Barack Obama

Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy an Embrace of Intervention and Unilateralism

It's been a parade of aimless interventions and broken promises


White House

President Obama entered office eight years ago on a wave of optimism that he was heralding substantive change, even if it was ill-defined on the campaign trail. On the foreign policy front, that meant ending the Iraq war, refocusing on the war in Afghanistan, and being willing to engage with America's enemies.

Next week, Obama leaves office with the United States military engaged in operations to varying degrees of intensity in more than half a dozen countries against a number of radical Islamist terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their various affiliates, plus Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, where the U.S. has provided crucial backing to the authoritarian regime of Yoweri Museveni.

Some of the interventions Obama is bequeathing his successor were ones he himself inherited. The Afghanistan war has now gone on for longer than the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009—a concomitant "surge" of diplomatic personnel was supposed to accelerate the end of the war. Instead, any opportunity to take advantage of the surge to end the war was wasted by bureaucratic infighting and inertia. The withdrawal date for U.S. troops in Afghanistan was regularly delayed, and is now set for later this year, after President Obama leaves office. U.S. troops are fighting not just the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda ally that drew the U.S. into Afghanistan after 9/11, but also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has recently been operating in Afghanistan. Ending the war in Afghanistan will be up to Obama's successor.

President Obama did preside over the end of the Iraq war, and in the 2012 election he took credit for ending it as part of his campaign, even though the war ended based on a status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. President Obama tried to delay that negotiated end by keeping U.S. forces in Iraq past the withdrawal date. In 2014, U.S. troops began to return to Iraq as part of the campaign against ISIS. That campaign also finally opened the door for the Obama administration to send the U.S. military into Syria, after a previous effort motivated by the Assad regime's purported use of chemical weapons against civilians failed. Opponents of ending the war in Iraq pointed to the return of U.S. troops as vindicating their position, since they had argued a U.S. withdrawal would destabilize Iraq. That was very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. The U.S. invasion of Iraq destabilized the country, while the extended occupation enfeebled the post-Hussein government, fostering in it a dependence on foreign support.

Other disasters are entirely of the Obama administration's making. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya was heralded as a different kind of intervention than the invasion of Iraq, because it was supported by the Arab League, did not involve a significant number of U.S. troops on the ground, and did not lead to an extended occupation. Many of the effects, however, were similar. The intervention destabilized Libya. Weapons from the former Qaddafi regime were spread far and wide, from Nigeria to Syria, aggravating conflicts across North Africa and the Middle East. Mali, which the U.S. had a few years earlier identified as one of Africa's "most enlightened democracies," suffered a coup and was beset by Islamist militants from Libya, bringing it to the verge of collapse. The U.S. intervention in Libya also contributed to the refugee crisis with which European countries are now dealing. U.S. special forces are in Libya fighting against ISIS, which, along with Al-Qaeda and other smaller terrorist groups, did not exist in Libya prior to the intervention.

The Obama administration has also opened up fronts in the global war on terror (though they dropped the terminology) in West Africa, sending U.S. troops to aid local forces in the fight against Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group which has aligned itself with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The U.S. is building a $100 million drone base in Niger. In East Africa, U.S. troops were first deployed toward the end of the Bush administration to aid in the hunt against Kony. The U.S. now also uses Uganda to stage incursions to battle Al-Shabaab, another African Islamist militant group that's aligned itself with both ISIS and Al-Qaeda, in Somalia, a country the U.S. has intervened in on-and-off since the elder Bush administration in 1991.

A few short years ago, President Obama pointed to U.S. involvement in Yemen, which consisted largely of drone strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, many of whom were identified by the authoritarian regime in Yemen, as a model of success in the war on terror. It was, according to the Obama, a limited intervention focused on taking out Al-Qaeda leadership that did not have broader side effects. The model fell apart when Yemen did. The drone campaign helped destabilize the country, leading to a coup by Houthi rebels and a two year long civil war in which U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has intervened. Saudi Arabia has used U.S. bombs in unlawful airstrikes and committing other alleged war crimes, often with U.S. weapons.

President Obama also insisted on an "Asia pivot" to go along with his purported disengagement from the Middle East (a disengagement that never really happened). That pivot, meant to strengthen U.S. relations with other Pacific countries not named China, contributed to China taking a more confrontational stance in the region. The Obama administration professed not to understand the provenance of this more confrontational posture by China. The Asia pivot was an unnecessary and counterproductive show of U.S. strength. Meant to contain China, it actually encouraged the country to be more aggressive. Tragically, it also closed the door on potential cooperation between the U.S. and China on issues like trade and terrorism. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, effectively nixed by President-Elect Donald Trump, notably did not include China, contributing to the sense that the U.S. was interested in containing a global power that had not articulated any national security agenda explicitly or implicitly opposed to the U.S.

