President Obama was determined to end the George W. Bush foreign policy perceived as expansive, militaristic and arrogant. America under the Obama administration would withdraw from its active military engagements, launch negotiations and reposition with major adversaries – Russia and Iran – and stress a diplomacy first strategy. In general, American foreign policy would recognize limits, reject America’s exceptionalism and end an expansive foreign affairs cycle that began in the Reagan administration and continued through two Gulf wars, 9/11 and the War on Terror.
And, indeed, the administration has had success in implementing its strategy. They point out that Iraq and Afghanistan military commitments have ended, albeit with some late, and for the administration, unwelcome adjustments. He led from behind in Libya and offered no follow-up and has mightily resisted engagement in Syria. The reset with Russia has been mostly a failure, but negotiations appear to be reaching an endpoint with Iran.
However, there is growing evidence that the President is losing the clout to control his foreign policy and, in particular, the era of restraint he ushered in is over. And not just among the Boston to D.C. foreign policy elites, but public opinion appears to be moving away from “leading from behind” to a more assertive position. Of course, the public shift is not happening without reservations concerning excessive and long-term commitments, but a shift from Obama’s and his national security team’s positions is nonetheless underway.
- Clapper endorses arms for Ukraine. A substantial portion of Obama’s foreign policy leadership team now advocates arming the Ukraine government, including James Clapper, the administration’s head of National Intelligence. He joined newly installed Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, who made Ukraine a highlight of his confirmation. Ukrainian policy is especially under assault with a host of Democratic and Republican leaders advocating providing arming and training for Ukrainian troops. Numerous former ambassadors, current legislators and retired military leaders have joined in. In general, public opinion now gives the President low marks in fighting terrorism and foreign policy in general. Pew Research reports movement among the American public toward arming the Kiev government, although not yet a majority.
- Criticism from top foreign policy leaders. Many Democrats who served in the administration have become critics. Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates top the list of leaders who have criticized both general foreign policy leadership and specifics, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
- Republicans are now aggressive foreign policy critics of the President. The Netanyahu invitation and letter to Iranian leaders essentially claim a foreign policy partnership and major disagreement with the White House on the Iran negotiations. Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates are daily criticizing the President’s foreign policy. They are even gingerly beginning to advance “boots on the ground” in the war against ISIS; however, the President, administration and its allies continue to oppose it. There are already a few thousand Americans advising and training in Iraq. Again, Pew Research reports that public opinion appears to be moving toward a more aggressive approach, but without a majority. However, more recent polls show majorities now support “boots on the ground,” albeit in limited numbers.