By Erin Rodewald // February 9, 2017
What Leading from Behind has Left Behind in U.S. Foreign Policy
President Donald Trump was sworn into office a mere three weeks ago. Already, the fear of a new American isolationism, of retrenchment, and even the forfeiture of foremost leadership in world affairs has some longing for the “good old days” of the Obama Administration, when the U.S. seemed rooted in robust global engagement.
While it is still too early for a comprehensive retrospective on the Obama years, the basic principles that animated the Obama Doctrine are recognizable. Before a false nostalgia sets in, it would be prudent to make a clear-eyed examination of America’s foreign policy stature after eight years of “leading from behind.”
In his book Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America, political scientist and professor of public policy at Pepperdine University Robert G. Kaufman offered a critique of the distinct grand strategy informing former President Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policies. Kaufman described seven tenets that undergirded the Obama Doctrine:
Tenet I: Protect the world and the United States from the arrogance of American power too often justified by extravagant claims of American exceptionalism.
Tenet II: Embrace multilateralism rather than unilateralism or narrow coalitions of the willing as the default presumption for American grand strategy.
Tenet III: Minimize the salience of regime type or ideology in determining friends, foes, threats and opportunities.
Tenet IV: Use force sparingly, proportionally, multilaterally, for limited goals, with limited means, and only as a last resort. Establish a high burden of proof to justify exceptions to this rule.
Tenet V: Rely more on soft power than hard power.
Tenet VI: The emergence of alternative power centers makes a substantial devolution of American responsibilities possible and preferable. America’s serious economic problems make retrenchment a strategic necessity as well as a virtue.
Tenet VII: Build bridges to engage and conciliate actual and potential rivals.
These precepts offer a roadmap to understanding former President Barack Obama’s worldview. On American exceptionalism, recall that Obama was elected based on his promise to fundamentally transform the United States – including his relationship with the international community. To that end, Obama began his presidency with what has been described as his “apology tour.”
Speaking in Cairo in 2009, Obama broadcasted his intentions to break from his predecessor’s “freedom agenda” and reset relations with the Muslim world:
“So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”
On grand strategy, Obama’s multilateralist sensibilities signaled his abrupt departure from the previous administration’s unilateralism, especially in the Middle East. For example, he reluctantly acted to remove Muammar Qaddafi’s oppressive regime in Libya, but not until an international coalition was built and a United Nations mandate secured.
When it came to friends, foes and opportunities, Obama repeatedly demonstrated his belief that the arc of history is bending toward justice. Humankind is becoming enlightened despite its own nature.
In his comprehensive 2016 interview with Obama for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg observed,
“To a remarkable degree, [Obama] is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends.”
That proclivity explains Obama’s intentionality in opening ties with Cuba, reaching out to Iran, or putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, each at great peril to the U.S.
Obama tied himself in knots throughout his presidency over Tenet IV (the sparse use of force) with the premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq. His non-response to Putin’s annexation to Crimea and his lack of engagement in Syria also reflect this commitment.
More often than not, he relied on Tenet V (soft power and diplomacy) when coercive economic and military power would have been more appropriate. Examples include Obama’s choice to forgo punitive sanctions against Russian aggression, and declining to arm moderate Syrian rebels early on against brutal President Bashar al-Assad.
Finally, Obama saw his opportunity to activate policies of disengagement as well as transformation with his encouragement of alternative power centers. Examples of this policy include his emboldening of Iran through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well as his creative bridge-building through opening diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.
The Obama Doctrine has been widely – and appropriately – critiqued. According to Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, Obama “wanted others, friends and enemies alike, to act rationally in what he thought was their own interest.”
Even longtime admirers have confessed that Obama’s foreign policy legacy was a series of missteps that helped catapult Trump into the White House.
Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, conceded,
“In foreign policy, Obama’s record was mostly one of failure. Neither the state of the world nor America’s position in it is stronger today than they were when he took office.”
The Obama Doctrine Applied to the Middle East
Perhaps no region of the world is more at peril following eight years of Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy than the Middle East.
Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and senior editor at the Weekly Standard, said that Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East was more than a series of missteps: he claimed it was a deliberate maneuver to realign the region, that in the process handed dominance over to Russia and Iran. Smith said:
What mattered most to Obama wasn’t Syria, nor even was it the JCPOA, which is typically referred to as Obama’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Even that was a feint, a cover for a larger strategy that entailed a realignment of interests in the Middle East and a new form of foreign-policy ‘realism’ that would get American troops out of the Middle East – and put America in the same column as Iran and its allies, including Vladimir Putin.
Think Tenet VI – devolution of American responsibility.
If realignment was, in fact, the goal of the Obama Doctrine in the Middle East, the evidence is substantial. Consider a few salient points:
In June 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected president of Iran, sparking the Green Revolution. Demonstrators contested the election results, as well as the regime’s systematic violations of human rights, and turned to the U.S. for solidarity. But coming just weeks after delivering his speech in Cairo, Obama opted to stay on message and declined to provide support or meaningful encouragement. Instead, he offered platitudes: “The world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.”
