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Obama’s Flawed Foreign Policy – Realist or Not?

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

With presidential elections in November and primary elections and caucuses running in high gear to nominate the presidential candidates, President Obama is nearing the end of his presidency. In a series of interviews with the Atlantic Obama explains and defends his foreign policy approach. These interviews rekindled the recurring debate about whether Obama’s foreign policy is “realist” or at least heavily based on realist thinking.

After two unsuccessful wars in the wake of 9/11, Obama’s presidency was a radical departure and his restraint in matters of foreign policy necessary. However, his foreign policy is not free of failures: The surge in Afghanistan failed to turn the tide on the Taliban; the peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians did not progress, despite Obama’s and Kerry’s time and energy consuming efforts; the Arab Spring faded, with Egypt reversing course, Libya as failed state, and Syria in ruins; and then there was the rise of the Islamic State, and the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. Additionally, it seems Obama failed to anticipate the Russian reaction to the developments in Ukraine.

The international Realist 
For Roger Cohen at The New York Times, these interviews show Obama as a realist and internationalist. Obama seems “dismissive of the notion that he has undermined American credibility in the world, resolute in defense of his inaction in Syria, skeptical of interventionism, unsentimental about Europe (and most things), and more inclined to view climate change as an existential threat than terrorism”.

Cohen asks whether Obama’s foreign policy restraint was taken too far in the decision not to intervene in Syria, despite the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. For Cohen, this decision undermined American credibility, consolidated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and empowered Russian President Putin. Cohen sees Obama’s inaction as terrible error and “his dismissal of credibility … [as] ahistorical and dangerous”, which lets Syria get away with crossing an America “red line” and thereby has put the world at greater risk.

While Obama has done many things right, in Cohen’s view Obama’s “cool realism has been disastrous in Syria and damaging to Europe. It also failed to seize tantalizing opportunities for liberty and democracy in Iran and Egypt” and let the Arab Spring wither.

Four main strategic alternatives
For Stephen M. Walt at Foreign Policy, however, non-realist features mark Obama’s presidency as prominently as realist dimensions and it is these non-realist elements that cause his biggest failures in foreign policy. While incorporating some elements of a realist outlook in his foreign policy, Obama never fully subscribed to the realist worldview. Instead he sees four main strategic alternatives – realism, liberal interventionism, internationalism, and isolationism. Fully rejecting the last one, he “believes foreign-policy making involves picking and choosing from among the first three”. Walt argues that Obama “wants to have it both ways: to acknowledge there are limits to U.S. power and some problems it can safely ignore, but to still stand ready to intervene when vital interests are at risk or when U.S. power can produce positive results”.

But Obama never formulated a clear and coherent strategic framework identifying those vital interests; he never shared his overarching view on the hierarchy of interests or explained the logic behind his thinking. 
This can be seen in the Middle East, according to Walt, where “repeated meddling sowed additional chaos and alienated both friends and foes alike…. Obama and his team never seem to have figured out what they wanted to accomplish in the region (apart from stopping Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb), and the end result was a series of incoherent improvisations”.

Failure as a liberal hegemon
This failure to clearly define American interests, while holding on to the familiar rhetoric of liberal hegemony, had several consequences: “First, it meant Obama faced constant pressure to ’do something’ whenever trouble beckoned in some distant corner of the world, but he had no overarching argument or principle with which to deflect the pressure (save for the correct but unhelpful dictum to avoid ’stupid shit’)”.

Second, Obama’s position that U.S. leadership was indispensable exposed him to criticism when trying to avoid a new minefield or leaving an old one. For Walt Obama’s decisions to leave Afghanistan and Iraq and not to enter Syria and Ukraine where the right ones, but the lack of a convincing explanation made what could have been sold as strategic judgments look like war-weary weakness. The same ambiguity characterized Obama’s approach to American allies: while misbehavior by allies bothered Obama, he nevertheless made large efforts to convince allies that they could rely on the U.S. no matter what.

The predicable result was that both sides were disappointed in the process. Additionally, Obama did not manage to change the interventionist mindset entrenched in the American foreign policy establishment, and “never really tried to dismantle the bipartisan consensus behind the grand strategy of liberal hegemony”.

Regime change
According to Walt, “a genuinely ‘realist’ foreign policy would have left Afghanistan promptly in 2009, converted our [American] ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East to normal ones, explicitly rejected further NATO expansion, eschewed ‘regime change’ and other forms of social engineering in foreign countries such as Libya or Syria, and returned to the broad strategy of restrained ‘offshore balancing’ that served the United States so well in the past”.
Was Obama’s foreign policy flawed because it was ‘realist’ or because it was not realist enough? If you want to read the whole articles, you can find Roger Cohen’s opinion piece “Obama’s Flawed Realism” in The New York Times here and Stephen M. Walt’s “Obama Was Not a Realist President” in Foreign Policy here.

And if you want to make your own analysis, take a look at Obama’s Atlantic interviews here.

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