The [American] establishment media has declared US President Barack Obama a failure in foreign policy. He is worse than George W. Bush, say some journalists; he is worse than Jimmy Carter, say others. In much of this criticism there is a phenomenon operating in the background that goes unmentioned: The opinion pages of the large circulation dailies in New York and Washington are either liberal internationalist or neoconservative, meaning they all have a bias for action, for doing dramatic things to make the world a better place. Realism, which has a sturdier pedigree—going all the way back to Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War—encapsulates how most people in government and business actually think, but it has relatively few followers in the major media. And realism counsels caution, because a bias for action can often lead to disaster. Because Obama has had until this recent Iraq crisis the opposite—a bias for inaction—the major media simply hate him.
So let’s see how he is doing.
Though the defense budget has been cut rather dramatically, the United States under Obama still deploys its Navy and Air Force in the four corners of the world, protecting sea lines of communication as well as the balance of power in the major geographical theaters. This is doing something on an imperial scale. Nevertheless, passively accepting America’s worldwide military armature is a far cry from trying to shape events, which a president is expected to do and which Obama is not doing. You can shape events without military intervention, but Obama is not even doing that.
Though Obama has not put troops in harm’s way in any significant measure, he has been unusually aggressive in the use of drone warfare to hunt down and kill terrorists, in Yemen, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and elsewhere. This, too, constitutes doing something, and dramatically so. One could easily argue that Obama has been more successful in hunting down senior al Qaeda leadership than his predecessor. And don’t forget, it was Obama’s decision to kill Osama Bin Laden in a risky special operations forces attack.
Obama is likely doing more in Ukraine than meets the eye. Putting troops on the ground would be irresponsible given that Ukraine matters much less to the United States or even to Western Europe than it does to Russia. But how many people have noticed how much more disciplined, efficient, and methodical the Ukrainian military has become in recent months, evinced by its recent offensive? It is as though its officer corps suddenly got a crash course at Fort Leavenworth. That, I would be willing to bet, is the upshot of American military advisers dispatched to Kiev by Obama. Obama prefers quiet, lethal action—witness the drones—while the media often prefers noise.
True, Obama has not acted dramatically in Syria. The media narrative is that had Obama taken military action of some demonstrable sort early on, in order to aid the opponents to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, al-Assad’s regime would have fallen by now and Syria would be more peaceful and stable. But given the plethora of armed groups in Syria even early on, there was no guarantee of this. Doing something in 2011 might have toppled the regime but also midwifed to power an al Qaeda state, and that’s if the country had not descended into worse anarchy than it has now, with even more killing. The idea that the United States could have controlled or steered the direction of Syrian politics in a war-torn, post-Assad era is perhaps naive. The United States could barely do so in next-door Iraq with more than a hundred thousand troops on the ground.
In Iraq, meanwhile, the choice is between Sunni extremists in the northern and western parts of the country who murder and torture people—and cleanse their territory of indigenous Christians—and a Shiite regime in Baghdad that has murdered and tortured people, albeit on a less demonstrable scale and intensity. But non-intervention is risky, since if a radical Sunni state can take hold across parts of Syria and Iraq, that poses dangers to the United States, as well as to its Middle Eastern allies like Israel and Jordan. So Obama has now ordered limited airstrikes, using the rhetorical trigger of humanitarian action. That’s doing something. Of course, one might also argue that while Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, was apparently wasting months of his time trying to establish a peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an Islamic state was coming into being right under his nose between Damascus and Baghdad.
Obama did do something in Libya, helping along the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi with air, logistics and special operations units. The result has been sheer chaos in Libya itself, the destabilization of Mali that the French military had to fix, and a dispersal of weapons throughout the Sahara region. Here is a case where Obama’s doing something may have constituted doing too much.
Then there are the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Given how unpalatable military alternatives are, entering into talks with Tehran made sense. But extending the talks past the deadline for several months entails risks that might in the end determine the reputation of the Obama administration. If the negotiations collapse, and Iran marches on toward a greater nuclear capability, Obama could credibly be declared a failed foreign policy president.
This leads to Obama’s fundamental problem. Actually he is not a realist, at least not in the vein of a Henry Kissinger, James Baker or Brent Scowcroft. Yes, Obama understands restraint. He rushes in with drones and advisers rather than with ground troops. But that is only the beginning of realism, not its culmination. Realism, when it works well, requires patriotism. It requires a profound loyalty to the patria —a specific geographical ground and its storied history, which the realist feels deeply in his bones —and whose basic interest is then pursued by the realist, often very aggressively. Baker and Scowcroft had this, and Kissinger, while an immigrant, had it as well. They all probably would have negotiated with Iran rather than pursue a military strike — but they also would have applied brinksmanship and other means to prevent being taken to the cleaners by the Iranians. In addition to sending military advisers to Ukraine, they would have challenged Vladimir Putin’s Russia in other ways. They would have declared the Baltic states hallowed NATO ground, and would not have advertised in advance that the United States would not be sending troops to Ukraine: they would understand that you never tell your adversary what you are not going to do. Let your adversary worry about what you might or might not do. In all of this, Obama and Kerry have failed.
This is all intrinsically connected with optics: America’s reputation for power as perceived by its friends and enemies. To wit, the Israelis might not have liked Kissinger or Baker, but they feared them. They neither like nor fear Kerry. Though sly and deft in instances, Obama has simply not projected power in the manner of a Nixon, Reagan or the elder Bush. Thus, America risks being further humiliated around the world.
Now all this could suddenly change if, say, for example, the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine were to collapse and Putin would be revealed as weak, instead of Obama. But if the current trend continues, one has to wonder: what, for example, will the Chinese do?
So far the Chinese have elegantly asserted power in the East and South China seas through so-called salami slicing, moving forward only by single steps. But what if, say, in the final year or so of Obama’s presidency they perceive the White House as so disengaged internationally that they decide to be truly bold?
Let’s first see how Ukraine turns out. Let’s see what the Chinese do. Let’s see what happens in the Iran talks. Let’s see how much this limited air campaign in Iraq can accomplish, both in a humanitarian sense and a strategic sense. Obama’s legacy is only partially written. It could get better. But it could also get worse.
© 2014 STRATFOR
Publishing of this “Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan” article is with the express permission of Stratfor.