Stephen M. Walt

Looking back and looking forward

Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn’t expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he’d do a better job than his predecessor, but that’s hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he’d have to focus primarily ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn’t expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he’d do a better job than his predecessor, but that’s hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he’d have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.  

Equally important, I didn’t think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama’s team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once — on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. — and that they wouldn’t be able to follow through on any of them. And that’s exactly what happened.

Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it’s by no means clear that they will pull it off.

The other big issues — Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change — weren’t going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.

On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had — Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions — but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.

Some people think the second term is Obama’s opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It’s true that Obama doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won’t be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration’s meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We’re headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama’s successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.

The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn’t. Once we leave, Afghanistan’s fate will be determined by the Afghans — with lots of "help" from interested neighbors — and my guess is that it won’t be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won’t care.

And don’t expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today’s leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.

What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won’t be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won’t see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won’t know what’s going on and won’t really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.

If President Obama is looking for a legacy — and what two-term president doesn’t? — it will be on the domestic side. He’ll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America’s long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that’s a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world’s least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn’t that realistic.

Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it’s possible — even likely — that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they’d like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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