Looking Back at Seven Years of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

15. 3. 2017

The US president has failed to realize that America’s failure to engage in the world’s affairs may result in far worse consequences than its active involvement, even if it is not without mistakes.

On January 20 of this year, Barack Obama has marked his seventh year as President, and entered the final year in office. Before we look back on his foreign policy, let’s first start with three stories.

Story one: In May 1977, four months after Jimmy Carter became president, he claimed in a speech delivered at the Notre Dame University that America was now “free of the inordinate fear of communism.” He meant to say that communism was not as much of a threat as the Americans had thought; in fact, the fear of communism had led America to wrongful actions, such as the Vietnam War.

This premise had become the basis of Carter’s foreign policy: the détente approach toward the Soviet Union, as well as putting pressure on pro-American right-wing dictators like the Iranian Shah or Nicaraguan President Somoza (both fell, only to be replaced by totalitarian, anti-American regimes: Khomeini’s theocracy in Iran; and the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua). Then, in December 1979, came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only then did Carter realize he had been wrong to underestimate the Soviets, and changed the course of his foreign policy. In his last year in office, Carter’s policy was far closer to that of his successor, Ronald Reagan, than to his own just a short while before.

Story two: In summer of 2014, a Polish news magazine published a secret recording of Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, saying that Poland’s alliance with the United States was worthless, because it created a false sense of security.

Story three: In summer of 1996, I was invited as guest to the Republican National Convention in San Diego, which nominated Senator Robert Dole for president. Another guest present was Adolfo Calero from Nicaragua, one of the leaders of the former anti-communist Contras. After dinner, we had a long talk; among other things, he said that during the first three years of his presidency, Carter failed to realize that whether the USA were actively involved in world affairs or withdrew from active foreign policy, their actions still affected the fate of humankind, and literally meant the survival or death of millions.

Why am I saying all this? Let’s apply all of these examples, albeit in a reverse direction, to the previous seven years of Obama’s foreign policy. First of all, the US president has failed to realize that America’s failure to engage in the world’s affairs, or even an active withdrawal from them, may result in far worse consequences for millions of people around the world, even for the USA themselves, than active involvement, even if it is not without mistakes. Secondly, Radek Sikorski has been essentially right (even if not one hundred percent right, we hope). Thirdly, unlike President Carter, there is no chance that Obama would actually wake up in his last year of the presidency, draw the appropriate lesson from his past unsuccessful effort, and make the necessary changes. Most likely, Obama actually fails to realize that he has done something wrong. In his eyes, it is the world that reacts irrationally, by standing on the “wrong side of history,” which Obama is certain will come to pass—without doing anything about it himself.

Let’s now be more concrete. Barack Obama entered the White House armed with an “anti- Bush” rhetoric: his main goal was to avoid the mistakes—or what he considered to be mistakes—made by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush’s foreign policy was one of active involvement in the world’s affairs, even using military force (unilaterally, if necessary), with the aim of supporting the democratic process. This approach has led to America’s stalemate in Iraq, thousands of dead, and spendings in the hundreds of millions—and ultimately, to the loss of America’s reputation in the world.

From all this, Barack Obama has drawn a clear lesson: America must no longer be as active in foreign policy; military interventions must be made as sparingly as possible, and never unilaterally; the US must cease all efforts to spread democracy—after all, this kind of idealist approach has led them into a trap. As a result, Obama’s foreign policy combined slight neo-isolationism with a certain neo-realist approach, and resigned on promoting traditional idealistic values (i.e., democracy and human rights).

It was at this point that problems came; partially stemming from the fact that merely being “anti-Bush” is not a sufficient strategy. Bush had certainly made his fair share of mistakes and missteps (on the other hand, many of his actions were successful: in 2007, increasing the number of US troops in Iraq helped stabilize a country that many had already written off); however, building a foreign policy on a mere negation of what came before is not enough.

Russia and Central Europe

After 9/11, President Bush had gained the respect of the whole world. Many of the world’s dictators (and not only in the Middle East) were apprehensive of him. He had the respect of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, he lost that respect near the end of his second term, after his unsuccessful attempt to establish democracy in Iraq. In August 2008, Putin was quick to intervene in Georgia. The world had no response to that, and certainly no sanctions ever came. Europe’s hands were tied, and America was not interested: Bush was in the last year of his office, and the USA were in the midst of a presidential campaign. Putin had timed his aggression well.

New president Barack Obama entered office in January 2009, and initiated what he called a “reset” policy toward Russia. He announced he would drop the plan of building a missile defense shield in Central Europe, which would improve Russian-US relations. His thinking was “neo-realist” in nature: the shield was an obstacle to establishing a good relationship with Russia, and a good relationship with Russia was far more important than above-standard relations with Central European countries. Russia and America, not Central Europeans, were the big guys.

