As Barack Obama’s presidency ends, his foreign policy accomplishments are becoming increasingly muddled. Events and politics are undermining his goal to reduce the American military involvement and depend on diplomacy. The Paris attack is just the latest and most serious blow. A quick scan of world hotspots highlights Obama’s problems.
. Although a fragile cease fire is holding in Ukraine, mostly due to Russian interest in maintaining it, pressure is building from regional allies to step up NATO’s ability to counter Russia’s newly honed skill at disrupting neighbors with a so-called “hybrid war.” The long-term trend of reducing troops in Europe is now in reverse as men, war materials and exercises with NATO partners increase.
Although Obama has kept the U.S. out of arming Ukraine and provided only minimal assistance, pressure is building to do more. And while it is unlikely Obama will change policy, the next administration may. The momentum is for more action, not less. President Putin has shown himself as an effective opportunist. His military is getting stronger and his aggressive nationalism is playing well at home.
. The administration pivoted to engage China where possible and counter it where needed. But China is a difficult power to manage. As the recent naval exchange in the South China Sea around China’s manmade islands make clear, America’s basic role in ensuring navigation and protecting allies is being threatened, and neither President Xi Jinping nor his military is likely to change the direction they are on. It will be a major challenge for the next administration.
. Obama was hoping his signature legacy would be the so-called rightsizing the U.S. commitment, especially removing military from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in the Middle East that Obama’s preference to treat terrorism as a criminal problem and not a war was most visible. But events and politics are disrupting his approach in nearly every area:
- Iran: The nuclear agreement is his signature policy. It contains Obama’s desire to change policy direction, use diplomacy, engage allies and achieve a laudable goal. But the agreement doesn’t have domestic support, and as Iran’s recent rhetoric and behavior makes clear, they have no intention in opening the country up to Western influence or especially Americans or dampening their regional support for Shia-inspired conflict.
- Libya: An effort to help allies and protect a people without follow-up has left a failed state and a platform for Jihadists.
- Israel and Palestine: No real progress and an alienated Israel leadership.
- Iraq: Withdraw completed in December 2011, but in September 2014 had to re-introduce air power and a few support troops to fight Sunni army that filled the vacuum of power. Little progress after the year of militarization.
- Syria: After proclaiming Assad must go did little to encourage it when it might have helped. Obama finally adopted a policy of training and arming an army of anti-ISIL moderates, which spectacularly failed. ISIL took advantage of the vacuum and now Russia props up Assad and makes war on both so-called moderate anti-Assad forces and ISIL.
- Afghanistan: Afghanistan is where Obama reluctantly accepted military advice for a surge of troops, but added a withdrawal date. The mission is generally not going well and a small number (probably insufficient) of troops will remain.
Even before the Paris tragedy, the domestic criticism from Republicans and some Democrats is as heavy, if not as lethal, as the shooting in the field. As this scan indicates, Obama’s foreign policy goals are mostly under attack from foreign actors who do not share his or America’s goals and values and do not play by his rules. There have been some highlights and he has a few more goals, such as closing the Guantanamo facility, but he will be mostly playing defense the next twelve months.