In his book The Iran Wars, Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal said that it was not merely reluctance on Obama’s part—he resisted support of the protestors for fear of undermining his own ambitions of outreach to Iran’s mullahs.
In his review of Solomon’s book, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake noted,
There is no guarantee that an Obama intervention would have been able to topple Khamenei back in 2009, when his people flooded the streets to protest an election the American president wouldn’t say was stolen. But it was worth a try. Instead, Obama spent his presidency misunderstanding Iran’s dictator, assuring the supreme leader America wouldn’t aid his citizens when they tried to change the regime that oppresses them to this day.
The Obama Administration, in fact, spent the better part of eight years priming and negotiating with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism. The fruit of that effort is a deal that has emboldened Iran and inflamed an existential threat to America’s closest ally in the region, Israel.
“The JCPOA has achieved far less than the White House claims, and it has done little to constrain Iran’s potential ambitions,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. “It has created a new, far weaker baseline for international counter proliferation … and will be a millstone around the neck of national security for a generation.”
Against the advice of many National Security Council members, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and then-CIA Director David Petraeus, Obama made the decision to not arm moderate rebels in 2011 in their fight against al-Assad’s brutal forces. Nor, after drawing his now-famous red line, did he make good on his promise of military action to counter Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
In the six years of the Syrian civil war, 500,000-plus innocents have been slaughtered (and the killing continues), and an estimated 12 million Syrians have either fled the country or been rendered homeless.
Obama abandoned his moral obligation in Syria, then rationalized his inaction in the 2015 National Security Strategy, labeling his lack of engagement “strategic patience.” Some call it negligence.
Eliot Cohen, author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force, cautioned,
“The use of force is always fraught. But so too is passivity; it is also a choice. In 2012–2016, the Western states refused to intervene in a substantial way in the Syrian civil war, which then metastasized into a much larger Middle Eastern conflict. One result has been the flourishing there of radical Islamist movements. The rise of the Islamic State has been accompanied by the mass slaughter of the Syrian war, the collapse of the Syrian, and much of the neighboring Iraqi state, and the movement of millions of refugees.”
Strategic patience, indeed.
In an interview with Larry King in 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden boasted that he was “very optimistic” about Iraq, which he said could be one of the greatest achievements of the Obama Administration. He declared, “You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.” Less than a year later, in his haste to make good on a key campaign promise, Obama ordered the complete and premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
As Kaufman explained, it was Obama’s “strong disposition for retrenchment and against the use of military force [that] contributed mightily to the unfolding disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS to fill the vacuum that American military withdrawal has wrought.”
In the summer of 2014, the world watched horrified as ISIS terrorists overran first Mosul, then larger swaths of Iraqi territory. Just a few months earlier, Obama had dismissed ISIS as inconsequential, saying,
If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.
While the Obama Administration did little to staunch the bloodbath, ISIS continued its rampage. It all but decimated Iraq’s ancient Christian community, obliterated historical landmarks and priceless antiquities, and engaged in a barbaric propaganda campaign in its quest to win converts and establish an Islamic caliphate.
Meanwhile, Obama stubbornly resisted the counsel of his military chiefs and foreign policy advisors. Former ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey criticized the administration in a 2014 interview with Frontline, saying,
The administration not only was warned by everybody back in January, it actually announced that it was going to intensify its support against ISIS with the Iraqi armed forces. And it did almost nothing.
While Iraq and Syria burned, ISIS flourished and Iran was emboldened, Israel was all but forsaken during the Obama years. In his zeal to build bridges to engage and conciliate rivals, Obama abandoned the United States’ greatest ally and only democratic state in the region.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and a current member of the Knesset, said,
From the moment he entered office, Mr. Obama promoted an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran. Mr. Obama posed an even more fundamental challenge by abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America … ‘no daylight’ and ‘no surprises.’
For nearly seven decades, the U.S. and Israel have worked to keep disagreements private and communication flowing to avoid public embarrassment and keep common enemies at bay. Such decorum was lost during the Obama Administration.
To start, Israel was not included on the itinerary of Obama’s first Middle East tour. From the beginning, Obama demanded settlement freezes and a two-state solution, proclaiming in his 2009 U.N. address that “America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
The acrimony between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was palpable. In November 2011, Obama and then-French president Nikolas Sarkozy were caught on an open mic belittling Netanyahu. Obama was recorded saying, “You’re tired of [Netanyahu]? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”
In 2014, it became clear that the Obama Administration had for months negotiated secretly with Israel’s deadliest enemy, Iran, to broker the JCPOA. Another blow to the relationship came in the days before Obama’s term in office expired. On December 23, the Obama Administration broke tradition by electing to not use its Security Council veto to support and protect Israel. By abstaining from the vote, the administration allowed passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which accuses Israel of violating international law with its ongoing construction of settlements.