At the same time, while President Obama points to the Iran nuclear deal as a prime example of his successes on the diplomatic foreign policy front, relations with Iran did not actually improve. The U.S. finds itself regularly "harassed" by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz, an important passage in international trade. The deal itself, bypassing the Senate as it did, can be easily overturned after Obama leaves office. Any thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations looks increasingly illusory.

Relations with Russia, meanwhile, have significantly deteriorated. After the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain took a more strident posture toward Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his opponent Barack Obama or even Republican President George W. Bush. In 2012, Mitt Romney warned that Russia was the U.S.'s number one geopolitical enemy. John Kerry, an Obama surrogate during the campaign, mocked Romney's position, calling it a "preposterous notion" and saying that Romney "talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV." By 2014, Kerry, at that point already secretary of state, was using the Rocky IV line on Russia—telling the Russians not to treat the conflict in Ukraine as a Cold War confrontation. "We're hoping that Russia will not see this as a sort of a continuation of the Cold War, we don't see it that way," Kerry said on MSNBC at the time. "We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States—this is not 'Rocky IV.'" Russia's involvement in Ukraine led to limited sanctions by the U.S. and Europe, and President Obama announced the imposition of more sanctions last month.

Those sanctions came after the U.S. intelligence community accused Russia of trying to "interfere" in the U.S. presidential election and of being behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee that is believed to have led to a trove of emails pertinent to the election being disclosed by Wikileaks. Since the election, Democrats have increasingly adopted the idea that the U.S. and Russia may be in a new Cold War. Even before the election, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was campaigning on a platform of taking a more confrontational stance against Russia. This week, the U.S. made its first deployment of troops in Poland.

The deterioration of relations with Russia are emblematic of the aimless and reactive yet also interventionist U.S. foreign policy advanced by the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Russia a "reset" at the beginning of the Obama administration. Instead U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since Russia was part of the Soviet Union. The Obama administration dropped the terminology of the "global war on terror," promising a more nuanced approach, yet the president leaves office with a war on terror at least as global as the one he inherited from Bush, and no less ad hoc. His first official act as president was to order the closure of Guantanamo Bay, but it will have remained open for the entirety of his eight years in office. Tragically, Obama, who had a background as a constitutional lawyer and who often spoke critically of a unilateral executive foreign policy and war-making, did not do anything to limit himself or future presidents or to roll back any of the powers that have amassed in the executive branch in regards to the prosecution of the foreign policy and the war on terror, leaving Donald Trump even more powers than he himself inherited from Bush.

NEXT: Wilbur Ross, Crony Capitalist

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  1. President Obama entered office eight years ago on a wave of optimism that he was heralding substantive change, even if it was ill-defined on the campaign trail.

    *whew* Good thing that won’t happen again.

    1. For another couple years.

    2. Good to know that I’m not the only one that see’s the clear parallel’s between Obama and Trump. Conservatives, and even many Libertarians here at Reason, are quick to say ‘but Obama’ just as readily as the left was willing to say ‘but Bush’.

      Yeah, Obama was a terrible President. Bush was also a terrible President. Lets not use them as the model of what a President can and can not do. Frankly, they’ve done nothing but make Bill look positively wonderful by comparison which should be a strong indicator of how shitty things have become.

  2. Careening randomly from crisis to crisis will become a terrible way to conduct foreign policy in about a week.

  3. “Look on, uh, my works, ye mighty, uhm, and let me be clear – you will, uh, despair” – fixed alt text

    1. I lol’d

    2. …uhm, and let me be clear…” ROFL!

  4. I’ve come to the conclusion that Obama’s central failing, and possibly that of all progressives and statists, is lack of curiousity. Once their mind is set on something, they never again question anything about it.

    I am dogmatic about lots of things, like individualism and self-ownership, but I still remain curious about alternatives and objections. If I see a post about why collectivism is right, I shudder but usually at least skim it, unless it’s from Salon or something.

    Obama doesn’t have that curiousity. He simply can’t imagine any other viewpoints.

    1. In his defense, no one really ever called him out on his bullshit going all the way back to his Harvard days.

      He was the vessel that the left poured their wildest fantasies in to and he delivered appropriately which is to say it was a giant disaster of completely predictable proportions.

      1. Even his choom buddies didn’t challenge his bogarting. Truly the chosen one!

  5. I’ve come to the conclusion that Obama’s central failing, and possibly that of all progressives and statists, is lack of curiousity.

    That makes no sense. They love science.

    1. Consensus!

    2. No.

      They FUCKING love science.

  6. It’s been a parade of aimless interventions and broken promises

    Just like his domestic policy?

    That is what you call ‘consistency’!

