- By Kim Holmes, Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Part One: Why It’s Needed
It is a little more than two years before the next presidential election, but foreign policy might figure more prominently in the 2016 cycle than it has in recent elections. World events are deteriorating — rapidly — and national security is more on people’s minds. There is widespread popular discontent with the current administration’s foreign policies — even some prominent Democrats are raising significant questions about the direction of U.S. strategy. Republicans have not settled on a consistent foreign-policy vision, but they are searching for one. The time is ripe to start thinking about what an alternative foreign policy should be.
Why an alternative? Besides its unpopularity, our current foreign policy is not working very well. Analysts may argue whether dangerous events are caused by U.S. policy, or whether they are beyond our control, but we should expect at the very least that our government’s policies improve America’s position in the world. We should also expect them not to make matters worse. Presidential candidate Barack Obama raised a very high bar for himself when he first took office. Well-known is his grandiose promise that his nomination brought "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal." Less remembered now is his campaign speech from July 2008, when he pledged a completely new course in U.S. policy, one that promised "to face down the threats of the 21st century just as we did the challenges of the 20th."
The question is whether this has been done. Have we "faced down" those threats? Or have we sidestepped them or even made them worse?
By any reasonable standard the world is a more dangerous place today than it was in 2008. Terrorists we had thought were vanquished are now back with a vengeance, not only reversing the hard-fought gains we had made in Iraq but once again potentially threating the American homeland. Despite the Obama administration’s claims that the threat of terrorism had been receding, the number of global terrorist attacks and fatalities has soared in recent years, reaching a record high in 2013, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. The State Department, using the same University of Maryland study, reports that the number of terrorist attacks in the world increased by 40 percent in 2013 (from 6,771 in 2012 to 11,952 in 2013). Not only is the threat of global terrorism on the rise, it is metastasizing into strains that are more violent, better armed, better funded, and more difficult to counter.
America’s geopolitical position in the world has deteriorated as well. Violence and instability in the Middle East and North Africa are far worse today than in 2008. Iraq was then on a trajectory of stability. Today it is falling apart and in the thralls of a barbaric civil war. The outbreak of the war in Syria cannot be blamed directly on U.S. policies, but its spread can be attributed to inconstant and passive U.S. leadership. Libya is a failed state wracked by violence and instability, partly because of our failure to make any consequential stabilization and reconstruction effort after the campaign to topple the Qaddafi regime. U.S. relations with onetime close ally Egypt are far worse than in 2008, and U.S. partners in the region Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are under threat from the proliferation of terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While America’s star in the Middle East is down, Iran’s is up: Tehran arguably has more influence inside Iraq than the United States does. And despite years of negotiations, Iran is much closer today than in 2008 to a nuclear weapons capability.
Matters are not much better elsewhere. For the first time since the end of World War II, Russia is engaged in a hot war to change the borders of a European state, challenging the political order of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. In Asia, China is increasingly aggressive and is intimidating not only its neighbors but also the United States. Afghanistan is highly unstable and is in danger of falling back into civil war or even Taliban rule after all our forces leave there in 2016. In Latin America, failing, criminalized states have emerged in recent years in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, contributing to our illegal immigration problem; moreover, Russia has stepped up strategic partnerships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. In Africa, virulent and violent terrorist groups have emerged in Mali and Nigeria, which have been fueled by illicit arms from Libya and which have helped turn the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa into a new frontier of global terrorism.
In the midst of this, America’s standing in the world — and arguably its influence — has diminished. A two-star Chinese general and dean of China’s National Defense University, Zhu Chenghu, suggested to Western audiences earlier this summer that he thinks America is in decline. He may not speak officially for the Chinese leadership, but it is no secret that many in China see America as a waning power. The same is true of people around Russian President Vladimir Putin; one hears often of Russia’s weaknesses as reason not to be overly concerned about Putin’s aggressive behavior, but it would not be the first time in history that an inferior power, sensing weakness in its opponent, took on a more powerful foe in a high-stakes gamble. At the same time many of America’s allies worry that the United States is increasingly unreliable and retreating from the world. And while global attitudes about America are not as negative as they were in 2007 to 2008, the 2009 "Obama bounce" in the global stature of the United States is, according to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, slipping substantially "due to the diminishing popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama himself in some nations."
It may be hyperbole for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to say, "The world is exploding all over," but not by much. President Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said last year in testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee that, "I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." And no less a supporter of President Obama’s policies than his own Attorney General Eric Holder recently said that reports of bomb makers in Yemen partnering with the Islamic State (IS) are "more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general."
There are two questions raised by these assessments. The first is whether a more dangerous world is actually a threat to the United States? The second is how much of it is the fault of U.S. policy?
