In realist foreign policy, Obama found limits
By Bradley Klapper?|?AP December 23 at 3:18 AM
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy may be
defined as much by what he didn’t do as by what he did.
Over eight years, Obama ushered in a new era of diplomacy,
re-establishing the United States as the driving force behind fighting
climate change and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. He restored
unity between the U.S. and its allies after the divisive tenure of
President George W. Bush and avoided adding another large-scale U.S.
military commitment overseas.
But Obama also ran headlong into his limitations as the world’s chief
diplomat. His cautious and pragmatic approach to world affairs
ultimately couldn’t deliver on the founding promise of his presidency:
He will leave office in January having failed to end the conflicts he
inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan, settling instead for greatly reducing
U.S. involvement in each. And he will pass on the woes of a raging civil
war in Syria that he has been helpless to stop.
Historians will grapple with whether Obama’s forward-looking diplomatic
achievements, like the Iran nuclear deal and rapprochement with Cuba,
will outweigh his failings.
Their calculus will depend heavily on how far Donald Trump goes to
unwind these efforts. If the president-elect makes good on promises to
unravel Obama’s climate change, trade and nuclear agreements, he will
leave Obama’s legacy defined not by his ambition but by his restraint,
for better or worse.
“The United States is stronger now than it was eight years ago,” said
David Milne, historian of U.S. foreign policy at Britain’s University of
East Anglia. He described Obama as a “retrenchment president” akin to
Dwight Eisenhower. Obama is a president who will be “perhaps best
remembered for the paths not taken,” he said.
In his first speech as president, Obama told America’s foes he would
“extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He largely
made good on that offer.
Obama’s outreach yielded historic diplomatic breakthroughs, but not
without levels of compromise that brought howls of protest from his
The U.S. rapidly removed years of painstakingly constructed oil, trade,
and economic sanctions on Iran in return for stringent new constraints
on its nuclear program. But the threat of Iranian atomic weapons isn’t
gone for good. Many of the restrictions on Iran start expiring next
decade, which will permit Tehran to edge toward weapons capacity again.
In Cuba, restoring diplomatic relations with the tiny island led to
greater economic ties and a new U.S. embassy. The developments haven’t
yet been accompanied by democratic reforms or human rights improvements
from the communist government. Trump has spoken vaguely about demanding
more from Havana, without promising a reversal.
The U.S. has embraced a new relationship with Myanmar, with Obama
visiting the country twice, despite the military maintaining significant
political influence in the country and ongoing abuses against minority
Muslims. If anything, abuses have intensified since Obama lifted the
last U.S. sanctions on Myanmar.
And last year’s global climate change pact commits the world to reducing
the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for rising temperatures and sea
levels, worsening droughts and heat waves. China can keep expanding its
emissions until 2030.
As Obama’s approach cleared new diplomatic paths, it sometimes led to
The Obama administration was caught off guard when the Arab Spring
erupted in 2011. Its response veered sharply from promising cooperation
with imperfect allies to championing protesters seeking new leaders.
After a military coup in Egypt and a Shiite rebellion in Yemen, the U.S.
returned to many of the same regional powers and entrenched national
elites it had abandoned.
When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, then supported
an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Obama responded with sanctions.
They’ve had little effect on Moscow’s strategic thinking and Russia
After Washington accused Beijing of a territorial grab in the South
China Sea, all Obama could do was object.
But nowhere has Obama’s foreign policy proved more ineffective and his
resistance to military intervention more contentious than with Syria’s
civil war. President Bashar Assad’s government and his Russian and
Iranian sponsors have made a mockery of Obama’s declarations that
Assad’s “days are numbered,” while Obama has endlessly recycled a series
of failed diplomatic tactics.
Even his proliferation record was undermined in Syria.
Obama declared the use of chemical weapons in the conflict a “red line”
and Assad used them anyhow. Obama then backed down from his threat to
respond with force, opting instead for a Russian-supported plan to
remove much of Assad’s declared chemical stockpiles. Since then, the
U.S. says Syria’s military has used other chemical agents instead. And
the war only escalated.
Russia’s military intervention on Assad’s behalf led to a brief Obama
effort to isolate Moscow. He quickly reversed course, turning to Moscow
to stop the war diplomatically. That didn’t work, either, as a string of
Obama has argued that the only other option was unacceptable.
“Unless we were all-in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to
have problems,” he told reporters at his year-end press conference. “And
everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it
sounded like the right thing to do. But it was going to be impossible to
do this on the cheap.”
The death toll has reached as many as a half-million people.
Obama’s critics have called him feckless and weak. They’ve lampooned his
talk about hitting “singles and doubles” in foreign policy, rather than
swinging for the fences.
The president and his aides called his approach: “Don’t do stupid
stuff,” often using a more profane term.
Both analyses reflect Obama’s essential caution and pragmatism about one
nation’s ability to shape global events, prevent violence and expand
freedom and stability.
This realism, as Obama termed it, was behind many of his earliest
foreign policy decisions: resetting ties with Russia, leading to a new
nuclear arms control treaty; offering a new beginning with Arab monarchs
and despots threatened by the younger Bush’s freedom agenda; “pivoting”
from the unstable Middle East to rapidly growing Asia; emphasizing
multilateral coalitions, as evidenced by the NATO-led bombing campaign
against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The White House long believed this Obama doctrine would be propelled, in
part, by the power of his personal story. The son of a father from Kenya
and mother from Kansas, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia,
Obama at times presented himself as a model for a new, more connected
world and a generation less inclined to see U.S. military intervention
as the solution to most problems.
“He thought that his personal charms, whatever they are, could do away
with the adversarial relations that the United States had with Russia,
China, Iran and so on,” said Michael Mandelbaum, foreign policy director
at John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.
“Presidents always overrate their own personal efficacy.”
Obama continues to argue his critics overrate the effectiveness of U.S.
As he described his restraint in Syria, he posed the questions that have
dogged him for years — ones that will now fall to his successor.
“Ultimately what I’ve had to do is to think about, what can we sustain,
what is realistic?”
Source: In realist foreign policy, Obama found limits – The Washington