  7. Speaking of the Obama administration sending troops and tanks into Poland which is now proof to me that some kind of portal opened up on November 9 and is sucking in some alternate timeline into our current universe…

    The Justice Department is finally serious about investigating the Clinton email scandal.

    Washington (CNN)The Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced Thursday it has launched a probe into the department and the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

    The announcement, which was expected, comes after criticism of the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation, particularly on how the public was notified about the controversy, which was a major issue on the 2016 campaign trail.

    1. So they’re really investigating why the investigation even took place, who wasn’t onboard with Hillary for 2016, and I can guess who that is. Wonder if Trump will keep him…..

  8. I think everyone who works in the federal gov’t should have to enter a lottery every year. There’s so many people, your chances of being drawn is pretty slim, so it shouldn’t be that big a deal. The president gets 5 tickets though.

    The person who gets drawn each year is beaten to death with aluminum baseball bats by taxpayers. That’s it.

    1. Why does the President only get 5 tickets?

    2. If that were the deal, you could probably replace all federal taxes with another lottery to pick who gets to be in on the beating.

    3. Like the William F. Buckley comment: He would rather be governed by the first 435 people in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty.

    4. Not aluminum. Bring on Lucille!

      Now THAT is what I am talking about!

      1. I like aluminum. They make a nice sound. And it gives those without a lot of upper body strength a better chance to do some damage.

  9. There is nothing wrong with Unilateralism if it’s the right thing to do

    Obama joined with NATO and the UN and attacked Libya, so Multilaterism does not make something a good idea

    1. The Iraq War was quite a multilateral effort. Bush took the time to get quite a bunch of allies. People misremember it as Bush going in guns blazing without backup. People remember France opposing it. However, it was the largest group of countries to join for that type of conflict in a long time. That turned out real well.

  10. “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and Independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” – SecState John Q Adams 1822

    If only.

    1. 1822, and that notion has been plaguing us ever since. Can we not just get the fuck over it and declare that we are not for “truth, justice, and the American way” [Superman]

  11. His first official act as president was to order the closure of Guantanamo Bay, but it will have remained open for the entirety of his eight years in office.

    Yep, the one time Obama forgot his pen and phone. Maybe the battery died.

    But it’s also important to note that closing Gitmo or no, Obama didn’t change the policy that created GitMo.

  12. Once the border wall circles all the way around to close on itself, we’ll be able to disengage from the rest of the world. No foreign policy needed.

  13. Democrats are the sorest losers on the planet.

    That is all.

  14. I’m going to comment for Tony:
    But Boooooooooooosssssssshhhhhhhh!

    1. and amsoc, and Buttplug, and …

    2. Actually, you have to give Tony some credit. Nothing Obama did was wrong because Trump. He’s not stuck on the past, he’s looking forward to the future that hasn’t even happened yet.

      1. I don’t give lying shitbags that argue in bad faith any credit.

        1. I was using the word credit quite facetiously.

    3. For Amsoc:

      How many troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan when the war started? How many are there now? Peace president herpaderpaderp

      1. It’s amazing how the left restricts foreign policy to Iran and Afghanistan conveniently overlooking the rest.

        Of course, if they do look at the full picture appreciatively laid out by Ed here, they lose the cover of ‘blaming Bush’ and ‘inheriting a mess’ and have to face and argue the consequences of Obama’s foreign policy incoherence once and for all.

      2. How many troops were in Vietnam in the Johnson administration? How many were there in the early 70s? Nixon greatest peace President herpaderpaderp.

  15. Weird how the headline emphasized “unilateralism”, and then made no mention of it again until the conclusion, with zero actual examples of distinctly-unilateral actions in between.

    Reminder = the war in Afghanistan was prosecuted until 2014 under the rubric of the “International Security Assistance Force” (motto = “We’re just here to help! really.”); and its vestiges remain in an even more-ironically-named “Resolute Support Mission“, also under NATO.

    the perpetual involvement in Afghanistan even post-“end of combat mission” would not even be possible without the guise of some multilateral purpose. if it were truly “unilateral”, we’d actually have to explain why its in US interests, rather than resort to vague platitudes about ‘stabilization efforts’.

    There was also nothing remotely unilateral about Libya. Or what’s going on in Syria. Or Yemen.

    we could debate the degree to which contemporary multilateralism is merely political cover for US goals… but regardless – its just inaccurate to use the term at all in association with Obama’s foreign policy legacy. It makes no sense.

    1. These are good points, Gilmore. If anything, Obama showed us that multilateralism can be as pointless and as damaging to U.S. interests as unilateralism.

      1. Obama showed us that multilateralism can be as pointless and as damaging to U.S. interests as unilateralism.

        neither are inherently good or bad*, or anything really. they’re just “methods”. Methods alone don’t change bad policies into good ones, or good ones into bad ones.

