if Russia were to force Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that would eliminate the need for a U.S. military response. Putin happily obliged and further entrenched himself in Syria. Allies worldwide were dismayed: Diplomats from countries far from the Middle East still bring up that red-line blunder today, nearly a decade later.

“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama recounted. The notion that U.S. credibility was at stake he found to be utterly unconvincing. “The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision-making of Russia or China,” he claimed, “is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.” And yet he lamented that “nobody remembers” the killing of bin Laden and other military actions he undertook, such as “ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan,” when evaluating his foreign-policy toughness. Unfortunately for him, countries that depend on American red lines care about whether the president enforces them.

Donald Trump ran on undoing some of Obama’s policies, but his actions in office only partly reversed, and in some respects hastened, the decline. By sending weapons to Ukraine and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Trump at least demonstrated that there can be plenty of foreign-policy options between appeasement and war. And he forced Washington to focus on the rivalry with China (although he cared more about increasing exports to China than any of Beijing’s attempts to undermine America’s global position). However, his arrival in the Oval Office made our adversaries believe that the American political system was approaching a meltdown, and his erratic behavior convinced many of our partners that they can no longer rely on the U.S. The Japanese are desperately trying to shore up the American-led order, but the Saudis and others are heading for the exits.

Biden, meanwhile, has mostly followed in Obama’s footsteps and is leading America and its allies to the same destination. At the beginning of his presidency, he decided to ignore Russia, or, in his administration’s parlance, to “park” it. He has since cast the Ukraine war as part of a global struggle between democracy and autocracy, but his actions at the beginning of the war demonstrated that he agreed with Obama that Russian domination of Ukraine was a foregone conclusion. As the Russians prepared to attack, Biden underscored his and his allies’ lack of resolve, noting that he might be willing to tolerate a “minor incursion” by the Russians into Ukrainian territory. The State Department evacuated the Kyiv embassy as the invasion loomed, but unlike our braver allies who stayed in western Ukraine, the Americans retreated all the way to Poland. It was the Ukrainians who eventually stiffened Biden’s spine, not the other way around.

Biden has also tried to revive Obama’s trademark second-term foreign-policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal. But halfway through his term, Biden’s many attempts to cajole and entice Tehran back into the accords have all failed, perhaps in part because the Iranians have wangled limited sanctions relief out of the negotiations without giving up anything themselves. Now that Iran is enriching uranium of up to 84 percent purity — just shy of the 90 percent typically used in a nuclear weapon — Biden is trying to talk U.S. allies into offering Iran another deal.

The pivot to Asia is, similarly, on ice. Obama, who believed that America’s foreign policy had been too militaristic, placed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal at the center of his Asia strategy, but he failed to get it ratified by the Senate before leaving office, after which Trump withdrew from the agreement. Biden has no trade policy to speak of and seems content to let Asia be drawn into Beijing’s economic orbit, much to Japan’s consternation and other Asian countries’ disappointment. Meanwhile, America’s Asian allies view Biden’s ballyhooed democracy summits and human-rights crusades with polite dismay. Instead of having the U.S. lecture neutral countries about their internal affairs, they would rather focus on the preservation of international norms — such as respect for territorial sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes — or, in other words, the enforcement of red lines.

Biden is tougher on China than Obama was, at least rhetorically, but it is not clear that he is willing to back up his talk. This is the second year in a row that Biden has tried to cut the defense budget in inflation-adjusted terms. Last year, Congress overruled him, and it must do so again if we are to keep pace with China’s military buildup.

At the outset of the Obama presidency, Charles Krauthammer — who years before had urged U.S. policy-makers not to squander the country’s post–Cold War moment of global hegemony — warned that “decline is a choice,” and that Obama and his allies in government and the Washington elite had set us on a course toward it. But Krauthammer also counseled: “Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written.”


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