National Security & Defense

Obama’s Resetting His Own Foreign Policy

(Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
America now mainly retakes ground that we (and our allies) once held.

If actions speak louder than words, then Barack Obama has been systematically admitting the failure of his own foreign policy. With the notable — very notable — exception of his Iran policy, his actions over the past year reveal an increasingly aggressive military approach to our foes and geopolitical rivals, along with increased military support for key allies.

Just this week, the United States and Israel signed the largest military-assistance deal in American history, a ten-year, $38 billion pact that should help guarantee Israel’s qualitative military advantage in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. For all the pressure and tension between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, Obama is leaving office with no two-state solution and no peace deal but rather security assistance that will long outlast the memory of any political tension or rivalry.

At the same time, American ground troops maintain their presence in Afghanistan and have slowly ramped back up in Iraq, with allied forces massing for a decisive battle for Mosul, a fight that could effectively push ISIS out of every major Iraqi population center. American special forces are engaged in Syria and Libya, and bombing raids are hitting terrorist targets from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to Somalia.

In Europe, Obama has quadrupled military spending and bolstered American support for the Baltic states. The Washington Post characterized the joint NATO effort as “pouring tanks, warplanes and soldiers” into the region. In the other words, the 1980s called, and they have their foreign policy back. As the Post describes, Russian and Western officials make clear that they are settling into a confrontation that neither side expects to end quickly.

It’s difficult to overstate the gap between this new military reality and the hope and promise of the Obama candidacy. He was going to end wars. He was going to “reset” relations with Russia. Even as late as 2012, he was trumpeting the success of his approach. American troops were home from Iraq, Osama bin Laden was dead, and all seemed mainly quiet on the Russian front.

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While Obama’s pacifism was always exaggerated (he did, for example, order a surge in Afghanistan, waged stepped-up drone campaigns, and bombed the Qaddafi regime into oblivion), at the heart of his ideology was the notion that certain American actions created a series of “legitimate grievances” in the Muslim world and beyond. In other words, American actions had provided jihadists with pretexts for war and material for recruitment.

By reversing course, decreasing our military footprint, and ending the most controversial of Bush-era programs, we could isolate the extremists, cultivate relationships with allegedly more reasonable Islamists (witness the aggressive courtship of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and of Libyan revolutionaries), and refocus American resources on domestic problems.

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The result was tragic. American withdrawal created a series of power vacuums largely filled by American enemies. By throwing away the Iraq victory, Obama created space not merely for the re-emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (since renamed ISIS), he permitted Iran to exert ever greater levels of control even over our remaining Iraqi “allies,” and his light-footprint Libya campaign helped turn that nation into a cauldron of jihadist violence and unrest.

A reset was essentially mandatory. And to the extent that Obama keeps ignoring the lessons of the (very) recent past, there will be more resets to come.

By 2014, Obama’s foreign policy was in a state of near-collapse. Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and ISIS launched a blitzkrieg from Syria that routed the Iraqi army, threatened Baghdad and Erbil, and initiated a genocide of Christians, Yazidis, and dissenting Muslims. By 2016, ISIS influence had spread across continents, and ISIS-inspired and ISIS-planned attacks had rocked the great cities of Europe and had even come here to the United States.

So a reset was essentially mandatory. And to the extent that Obama keeps ignoring the lessons of the (very) recent past, there will be more resets to come. After all, Iran is giving no indication that it’s backing off its anti-American jihad, and anyone who believes that the regime will voluntarily comply with its nuclear commitments as world attention turns elsewhere has an entirely unreasonable and illogical trust in a proven radical regime.

There is an important lesson here, for those willing to learn. America’s enemies have their own agendas — and those agendas do not change when American power wanes. In other words, we don’t remove the reason for war or aggression, we mainly just decrease the resistance. ISIS’s goal to create and sustain a caliphate doesn’t change if America disengages, it merely becomes easier to attain. Russia’s goal to control its “near abroad” and reassert its status as a world power doesn’t change if America shows weakness, it merely becomes easier to attain.

#related#Obama is Jimmy Carter, the sequel. Carter’s extraordinary weakness emboldened the Soviet Union and a revolutionary Iran. By the end of his only term, under political and strategic pressure he had largely reversed course, proposing large increases in military spending and initiating a more aggressive military strategy (including the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force and the announcement that any foreign attempt to seize Persian Gulf oil assets would be an attack on American vital interests.)

Those who long to see America less engaged in the world always need to ask themselves this key question: If not us, then who? Every time we recede, someone else advances. If the foreseeable result of American retreat is enemy — not allied — advance, then retreat is unwise. Obama ordered American retreat, our enemies and rivals advanced, and his reset now mainly retakes ground that we (and our allies) once held. Better late than never, of course, but at what dreadful cost.


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