Another ambition of Obama’s was boosting the “liberal” circles in Russia. A great shuffle in Russian politics in 2008 made existing Prime Minister Medvedev a president, and President Putin became prime minister for four years (only to return as president in 2012, at least for 6 years, but most likely for 12). Obama’s administration hoped that being accommodating and supportive toward Russia would bolster the formation of a “second power center” around the “liberal” Medvedev, which would eventually outmatch and replace the “first power center” around the more authoritarian Putin.

All of those plans fell through. What Obama failed to realize was that Putin had never taken him seriously. Obama’s cancellation of the missile defense shield in Central Europe was viewed as a sign of weakness. The only thing his appeasement strategy toward Russia would gain him was contempt; his concessions had only whetted Putin’s appetite. His hope for a “second center of power” created around Medvedev was merely a naive wishful thinking. There had never been any such “second center,” and Medvedev had never intended to form one; he had always been Putin’s obedient henchman.

Obama’s political strategy toward Russia had definitively failed in 2014, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. His entire Russian policy fell to ruins, and he has yet to form a new one.

Afghanistan / Iraq

At the beginning of his term, Obama viewed the US actions in Afghanistan as the “good” war, a justified reaction to 9/11; the US invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, was the “bad” war, an unnecessary adventure of Bush’s administration. In the unstable situation that had developed in Afghanistan, Obama decided to increase the US military presence, but at the same time, gave a final date by which the troops would withdraw from the country. “Just wait until then and the country will fall right into your lap,” he seemed to be saying to the Taliban. In contrast, the situation in Iraq had become stabilized after Bush increased the number of US troops in 2007. In 2011, Obama decided to withdraw each and every troop from Iraq. This has led to both a political and military vacuum. The Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki adopted a harsh course against the Sunni population in central Iraq, who had in turn lost their loyalty to the Baghdad administration. In 2014, the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), spreading from Syria, took advantage of the political vacuum and took control of the entire northwestern part of Iraq. And so it happened that Afghanistan never became a stable country, and the formerly stable Iraq has broken down: the Shia regime in the south is now a satellite of Iran (just as Assad’s regime in Damascus); and the northwest of Iraq, as well as the entire east of Syria, has been overrun by the worst evil in the whole Middle East: the Islamic State. The West’s only allies are now the Kurds in northeastern Iraq. Withdrawal of the US troops in 2011—a purely ideological move resulting from the “anti-Bush” attitude—meant the loss of Iraq; all of the Iraqi and American effort and sacrifices had gone to waste. Obama, not Bush, is responsible for the disaster that is now Iraq; when Obama took over in 2011, the situation in Iraq had been stabilized.

The Arab Spring & Syria

With the advent of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, President Obama was hesitant at first, but then let the pro-American Egyptian president Mubarak fall. The subsequent elections meant the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt had ceased to be the Western ally. In 2013, general Sisi ousted the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and had a number of members of the Muslim Brotherhood arrested. Obama had condemned Sisi’s actions as a putsch against a democratically elected president. Sisi, now supported by other Sunni Arab regimes (and hated by Turkish President Erdogan), reacted by ostentatiously courting Russia’s support.

During the Libyan uprising against dictator Gaddafi, the then French President Sarkozy was the most vocal in calling for a military intervention; eventually, he was joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama had first sensibly kept his distance, but in the end, he gave his support to the French-British action. Libya is now a broken-down country, partly controlled by a pro-Western government, partly by the Islamist forces. It has become the main source of mass migration from North Africa into Europe.

In the Syrian civil war, we have the secular dictator Assad, anti-Western, pro-Iranian and pro-Russian on one side; and the formerly moderate, but now increasingly Islamist and fanatical Sunni opposition on the other. At the furthest end of this power spectrum is the Islamic State, compared to which even the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, seems restrained and temperate. Obama had decided not to intervene in Syria; at the time, it seemed like a reasonable decision. In autumn of 2013, after Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians, Obama made the infamous “red line” statement: one more use of chemical weapons, and the US would intervene.

Assad had indeed used chemical weapons again, and Obama had done nothing; this has lost him any credibility he might have had in the Middle East. Russia, on the other hand, allowed Assad to save face through the chemical weapons disarmament deal. Then, to make the slap in the face even more painful for the US, Russia openly intervened in Syria in autumn of 2015. After a quarter of a century (and for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union), Russia has again became an important power in the Middle East—precisely at the time that America has begun to withdraw from the area.


