WASHINGTON, D.C.: While back-to-back Supreme Court rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage burnish President Barack Obama’s legacy at home, his foreign policy record is unsettled and may not be fully established until years after he leaves office.
Ongoing violence in Afghanistan has prompted Obama to slow the pace of a withdrawal of the U.S. Special Forces and trainers. And nearly four years after Obama declared an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq, U.S. forces are back, hoping to help Baghdad reclaim territory from the Islamic State group.
A “reset” of ties with Russia that produced a new nuclear arms reduction agreement has been replaced by Cold War-era tensions, and the U.S. redeployed military hardware to Europe after Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open despite Obama’s effort to close it, and it’s unlikely that the administration can revive peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
“If you were to look at U.S.-Russian relations and the collapse of the political order in the Middle East, this doesn’t look like very good, convincing management of foreign policy,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who heads the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Obama’s “biggest setback,” Nasr said, “is his idea of reducing the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, that it would be doable and risk-free. At least in the short-run, that hasn’t worked out.”
This doesn’t mean Obama hasn’t secured significant achievements. Although al-Qaeda still poses serious threats, the organization’s founder was killed in a U.S. raid in 2011.
Obama may be about to secure trade deals with Europe and Asia, where he’s seeking to reassure allies unnerved by China’s growing economic and military might. Next week, negotiators hope to complete a deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The president’s outreach to communist Cuba could restore diplomatic relations after a half century of animosity, but it’s uncertain whether doing so will bring any significant changes to the island. It is, however, likely to change for the better the tenor of conversations with the rest of Latin America.
These are all still works in progress whose outcomes will help judge Obama’s doctrine that favors diplomacy and negotiations over military force.
After taking office in 2009, Obama oversaw a major buildup of U.S. troops and civilians aimed at curtailing a resurgence by the Taliban. He expanded training of Afghan security forces and bolstered efforts to improve governance. But he also said he would begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011. In June 2013, the Afghan government assumed full responsibility for the country’s security, and the U.S. combat mission ended in October 2014, leaving military trainers and advisers and U.S. Special Forces dedicated to fighting al-Qaeda.
The Taliban, however, have pressed their insurgency, overrunning areas once secured by U.S. forces.
This year, Obama slowed the withdrawal of U.S. military trainers and advisers, and Special Forces, haunted by the experience of Iraq, where U.S. troops returned last year after the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of Islamic State.
The situation lately has turned urgent, with Taliban attacks intensifying in northern Afghanistan. It’s unlikely that Afghan forces will have prevailed by the time the U.S. withdrawal is completed in December 2016. But with Obama leaving office the following month, dealing with Afghanistan will pass to his successor.
It’s almost certain that Obama also will bequeath the crisis in Iraq to the winner of the November 2016 presidential election.
Fulfilling an election promise and an agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush, Obama oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in December 2011. The more than 3,500 troops who have returned since last year’s Islamic State onslaught are trainers and advisers, sent to help rebuild and bolster the moribund Iraqi army.
The U.S. strategy, however, has been badly hampered by the Shiite-led government’s failure to recruit significant numbers of minority Sunnis to help fight the Islamic State alongside Iran-backed Shiite militias.
Administration officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of sending more U.S. troops, including some who might be placed with Iraqi combat units.
Obama’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the Syria conflict have been fitful. An initial push to bolster Syrian exiles as the face of the opposition foundered on the exiles’ internal bickering. Arming opponents to Syrian President Bashar Assad foundered as al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and other Islamist groups came to dominate the movement.
The need to counter Islamic State in Syria was made more immediate last summer by the murders of three Americans held by the extremists. But the effect of the U.S. bombing campaign there remains uncertain. U.S. bombing helped thwart Islamic State’s push on Kobani, but the subsequent cooperation between the U.S. Defense Department and Kurdish defenders of Kobani, the People’s Protection Units has angered NATO-ally Turkey, which views the them as a terrorist group.
The conflict in Syria clearly will outlast the Obama administration.
Obama — who initiated a “reset” in relations with Russia when he took office — now is embroiled in a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the 2014 seizure of Crimea, and Moscow’s support for separatists who control self-declared pro-Moscow republics in eastern Ukraine.
Obama’s approach to Russia had some successes. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty further reduced the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The countries cooperated in the negotiations with Iran and the delivery of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But the United States now has to reassure NATO allies worried about Putin’s intentions by staging joint military exercises, and by positioning in Eastern Europe enough weapons and armor to equip a combat brigade. The United States and the European Union also have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Moscow.
Obama was viewed warily from the start by the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters partly because of early opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
Israelis also were dismayed that Obama traveled to Egypt but not to Israel in his first term. He sought to make up for lost ground on his first trip to Israel as president in 2013, backing an aggressive push by Secretary of State John Kerry to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and pledging to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
But Kerry’s diplomatic effort collapsed a year later.
Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship — never a friendly— plunged when Netanyhu accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress in which the Israeli leader denounced the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran.
Obama upended 50 years of U.S. foreign policy in December by agreeing to restore diplomatic relations with communist-ruled Cuba and authorizing an expansion of travel and trade with the island.
While Obama said that the Castro regime continues to repress its citizens, he believed that it was time to scrap a U.S. policy that has failed in its goal of bringing democracy to Cuba.
“I don’t expect a transformation of Cuban society overnight, but I’m convinced with engagement we can more effectively stand up for our values,” Obama said.
Six months later, however, the two countries have yet to open embassies in each other’s capital.