Foreign Policy

Barack Obama the Isolationist

Obama's foreign policy is interventionist in intent but isolationist in result

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laugh with em or at em
White House

Five years ago, George W. Bush exited the world stage, leaving the United States in an inarguably weaker diplomatic position than it had been eight years earlier. Bush had started one war in Afghanistan that enjoyed broad support from the international community, and failed to end it when the mission was accomplished, and started another war in Iraq that refused to end despite his declaration of "mission accomplished." The brash president's insistence that in a global war on terror everyone had to be "with us or against us" left the United States with bruised relations with traditional allies in Europe and an increasingly volatile environment in the Middle East. The singular focus on the war on terror also led to a neglected South America, which saw a succession of countries' electorates make sharp lefts at the ballot box, bringing to power leaders who aligned themselves with the anti-American grouping Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (who called Bush the devil) was trying to forge on the continent. In Africa, President Bush did spend a significant amount of U.S. dollars on non-military humanitarian initiatives. Militarily, countries like Djibouti became strategically important as locations for bases used heavily to support operations in the nearby Middle East. In 2006, Bush ramped up U.S. involvement in Somalia, reportedly twisting Ethiopia's arm to invade the country after radical Islamists gained control of Mogadishu. At the time the invasion was reported to have "tacit American support".

Seven years of wars and unilateral action had made America's foreign policy increasingly unpopular worldwide, and some observers saw Barack Obama's election in 2008 as the signal of a turning point in U.S. relations with the rest of the world. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in the first year of his presidency "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." The newly elected president pushed the idea of a pivot in U.S. foreign policy in lofty speeches in places like Pragueand Cairo, where he claimed to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Four years later, any idea of a new beginning can be put to rest. The Nobel Peace Prize president has been largely a failure, having implemented a foreign policy that has been interventionist in intent and isolationist in result.

Public perception of America in places like Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan had already fallen to below Bush levels by earlier this year. While Barack Obama failed to undo the end of the Iraq war negotiated in the final days of the Bush Administration, providing him the opportunity to misleadingly claim he ended the war in Iraq, elsewhere across the Muslim world the American counterterrorism project heated up. More than 86 percent of US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 are estimated to have occurred during Obama's presidency. The same day Pakistan's newly elected prime minister (representing the first peaceful civilian-to-civilian transition of political power in Pakistan ever) urged President Obama to halt drone strikes in Pakistan, The Washington Post reported that the White House has relied on endorsements of its drone strikes by Pakistan officials between at least late 2007 and late 2011. In 2007, Pakistan was still ruled by the strongman General Pervez Musharraf, now facing charges of murder in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who returned in Pakistan in 2008 to run in parliamentary elections there. In defending continuing drone strikes in Pakistan this August, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted it was the terrorists the drone strikes were killing that were the real violators of Pakistan's sovereignty, saying the strikes may end soon because they've been so successful. Drones strikes have also increased similarly in Yemen and Somalia, the latter of which was the site of a failed counterterrorism raid in Somalia. A raid, which resulted in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu al-Libi, conducted around the same time in Libya, in whose civil war the U.S. intervened in 2011, was successful but drew the ire of Libya's government, which summoned the U.S. envoy.

Al-Libi's questioning, if not his capture, broke the Bush mold of interrogating suspected terrorists. Rather than being sent to a "black site," al-Libi was interrogated on a U.S. ship in international waters. More significantly, al-Libi was charged in a federal court, where he pleaded not guilty, rather than being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Yet, nearly five years after promising, via executive order, to shut down the prison at Guantanamo, President Obama has failed to do so, doing little more than continuing to promise to shut it down, a gesture prompted by a hunger strike earlier this year.

In June, less than two weeks after the first Edward Snowden disclosures about the NSA's massive surveillance operations, President Obama gave a speech in Berlin markedly different from the 2009 round of addresses to foreign audiences. Ostensibly about nuclear arms reduction, Obama promised again to shut down Guantanamo Bay, a promise which had warmed the audience to Obama when he made it in Germany five years earlier. He also defended the NSA's surveillance operations, promising they weren't spying on ordinary citizens but "saving lives."

Less than six months later, revelations about the nature of the NSA's surveillance operations continue—the agency now stands accused of soliciting the "rolodexes" of U.S. officials in an effort to spy on foreign officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone may have been monitored by the NSA as far back as 2002, before she ascended to the head of Germany's government. At the time, the Bush Administration faced a less-than-friendly chancellor in Gerhard Schroder, an outspoken critic of Bush's Iraq War, and may have been interested in the politicians who might replace him. Yet the surveillance continued for more than a decade—U.S. officials insist spying on Merkel and "most" other world leaders ended when the White House found out about the monitoring, earlier this summer. The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag contradicted the claim, reporting that Obama had known about the surveillance on Merkel since 2010 and allowed it to continue. Current and former intelligence officials have gone to the press, too, to challenge the claim that Obama didn't know about the spying.

