Assessing Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama leaves office today at Noon. His critics are happy to see him go, even as some acknowledge that he carried himself with dignity and grace for eight years in office. He departs the presidency with favorable approval ratings among the public at large, but is handing over power to a person who seems committed to overturning everything that he has done.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is enigmatic, at best.  Obama, in contrast, had a concise and tidy way to explain his approach : “Don’t do stupid s***.”

Alas, he wasn’t always successful. For all the complaints that Obama was too reticent to use military power, his actions as president don’t betray great skepticism of kinetic military operations (aka war). Some of those not-quite-wars weren’t entirely successful, others were an abysmal failure. I discuss some of these issues in this podcast with Caleb Brown.

He twice increased the number of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, even though he doubted at the time that they would be able to accomplish their mission. The United States still has 8,500 U.S. troops fighting in what is now America’s longest war.

Without congressional authorization, he carried out an air campaign over Libya that contributed to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s decades-long regime. Few people shed any tears for the crazy colonel (Hillary Clinton even laughed about it), but the country has been gripped by chaos and violence ever since.

Obama’s war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq similarly lacked congressional authorization. It has been marginally more effective, largely because the many different actors threatened by ISIS’s reign of terror have managed to squeeze it on all sides. But, as in Libya, the question of what comes after looms large.

And when Barack Obama wasn’t willing to use American military power directly, through either ground troops or drones, he did provide assistance, including lethal assistance, to those who were doing the fighting. But war by proxy is always difficult, as the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen attest.

The United States has struggled to prevail militarily in a host of conflicts during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama hasn’t used force often enough, or doggedly enough, or smartly enough. More likely, it means that many of the problems that he has attempted to solve aren’t conducive to military solutions. And the claim that Obama has gutted the U.S. military conveniently ignores that Pentagon spending was higher during his eight years in office than during George W. Bush’s, and that we spend more every year, in real terms, than we spent during the Cold War. Military spending is down since 2012, but is still 30 percent higher than in 2001.

On the plus side, Barack Obama should get credit for normalizing relations with Cuba and moving to expand economic relations with our Caribbean neighbor. Critics of the move, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), point out that Raul Castro’s regime hasn’t reciprocated by improving its human rights record. But the embargo has similarly failed to crack open the regime. Congress and incoming-President Trump should finish the job, relax the remaining restrictions, and enable greater interactions between the Cuban people and their neighbors to the north.

President Obama successfully negotiated a deal that makes it substantially harder for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Critics claim that there was a better deal to be had, or that there should have been no deal at all. But, without a deal, Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapon state, and military action would have merely delayed the program, and at great cost in human lives. The deal will need to be monitored closely, as Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis affirmed in his confirmation hearings last week. A progress review by the International Crisis Group on the one-year anniversary of the deal’s implementation concluded that, thus far, it was “effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery.”

Lastly, President Obama deserves credit for resisting the bipartisan calls to get the United States more deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war. His greatest error with respect to Syria was his demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”, and his proclaimed red line concerning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against opposition forces. He wisely backed away from this ill-considered pledge when he ignored the political class in Washington, and listened to the America people who wanted no part of another Middle Eastern conflict. The Syrian civil war is a grave human tragedy, with hundreds of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes. But Obama’s critics, who believe he should have defied public opinion, and launched military strikes in September 2013, fail to show how such actions would have hastened the war’s end.

We should judge U.S. president’s foreign policies by whether they improved American security and prosperity, or whether they made Americans less safe and less prosperous. By that standard, Barack Obama could have done far worse.