National Insecurity: Can Obama’s Foreign Policy be Saved?

| September 9, 2014


If the nation is to recover fully, Obama must not only identify and attempt to reverse what has gone wrong, but he also must try to understand how he can achieve new gains by the end of his second term.

National Insecurity: Can Obama’s Foreign Policy be Saved?

Foreign Policy | September 9, 2014


“You’re still a superpower,” a top diplomat from one of America’s most dependable Middle Eastern allies said to me in July of this year, “but you no longer know how to act like one.”

He was reflecting on America’s position in the world almost halfway into President Barack Obama’s second term. Fresh in his mind was the extraordinary string of errors (schizophrenic Egypt policy, bipolar Syria policy), missteps (zero Libya post-intervention strategy, alienation of allies in the Middle East and elsewhere), scandals (spying on Americans, spying on friends), halfway measures (pinprick sanctions against Russia, lecture series to Central Americans on the border crisis), unfulfilled promises (Cairo speech, pivot to Asia), and outright policy failures (the double-down then get-out approach in Afghanistan, the shortsighted Iraq exit strategy).

The diplomat with whom I was speaking is a thoughtful man. He knew well that not all of these problems are the result of the blunders of a single really bad year or the fault of any one president. The reality is that any president’s foreign policy record depends heavily on luck, external factors, cyclical trends, and legacy issues. And, to be sure, Obama inherited many of his greatest challenges, some of the biggest beyond his control.

Obama’s presidency is largely a product of a moment in history that likely will be seen someday as an aberration — the decade after 9/11, during which a stunned, angry, and disoriented America was sent spinning into a kind of national PTSD. Call it an age of fear, one in which the country and its leaders were forced to grapple with a sense of vulnerability to which they were unaccustomed. The response of George W. Bush’s administration — entering into the long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remaking U.S. national security policy around the terrorism threat — led to a backlash that ushered Obama into office with a perceived mandate to undo what his predecessor had done and avoid making similar mistakes.

The problem is that in seeking to sidestep the pitfalls that plagued Bush, Obama has inadvertently created his own. Yet unlike Bush, whose flaw-riddled first-term foreign policy was followed by important and not fully appreciated second-term course corrections, Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented. It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.

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Category: Global Order, Post-American World Order

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