A Poor Chapter in the History Books

From Ukraine to Syria, is Barack Obama's foreign-policy legacy already doomed?


Hammered from the right and the left, U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has begun to acquire quite a negative brand and reputation, however unfair that may appear to his acolytes and supporters. Bereft of vision, weak and directionless, some critics charge, the president has abdicated responsibility — both moral and strategic. Others say that, at a minimum, he has corrected course too strongly in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq and has emerged as a risk-averse president in a world that cries out for risk readiness and American leadership.

The president’s predicament is made worse because he raised expectations early and often, allowing his rhetoric to go well beyond his capacity. There was the Cairo speech in 2009, with its uplifting rhetoric about how U.S. policy toward the Middle East was going to be fundamentally different. There was the transformational goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (led by Secretary of State John Kerry, with a "last chance" trope). There was the "red line" on Syria and the "let’s get on the right side of history" idea in response to the Arab Spring. In short, Obama said many things that left a yawning gap between words and deeds into which U.S. credibility has now fallen. Most of his policies have turned out not to be transformational at all, but more or less business as usual: confusing, inconsistent, and hypocritical.

Unlike good scotch and wine, this poor image of Obama’s foreign policy may not improve with time. Of course, much can happen to a president in the remaining nearly 1,000 days of a presidency. But even the optimists would have to admit that the trend lines don’t look particularly good. The challenges the president confronts are not amenable to quick fixes, let alone American ones. And even the so-called opportunities could be messy and quite costly politically.

Assuming the current trend lines do indeed maintain their southward arc, what might Obama’s foreign-policy legacy look like in 2016? Let’s take a trip quick into the future and see.

Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin may end up losing the current war, but right now, it sure looks like he’s winning an awful lot of battles. And with very few good options, the Obama administration seems hard-pressed to stop him. The broad outlines of how this will wind up two years down the road don’t look good for the U.S. president. Geography and Ukraine’s dysfunction seem invariably inclined to favor Putin’s troublemaking, and at home, Putin’s skillful manipulation of Russia’s history and self-image and his formidable political skills would seem to leave him unchallenged. To be sure, Russia is bleeding economically and financially, but Russians have bled before in much worse circumstances. And European self-interest, combined with America’s reluctance to use mega-sanctions against Russia, means it is unlikely Western powers can add enough pain to make much of a difference in Putin’s calculations.

Right now, with regard to Russia and Ukraine, it looks like Obama will be remembered — unfairly or not — as an American president who presided over Moscow’s successful effort to challenge, if not to rewrite, the rules of the post-Cold War era without much immediate cost or consequences. No dramatic Hollywood endings here: no Berlin airlifts, no missile crisis showdowns, and seemingly not much room for Reagan-like diplomacy. Just the grind of a geopolitical dynamic in which one guy asserted what he believed to be his vital interests, and the other guy couldn’t do much about it. This tick-tock won’t play well for Obama in the history books.

Syria. Much the same will likely be said of Syria, which is by any measure a moral, humanitarian, and strategic disaster for the United States. By the end of the Obama administration, we could be looking at well over 200,000 people dead, thousands more wounded and traumatized, and a refugee flow larger than any since the end of World War II. The ghosts of the Rwanda calamity are already hovering. And despite the United States being the largest single humanitarian donor in the crisis, and despite the compelling arguments against militarizing America’s role, history will not judge Obama kindly. U.S. policy on Syria isn’t immoral; it is amoral to the extent that America has allowed factors other than moral, ethical, or humanitarian ones to drive it.

This may make sense to some people now (I’m one of them). Yet as the perils of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq fade, questions will be asked again and again, particularly one: Couldn’t America have done more? Over time, the answer is more likely to be that, bad options notwithstanding, America should have done more — a lot more.

Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama should get credit for getting America out of the two longest and among the most profitless and increasingly unpopular wars in American history. After all, he is in step with the desires of the American public and his own domestic agenda. But presidents get major credit for winning wars, not for winding them down. (Dwight Eisenhower in Korea may have been the exception.) The post-withdrawal realities in Iraq and perhaps in Afghanistan will likely color — darkly — the entire American experience in these wars. Some will blame Obama for heading to the exits too quickly and without leaving enough of a presence or a policy behind.

These criticisms may not stick. History will likely judge George W. Bush’s administration more harshly for getting into Iraq and for losing focus in Afghanistan. But that still doesn’t mean that Obama will get much of a legacy bump from either conflict, particularly if their aftermaths continue to be bloody, unstable, and volatile.

Arab-Israeli conflict. The recent pause in the Kerry effort certainly won’t mean the end of the peace process. But neither is it likely that the president will preside over a conflict-ending solution to this long-standing conflict. Barring some breakthrough event that’s hard to divine now, the administration is likely to face a situation that will be fitful at best: on-again, off-again tension, perhaps a faux unity between Fatah and Hamas, violence, and an effort by the Palestinians to gain recognition in the international community. The administration could easily decide to make another run at getting the negotiations up and running and might even consider putting out parameters on a final status. But none of this will change the situation much until one or more of the parties decides to make a consequential move in the right direction or some sustained level of violence unlike anything we have seen before creates a new urgency.

At the end of the day, there’s a reasonable chance that the Obama administration will join a long line of its predecessors that tried unsuccessfully to fix the problem of the much too promised land.

Iran. It’s a testament to the absurdly complex world America inhabits that a nuclear deal with Iran is right now the best candidate for bolstering Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. Avoiding war and solving — or at least managing — the extraordinarily difficult issue of how to keep the Iranians from getting the bomb would be a significant achievement. The combination of sanctions and secret diplomacy that set up the interim agreement in 2013 attests to a degree of skill and will not entirely evident on many other issues.

But if a comprehensive deal is not reached, the arc of the Obama administration’s Iran policy will head in a different direction — perhaps toward war or maybe an Iranian effort to break out and acquire a weapon before an Israeli or U.S. military strike. And even if a deal is reached by July 20 or later this year, it will not be without complications. Iran’s behavior in the Middle East — its support for Bas
har al-Assad’s regime in Syria, its human rights record, its ambitions in the Persian Gulf, its support for Hezbollah and for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza — will guarantee continued tensions with the United States. What’s more, the deal will not be a political winner with the U.S. legislators who in droves will stand up to rail against it, particularly if it comes before the midterm elections this fall. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia will be fundamentally suspicious and unhappy too, and the former will do its best to make that case in America. Finally, a deal could not possibly guarantee that Iran had permanently abandoned its nuclear aspirations.

In other words, for the Obama administration, the Iranian file is likely to remain very much an open issue on many fronts.


Obama entered office determined to become a transformational president both at home and abroad. Now it seems likely — though not absolutely certain — that his foreign policy will be remembered, at best, as one focused on maintaining the security of the homeland, getting out of two wars, and concentrating on fixing America’s broken house rather than trying to repair someone else’s. It might not be a terrible legacy, but it certainly won’t be a celebrated one. That’s because history rewards those leaders who do not mark time with small things but use it to accomplish big things — ones that are great and enduring.

Obama could not choose the world in which he governs, a particularly cruel one for those who seek transformation without the necessary skill, will, and luck. In foreign policy, this president could have used a lot more of each. Then, perhaps, the history books might have spoken of him more glowingly.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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