The final betrayal came just hours before Obama transferred power to his successor. The Washington Post reported that the administration quietly authorized the release of $221 million to the Palestinian Authority to be used for humanitarian aid in the West Bank and Gaza. Congress had previously held the funds due to moves by the PA to seek membership in international organizations.
What is Left Behind
If there is panic that the new Trump Administration will strip the U.S. of its standing in international relations and diminish its influence in world affairs, that panic may be prescient (only time will tell), but its origin has been misplaced. Retrenchment began under the Obama Doctrine.
Tenet IV of the Obama Doctrine – Obama’s guiding principle of using force sparingly, proportionally, for limited goals, with limited means, and only as a last resort – set the stage for the crises that will burden the next administration. These crises began on the streets of Aleppo, at the negotiating tables in Vienna, across the Nineveh Plain, and atop Mount Sinjar.
Both enemies and allies already have questions about U.S. motives and priorities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not the only one who took note when Obama blinked at his own red line: Russian President Vladimir Putin was watching, as were the mullahs in Iran, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and Israel and other U.S. allies.
In remarks before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council last month, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, theorized that the global world order was in decline long before Trump’s election.
“There is a gap between global challenges and global responses,” he said. “President Obama wanted to dial back, and I think he was dead wrong … and Donald Trump is in the same category.”
He added that while the world has long been grateful for American leadership, America has grown increasingly weary and more comfortable with the idea of retreat.
“The problem is that the world will not self-organize,” he warned. “It is going to be a world that unravels.”
The world order will unravel without robust American leadership. An America that pulls back from its global commitments denies the real potential for catastrophe. That is not American arrogance: it is historical fact. Eliot Cohen, a former senior U.S. State Department official, notes:
When we think about history, we think – we know – that leaders matter; we know that a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a John F. Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan all left indelible imprints on this country and the world. We also know that things can go badly awry. In a world in which a rising and aggressive China seeks to extend its domination of Asia, jihadi movements promise generations of bloodshed in the Middle East and North Africa, dangerous states like Russia, North Korea and Iran seek to overturn regional order in their favor, and the ungoverned space and great commons of humanity like space and cyberspace are at risk, the United States needs – more than ever – to lead.
What is to Come
What has been left behind of the Obama era will inform the movements of the new administration. An “America first” foreign policy is alluring, but a wholesale abandonment of our global leadership would be a mistake. Trump’s words and early actions suggest that the retrenchment that began with Obama – the pulling back and the letting go – will continue, but under the guise of a nationalistic protectionism.
However, there are indications that the Trump administration may provide a more engaged approach to world affairs than the prior one.
First, Trump has appointed foreign policy and national security leaders such as Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador, Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, Gen. John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, and Mike Pompeo as CIA director. Republicans Senators such as Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain will also provide a counterbalance.
These are the people who might save Trump from himself, and in the process preserve the core values and moral integrity that have defined America’s leadership on the world stage.
Second, Trump will likely dedicate more funding to the military than his predecessor. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, commented in an interview with Fox News in January:
Two things have happened during the Obama years: The world has grown more dangerous and our own military has grown smaller. I’m very encouraged that the Trump Administration says they’re going to come to us with a supplemental spending request for defense in the first 100 days.
Trump has indicated his willingness to invest in topflight military brainpower by tapping Mattis as secretary of defense. Mattis has no illusions about the challenges ahead, warning in a Center for Strategic and International Studies address about the “ghastly” future for the Middle East unless we “return to a strategic view, such as we had years ago, because we know that vacuums left in the Middle East seem to be filled by terrorists, or by Iran or their surrogates, or by Russia.”
It is important to note that Trump’s gambles in reshuffling the National Security Council, downgrading the military chiefs of staff, and giving his chief strategist Steve Bannon a regular seat on the NSC could undermine his own national security and national defense objectives.
Finally, Trump is already strengthening ties with America’s historic allies. During his meeting last month with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump reaffirmed the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States which Obama denied. In one of his first foreign policy actions, Trump reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reiterate the relationship between the U.S. and its democratic ally in the Middle East. The pair will meet next week at the White House.
While Trump’s rumored friendship with Vladimir Putin is troubling to many, there are plenty in his own administration and in Congress who have made it clear that a cozy relationship will not be tolerated.
In the end, the skeptics may prove correct: Trump’s “America First” policy may continue the retrenchment trajectory begun by Obama. But perhaps he will be the change agent his brand is famous for.
Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, in the midst of one of history’s bleakest moments, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill challenged America to embrace its destiny and its essential role in protecting a world order in peril of collapse:
The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes.
Churchill’s words ring true today. America is a great nation and by that fact, its responsibilities are also great. Now is not the time to double down on the retrenchment policies of the past eight years lest the world continue its unraveling. It is the time to recapture the true sense of global leadership that has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for the past century.