Neither version of events puts Obama in a good light. Either he continued a practice that he must've known would've damaged U.S.-German relations if it had been uncovered, or he didn't bother to find out what his government was doing until more than four years after taking office, when the NSA's clandestine activities were being reported by newspapers around the world.

The president of the European Parliament suggested talks over a free trade deal with the United States be suspended over the NSA scandal. The agency is alleged to have surveilled Angela Merkel and monitored millions of telephone calls and other Internet communications of European citizens. The NSA also stands accused of monitoring the phone call of the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff canceled a state visit to the United States that was scheduled for this month over the scandal. There are no pending free trade agreements that the NSA scandal could threaten to torpedo in Latin America. An attempt to extend NAFTA across the Americas, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, has been stalled since 2003. Ecuador, meanwhile, unilaterally withdrew from a trade benefit arrangement with the U.S. while publicly considering whether to grant the NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum, something it said the U.S. was blackmailing it over.

Edward Snowden ended up applying for and being granted asylum in Russia where Putin says the U.S. trapped Snowden by pressuring other countries against offering the whistleblower asylum. Putin insisted the Russian decision on Snowden wouldn't affect U.S,-Russian relations, though Secretary of State John Kerry, who just a year earlier had mocked Mitt Romney for pointing out that Russia often acted as a geopolitical foe of the U.S., claimed otherwise; Kerry warned U.S.-Russian relations could be damaged if Russia didn't hand Snowden over (despite the two countries not having an extradition treaty). Putin called the idea rubbish. Russia eventually granted Snowden asylum, despite the United States' public displeasure. The issue receded into the background as international tensions over Syria rose during the summer. 

President Obama, having declared that the use (later revised to the systematic use) of chemical weapons in Syria would necessitate a military response, found himself being forced into just that scenario after reports that the Syrian government had killed more than a thousand of its own people in a chemical attack last August. Obama declared international norms required action of the U.S., even as the U.S. exempted itself from the same norms. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in Syria earlier this month, was never the president's preferred vehicle of internal norms enforcement. Rather, Obama insisted he could act unilaterally without anyone's approval, even the one he sought from Congress. Though his supporters insisted the Putin-induced offer from Syria to submit its chemical weapons arsenal to disposal by the OPCW was part of Obama's plan all along, his own words and actions contradict that theory.

The abortive effort at intervention in Syria disappointed U.S. allies that wanted to intervene, but not without America bearing the brunt of the costs. When the British House of Commons voted against intervention in Syria, the first interested party in the West to do so, France insisted it would act even without the United Kingdom. When it looked like the United States had finally stumbled its way out of intervention in Syria too, the French said they wouldn't go it alone. Perhaps most disappointed was Saudi Arabia, for whom the United States has traditionally played the role of neighborhood bully in its regional politicking. The lack of a U.S. intervention put Saudi Arabia at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis Iran in the two regional powers' proxy fight in Syria. Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief issued a warning in the foreign press about "scaling back" the Arab kingdom's relationship with the U.S. over the lack of sufficient American action in Syria.

If Saudi Arabia makes good on its threat, it would be a rare victory for Obama's foreign policy, which has mostly had the effect of being both interventionist and aimless, alienating and isolating the United States from its traditional allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. Obama, for example, sought to distance the U.S. from the dictatorship it had for a long time helped prop up and support in Egypt as it was on the brink of collapse. He continued foreign and military aid even as he claimed, after the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power, that Egypt was no longer an ally, something the State Department had to correct the president on. Some military aid was finally suspended, belatedly, after this summer's coup in Egypt removed the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi. Saudi Arabia quickly offered to step in and replace any aid cut by the United States.

That action, as well as Saudi Arabia's more recent displeasure with U.S. foreign policy, provides an illuminating example of how non-intervention can work. Whatever special relationship the U.S. has had with Saudi Arabia has outlived its usefulness, if it was ever useful at all. The stationing of U.S. troops near Mecca was one of the reasons Osama bin Laden listed for launching the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the Saudi monarchy has long encouraged Wahhabism, a radical interpretation of Islam used by terrorists like bin Laden. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's regional cold war with Iran is also of little interest to the United States, which appears to be making progress in multiparty talks with Iran over its nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia doesn't like it. Israel doesn't like it. America's role in talks with Iran may be limited; primarily the U.S. needs only to not act as a deterrent to talks, as it has often taken the most hardline position of the Western powers involved.

The reluctance of America's regional allies, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to support negotiations with Iran, however, reveals that America's alliances are often aligned for the best interests of whatever country the U.S. is allying with, and not the U.S. itself. Were Barack Obama's foreign policy not isolationist in results but non-interventionist in intention, the waning of American influence abroad could be used to strengthen America's foreign policy position by making it independent of the entanglements of others without instead becoming merely an unreliable partner still vaguely interested in meddling.