Just before Christmas of 2014, Obama’s administration had restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba, completely overthrowing the policy pursued by the previous ten US presidents. There is nothing problematic about restoring diplomatic relations; after all, the USA have established relations with a number of iffy regimes. Today’s Cuba is nowhere near as dangerous as it had been during the Cold War, when its sphere of influence reached as far as Nicaragua, Grenada, Angola, and Ethiopia. What is strange is that Obama’s administration has failed to negotiate the release of political prisoners or improving civil liberties in exchange for full diplomatic relations and trading opportunities.


China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, which it then claims as China’s own territory in order to dramatically increase its coastal waters, and gain control of vital international naval routes in Eastern Asia. China’s actions in this regard have earned it the displeasure of all other countries in the region: Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and of course Japan. No one has yet recognized these new islands as Chinese territory; they are still considered to be international waters. In autumn 2015, two US B-52 bombers flew over one of these artificial islands, which has been widely interpreted as Obama’s demonstration of power, and the confirmation that the US still viewed the territory as international waters. Subsequently, Obama apologized to China.

Obama’s failure to deter China from expansion into international waters has made fairly certain that a more or less dangerous incident or conflict is apt to break out in this part of the world in 2016.

Iran / Israel

In 2015, the United States and European nations have agreed to lift the sanctions against Iran—which has, in turn, led to an unprecedented deterioration of US-Israeli relations.

For President Obama, the agreement with Iran, along with the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, his activities in climate change prevention, and supporting the gay movement around the world, constitute the main legacy of his foreign policy. What is the best possible interpretation of the agreement?

The agreement would motivate Iran to end its hostile policy against the West, and the Iranian regime would evolve and transform itself for the better. The agreement has lifted the economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran’s assurance that it would restrict its nuclear program for ten to fifteen years. Ten years from now, Iran is bound to have a new leader (the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is now 76 years old); by that time, the regime may become more moderate, perhaps even normal. In other words, the agreement is based on the presumption that for the next ten years, Iran will keep on the straight and narrow, and will no longer be a hostile country after that.

The Israelis are not the only ones who criticize the agreement for having given up the measures that had actually, tangibly worked (i.e., the sanctions); it has given Iran everything it wanted, but all the West has received in return is hopes and promises. Which is a precious little. First and foremost, the Iranian nuclear program has not been cancelled, merely restricted. The West may only hope that Iran will stick to its end of the bargain. Furthermore, the economic sanctions have been lifted immediately; weapons-related sanctions will be lifted after 5 years, and missile technology- related sanctions after 8 years. This means that ten years from now, Iran will become a rich, well-armed rocket power, perfectly prepared for developing a nuclear bomb. However, this will no longer be Obama’s problem; he will no longer be president by then. His entire strategy is built on the hope that Iran will clean up its act. What if it doesn’t? The critics are afraid that the agreement will actually increase the probability of a future war, more than if the sanctions continued and no deal was made.

The Islamic State / Paris Terrorist Attacks (January to November 2015)

The so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, is an entity that came into existence and power during Obama’s presidency, and has still not been defeated. Obama was unfortunate to claim that the Islamic State had been “contained” right before the fatal terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, inspired by the ideology of the Islamic State (Obama’s speakers later tried to save face by claiming that what the President had actually meant was the containment of Daesh’s territorial expansion).

President Obama has never been comfortable talking about “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism, preferring to use “radical” or “extremist” instead. His statements regarding Islamist attacks have always been distant and aloof. Commenting upon them makes Obama visibly uncomfortable; they do not fit in his world view, in which all the problems in the Middle East were caused by George W. Bush, and his own administration has managed to handle and resolve them.

Obama gives the impression as if he is actually not interested, and even seems bored by the entire situation; that is why he has failed to openly show sufficient solidarity and sympathies to those American allies whose countries have become the target of terrorist attacks. A hundred foreign dignitaries participated in a mass demonstration for freedom of speech in Paris after the terrorist attacks in January 2015. Obama had not come. His first reaction to the attacks of November 13 was similarly distant, emotionless, and half-hearted.

A president, especially an American president, should show moral and rhetorical leadership. To offer such a lukewarm statement to an important allied country, which France undoubtedly is, is unworthy of an ally.

President Obama seems tired of his office; it’s as if he could no longer cope with the tasks it sets before him.

He is still a young man; hopefully, he will live to a long age—and in time, he will realize the extent to which his foreign policy has been a failure. He is young enough to have a long time to think his actions over after his term ends next year.

That is, if he is still interested and not bored with the whole thing.

Roman Joch

is the Executive Director of the Civic Institute in Prague. He is a commentator and lecturer on political philosophy, international relations, with an emphasis on US Domestic and Foreign Policies. He is the author of several monographs and expert studies including: American Foreign Policies and the Role of the US in the World (Studies OI, Prague 2000), Why Iraq? Reasons and Consequences of the Conflict (Prague 2003), and (together with Frank S. Meyer) Rebellion against the Revolution of the 20th Century (Prague 2003).

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