- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
It is hardly a secret that in the sixth year of his presidency, Barack Obama has begun to focus on his legacy. In the realm of foreign and national security policy, he clearly is determined to be remembered as the president who, like Dwight Eisenhower, brought American troops home from war and kept them from engaging in another one. Indeed he has brought the war in Iraq to an end, but unlike the Korean War, that conflict continues to rage on as Sunnis and Shiites resume their civil war; only Americans and their partners no longer engage in combat. At the same time, under Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri ak-Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial leadership, the country has moved ever more closely within Iran’s orbit. Indeed, Iran, both as the leading supporter of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s increasingly successful campaign to crush the Syrian opposition and remain in power, and as Hezbollah’s primary sponsor, promises to remain an ongoing threat to Middle East stability for years to come.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan may well lead to similar unfortunate results. It does not bode well for Washington that former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who thus far is the leading vote getter in Afghanistan’s presidential election, is now receiving support from current President Hamid Karzai’s chosen candidate, Zalmai Rassoul. Karzai has refused to sign any agreement for the stationing of a residual American force in Afghanistan once all combat troops are withdrawn. Now that Abdullah has tied himself to Karzai’s man, will he too refuse to countenance an American military presence in Afghanistan?
Even more than the withdrawals from Iran and Afghanistan, the president’s clear determination to avoid any American foreign entanglement, his characterizing any alternative to his hands-off approach as war-mongering, and his tacit approval of defense budget reductions has sent an unequivocal message to the world that America is in a state of retreat. It is not clear that the President actually has intended to convey such a message — in fact, he denies that this is his goal. Perception is reality, however, and it is a perception that, absent a major sea change in American policy over the next two years, could linger for years, will be difficult to alter, and could irreparably harm America’s international standing.
The consequences of this perception have already manifested themselves worldwide. They include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine; China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the East and South China seas; and Assad’s use of chemical-like weapons in his increasingly successful effort to destroy the Syrian opposition. No doubt the Iranians and North Koreans, and the various al Qaeda offshoots, among other adversaries, likewise have factored into their own strategies the perceived American withdrawal from the world.
It is not only potential or actual adversaries who are modifying their strategies based on their perception of American passivity. Egypt, an American partner for decades, has openly announced that it is reaching out to Russia. India’s relations with Washington have cooled significantly in the last few years, and are unlikely to get much warmer if, as expected, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi becomes that country’s next prime minister. On the other hand, India has maintained its traditionally warm relations with Russia to the degree that it was a major voice supporting the Russian takeover of Crimea.
It is noteworthy that nearly 60 countries, including most African states, refused to support the U.N. General Assembly’s condemnation of the Russian takeover of Crimea, despite heavy American lobbying that they do so. Among those countries was Israel, which has long prided itself as America’s closest ally in the Middle East, but which clearly did not want to get caught in a Russo-American crossfire. Meanwhile, France has just announced that it will go ahead with its sale of warships to Russia.
President Obama’s clear distaste for military action, and the perception that he is disengaged from the nuts and bolts of security policy, has also led Israel and the Gulf Arab states to question his assurance that America will under no circumstances allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. They fear that in his haste to reach an agreement with Iran, thereby foreclosing the possibility of American military action, he will be prepared to accept a deal that will not prevent a rapid Iranian nuclear weapons breakout capability. Moreover, the common Israeli and Palestinian perception that the American president is just not as personally engaged in foreign policy as any of his post-World War II predecessors certainly contributed to the collapse of their peace talks. Finally, America’s Central and Eastern European NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states, have become increasingly worried that once Moscow achieves its objectives in Ukraine, American passivity will enable it to pressure them into concessions that will impair their sovereignty.
The president’s long standing commitment to "nation building at home" at the expense of maintaining America’s standing abroad mistakenly assumes that world events will not impinge on his domestic priorities such as Obamacare. In fact, by demonstrating passivity instead of the leadership the world has come to expect of the United States, the Obama administration may create the very circumstances it has sought to avoid: an American military response to an aggressor that mistook temporary passivity for permanent weakness. Such aggression, and the military reaction it would provoke, may take place after Obama will have left office. It will nevertheless constitute his defining legacy, one that he has tried so hard to avoid, yet that could well overshadow whatever else he may have accomplished in his eight years as president of the United States.
A version of this article appeared in the National Interest.