Let’s take the first question. Given our global status you would think that, by any definition, a more dangerous world is a big problem for the United States. But not everyone agrees. Some argue that we are actually better off today because we are "ending" America’s wars. Others contend that threats may be on the rise but there is little we can do about them. America is more or less in a state of relative decline, they say, as other powers rise to take her place. We had best get used to our new diminished role in an increasingly "complex" multipolar world of diffused power, which no one — not even Barack Obama — can control.
These views are profoundly mistaken in our view. Our wars are not "ending." After a period of peace and stability, the war in Iraq is back, and Afghanistan is on the precipice of more fighting once we leave. As the renewed airstrikes against IS show, the assumption that we could simply walk away and let the Iraqis do the fighting by themselves proved to be an illusion.
Every one of the worsening trends in world affairs directly threatens American security, interests, and values. There is no escaping them. A violently disordered region in Iraq controlled by terrorists who have vowed to take their fight to New York is a direct threat to the American people. A Russian leader who uses subterfuge, infiltration, and military intervention to upend the European order is a direct threat to our strategic interests. And a civil war spinning out of control in Syria threatens the stability of the entire Middle East, which has for decades been a region of vital strategic importance to the United States.
Nor is it true that America’s days as a world leader are over. The United States is still the indispensable country for maintaining international order and shaping world events in a positive direction. No other country has its capacity, capability, reputation, and will — not the Europeans, not the United Nations, and certainly not America’s rivals, Russia and China. As percentage of GDP we spend far less on defense today than we did in the 1960s or even the 1980s, which suggests that all the talk of limited resources is about political priorities and will, not economic necessity.
As for the second question of whether all the bad things happening in the world are President Obama’s fault, the answer is of course "no." He is not responsible for age-old hatreds or artificial colonial boundaries in the Middle East. Nor is he to blame for the fanaticism that burns in the hearts of terrorists. And it’s true he didn’t start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides, he has had some tangible security successes, like getting Osama bin Laden and degrading the old leadership of al Qaeda, and helping convince Syria to destroy some of its chemical weapons.
But if he is to get credit for these achievements, he must also be held accountable for his failures. Either because of neglect, ideology, or inconstancy, the president has made matters much worse in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Central America (and may be about to do the same in Afghanistan). He abandoned Iraq too quickly; attacked Libya without adequate follow-up; flip-flopped too many times on Egypt and Syria; and turned a blind eye as the "northern triangle" of Central America was overrun by drug cartels. On his watch the threat of terrorism against the United States is arguably at its most severe since Sept. 10, 2001. And despite the high-profile summits on Africa, many regional experts regardless of party affiliation are disappointed that U.S. Africa policy has been less energetic than in previous administrations.
The same thing is true with respect to the Russia "reset" policy. The whole policy was sold on the naïve premise that reaching out to Russia would bring greater cooperation from Moscow. The exact opposite has happened. Russia has grown much more aggressive and has forced the administration to abandon completely the reset policy. While this may be rationalized as a "smart" policy merely adjusting to a changing "reality," it should be remembered at the time that the president’s critics predicted it would come to this, and yet he ignored them.
One could argue that other achievements balance the scale in the administration’s favor. They could point to the successes we mentioned earlier, or list scores of supported international programs dedicated to global health, women’s rights, climate change, arms control, and other causes. Or they could even claim that things would have been worse had the president done what his critics wanted — like support the moderate rebels or launch airstrikes against Syria. But at the end of the day, the success of a foreign-policy strategy must be measured not by well-intentioned programs or by hypothetical claims of wars avoided, but by whether the state of the world has improved and America’s security position is better.
By these measures the current approach has failed. The world is a more dangerous place. The threats to American security are higher. And specific crises vital to our interests are worse as a result of specific U.S. decisions and policies. All the millions of dollars spent on international programs — and indeed all the time effort put into nuclear arms treaties and negotiations — have done precious little to stop the rising tide of threats to America and the world. If the administration wants to take credit for stopping all the hypothetical "bad stuff" (usually characterized as "wars" averted) that they claim their opponents wanted, it is only fair they accept full responsibility for the consequences not only of their actions but also their inaction.
We can and must do better, but to do so we have to answer some hard questions.
What are the underlying causes of current policy failures? It’s not enough to ascribe blame and question motives. Nor is it useful to personalize criticism against President Obama himself. He will not be on the ballot in 2016, even if his legacy will. But we do have to understand why certain policies are not working so as not to repeat them.
Nor is it enough merely to criticize. We need lay out a different set of principles. From them we can deduce specifically what can be done differently to restore America’s reputation, credibility, and leadership role in the world.
In the next installment in this series we will attempt to answer these questions. The purpose, once again, is to spark a debate looking forward to the presidential election in 2016. This should not be a partisan exercise. The presidential contenders who wish to challenge the current approach — whether they are Democrat or Republican — need to focus on what’s wrong and try to fix it. They will have some hard thinking to do.