        *tho this is debateable = some argue that multilateralism encourages and prolongs ‘interventions’ (a term i hate) because it dilutes responsibility for policy, dilutes goals, makes the decision-making process entirely reactive, etc etc. People who are philosophically disposed to unilateralism (in either trade or security issues) argue that taking 100% ownership of any policy means that choices are more likely to be made solely on matters of individual interests, and also that the burdens of action are concentrated, discouraging frivolous engagements. If you’re a realist, you tend to avoid getting caught up in the theory, and just look at “which approach will better achieve desired goals”.

        I just think Ed’s suggestion that Obama’s Foreign Policy had some strong “unilateralist” component is absurd. Its simply not true, even by some stretched-definitions.

      2. One could argue that if an action is unilateral, than it would more closely align with purely American goals. Of course, that would require us to collectively pull our heads out of own asses.

        ‘Multilateralism’ is basically an alternate way of saying ‘Unilateralism on behalf of the One World Order’. It doesn’t really mean shit in a post U.N. world.

        1. ‘Multilateralism’ is basically an alternate way of saying ‘Unilateralism on behalf of the One World Order’. It doesn’t really mean shit in a post U.N. world.

          I’m not sure i agree or disagree. i don’t think there’s a ‘post UN world’ quite yet. but i would note that, given that every single “Multilateral” action tends to have the US as its primary sponsor, that in many cases, multilateralism is just the means by which US policy is given political cover. (as i noted above)

          I think Libya was notable because i think it might be fairly described as “NATO initiated” rather than something the US had to rally support for. The question whether it would/could have happened WITHOUT the US is curious. I’d assume “no” because the US would be seen as vital to any ‘post ghaddafi’ state, representing the interests of Saudis and Egyptians, etc. Given how things (didn’t) work out, i think the idea that the US was a necessary component of any action has probably been diminished, even though its probably still the SOP. I think we help the french, etc, in places like Mali, even tho we’re probably not necessary.

          i think part of the reason that ‘everything multilateral’ is just US interests in disguise is because we demand it be that way. We don’t like anyone doing anything without having our own hands on the levers.

  16. He’s the peace-loving President; his Nobel Peace Prize proves it!


    1. I bet 90% of the commentariat can quote these idiots better than they can quote themselves.

  17. The Obama administration dropped the terminology of the “global war on terror,” promising a more nuanced approach, yet the president leaves office with a war on terror at least as global as the one he inherited

    “*Cosmic* war on terror”?

    1. Batman has already enlisted the help of Peter Thiel.

    1. “”I sail the darkened waters of my soul on the ship of flaming hate.””

      most of those pictures don’t even remotely try to evoke any particular association. which seems to make them funnier. you could pretty much put those lyrics as captions to photos of *anything* (e.g. “Black Metal Pee-Wee Football“)

  18. Check mate!

  19. Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to conduct foreign affairs.

  20. Do you know what other politician broke promises?

  21. Do you know what other politician broke promises?

    Do you know what would make a shorter list?

    1. Schindler?

  22. Remember when the word of the day everyday was ‘unilateral’ during the Bush years? I ‘member.

    Funny how the word ‘unilateralism’ was barely used in the last eight years.

    No principles. Simple as that.

    1. Pepperidge Farm remembers.

  23. “The Afghanistan war has now gone on for longer than the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined.”

    But not the Korean War which is technically still going on today.

  24. A decent human would be embarrassed at Obo’s “legacy”, so of course, he isn’t.

  25. His legacy mostly seemed to involve talking about his legacy often enough so we’d assume he had one

  26. Someone should put out a global freedom index that is calculated simply as bureaucrats per capita.

    1. Ugh, wrong post.

      1. No, it works.

  27. “leaving Donald Trump even more powers than he himself inherited from Bush.”

    There are those words again….

  28. Obama’s legacy is Donald Trump

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  32. It? disheartening when Reason peddles the same dishonest, condescending talking points as the Zi0n1s7 media. The ?Asia Pivot? was NEVER about ?disengaging from the Middle East? and ALWAYS about taking an aggressive stance against China. The idea that it?s China that?s the aggressor is preposterous. With US missiles surrounding it?

    That? like saying ?Russia wants war! Just look at how many of its bases have been surrounding the borders of NATO countries since 1991!?

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  35. It could be that those in power in Washington actually believe that the imagined affects on America, should they fail to act preemptively and robustly to minimize all threats, justify the annual expenditure, as well as the growing number of places into which America ‘projects power’. After all, if people are going to be ‘put down’ by a military action isn’t it better that the military is a ‘friendly force for good’ – putting them down so as to stand them back up – rather than turning them onto slaves and zombies and expropriating all their wealth.

    It’s the white man’s burden all over gain, see? Only this time with America.

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