Debating Marc Lynch on Obama’s foreign policy failures

My distinguished FP colleague Marc Lynch has taken issue with my "glass-mostly-empty" summary of Obama’s foreign policy achievements to date, and you should definitely check it out. We agree that the Obama administration has little to brag about on either Afghanistan or Israel-Palestine, but Marc thinks I gave it insufficient credit on both Iraq and ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
566420_Walt102496560b2.jpg
566420_Walt102496560b2.jpg

My distinguished FP colleague Marc Lynch has taken issue with my "glass-mostly-empty" summary of Obama's foreign policy achievements to date, and you should definitely check it out. We agree that the Obama administration has little to brag about on either Afghanistan or Israel-Palestine, but Marc thinks I gave it insufficient credit on both Iraq and Iran. Here's a brief rejoinder.

On Iraq:
Marc is correct to point out that Obama has delivered on his campaign promise to get out of Iraq, and Obama is going to make a speech tonight designed to highlight that "achievement." The problem is that Iraq will continue to be a headache for the United States for some time to come, and things could easily spiral back into the sort of internecine violence that was occurring in 2006. The administration and the Pentagon are "accentuating the positive" these days, but as the New York Times pointed out just this morning, there are significant disagreements about the actual level of violence and little doubt that things are heating up as we draw down. A front-page story also highlighted how corruption, inefficiency, and political stalemates are crippling Iraq's electrical power system, even after the United States poured billions into trying to rebuild and repair it.

None of this is Obama's fault. But remember that the end of the "combat mission" doesn't mean an end to a significant U.S. presence there, and he'll face continued pressure to "do something" if the situation deteriorates. And if Iraq does go south, you can be sure that the GOP and unrepentant neo-cons will blame it on those feckless Democrats. They'll talk for hours about how the "surge worked" (which isn't true), and suggest that everything would have been hunky-dory if McCain and Palin were in charge.  

That's palpable nonsense, of course, but my main point still stands: Iraq won't be looking like a success story and Obama won't get any political credit for it. If anything, the right will attack him for letting Iraq spiral back into violence and the left will be disappointed that we still have training missions, air assets, and private contractors there. Bottom line: Iraq will be a hard issue to run on 2012, and Obama's main hope is that people won't be talking about it much.  I'll be he's got his fingers crossed on that one.

On Iran:
Marc is also correct to credit the Obama administration with winning greater international support for its approach to Iran, and with successfully isolating Tehran from some past backers (e.g., Russia). And I certainly agree with him that the main GOP alternative -- a U.S. or Israeli airstrike -- would be folly. The problem, however, is that the current approach isn't weakening the clerical regime, isn't halting its nuclear enrichment program, and certainly isn't preparing the way for some sort of détente or rapprochement. Indeed, isolating Iran and tightening the sanctions could easily strengthen the hands of those Iranians who are pushing to acquire a nuclear weapon, as opposed to those who reject this course or want to go near but not cross the nuclear weapons threshold.  

My distinguished FP colleague Marc Lynch has taken issue with my "glass-mostly-empty" summary of Obama’s foreign policy achievements to date, and you should definitely check it out. We agree that the Obama administration has little to brag about on either Afghanistan or Israel-Palestine, but Marc thinks I gave it insufficient credit on both Iraq and Iran. Here’s a brief rejoinder.

On Iraq:
Marc is correct to point out that Obama has delivered on his campaign promise to get out of Iraq, and Obama is going to make a speech tonight designed to highlight that "achievement." The problem is that Iraq will continue to be a headache for the United States for some time to come, and things could easily spiral back into the sort of internecine violence that was occurring in 2006. The administration and the Pentagon are "accentuating the positive" these days, but as the New York Times pointed out just this morning, there are significant disagreements about the actual level of violence and little doubt that things are heating up as we draw down. A front-page story also highlighted how corruption, inefficiency, and political stalemates are crippling Iraq’s electrical power system, even after the United States poured billions into trying to rebuild and repair it.

None of this is Obama’s fault. But remember that the end of the "combat mission" doesn’t mean an end to a significant U.S. presence there, and he’ll face continued pressure to "do something" if the situation deteriorates. And if Iraq does go south, you can be sure that the GOP and unrepentant neo-cons will blame it on those feckless Democrats. They’ll talk for hours about how the "surge worked" (which isn’t true), and suggest that everything would have been hunky-dory if McCain and Palin were in charge.  

That’s palpable nonsense, of course, but my main point still stands: Iraq won’t be looking like a success story and Obama won’t get any political credit for it. If anything, the right will attack him for letting Iraq spiral back into violence and the left will be disappointed that we still have training missions, air assets, and private contractors there. Bottom line: Iraq will be a hard issue to run on 2012, and Obama’s main hope is that people won’t be talking about it much.  I’ll be he’s got his fingers crossed on that one.

On Iran:
Marc is also correct to credit the Obama administration with winning greater international support for its approach to Iran, and with successfully isolating Tehran from some past backers (e.g., Russia). And I certainly agree with him that the main GOP alternative — a U.S. or Israeli airstrike — would be folly. The problem, however, is that the current approach isn’t weakening the clerical regime, isn’t halting its nuclear enrichment program, and certainly isn’t preparing the way for some sort of détente or rapprochement. Indeed, isolating Iran and tightening the sanctions could easily strengthen the hands of those Iranians who are pushing to acquire a nuclear weapon, as opposed to those who reject this course or want to go near but not cross the nuclear weapons threshold.  

In political terms, therefore, Obama’s Iran policy will have failed to produce any tangible benefits by 2012. Iran will have more centrifuges running, and more nuclear material stockpiled. Relations with Tehran will be no better, and maybe worse, than they were in 2009. War will still be an unattractive option — and let’s not forget that much of the international support for tighter sanctions reflects other states’ desire to keep the military option off the table — but that won’t stop the GOP from accusing Obama of appeasement, pusillanimity, naiveté, lack of will, etc. Marc is right that their alternative is worse, but assuming we don’t actually adopt it, they will be able to pretend that the Iran problem would have been solved by now if we’d just gone ahead and bombed.

As with a lot of my other analysis, I’d dearly love to be wrong about all of this. I would like to see the Afghan campaign succeed and it would be wonderful if Iraq settled down and prospered. I’d be thrilled if George Mitchell proved me wrong and actually delivered a viable two-state solution, and we could all rejoice if Iran and the international community reached a deal that kept Tehran from building nuclear weapons in perpetuity and opened the door to better relations. I like pleasant surprises as much as the next person, but I’ve learned not to expect them, especially when most of the signs point the other way.

Postscript:
The other reason to read Lynch’s post is that it is a model of spirited but civil disagreement. Notice how he makes his points without resorting to character assassination, personal attacks, or unwarranted accusations. That’s why it’s such a pleasure sharing a website with him, and I only wish more bloggers followed his approach.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.