Change He Doesn’t Believe In

The deliberative President Obama has launched a powerful "do something" foreign policy. But does he even buy his own fourth-quarter course correction?


In June of this year, President Barack Obama lost his best foreign-policy talking point, a blow that — for a politician — can be worse than losing your best friend. When the Islamic State took over Mosul and threatened to march on Baghdad, Obama’s feat of having ended the Iraq War was summarily undone. Only a few years before, Obama had declared that “after nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over” and that “change is turning the page on a decade of war so we can do some nation-building here at home.”* Now, new facts on the ground — desperate villagers on a mountaintop, brutal beheadings of American journalists, and a fast-melting Iraqi military — have brought war in Iraq back with what must have felt very much like a vengeance.

In retrospect, the takeover of Mosul marked a turning point: the moment when Obama began to see the limits of his own doctrine. A policy based on avoiding his predecessor’s sins of commission was racking up a series of omissions that left both the president and the United States badly exposed. Obama’s decision in late November to sack Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel continues the opening of Obama’s eyes. Notably, it comes eight years after George W. Bush accepted the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a similar reset moment for his own presidency. Hagel’s principal shortcoming — tongue-tied passivity — was the opposite of Rumsfeld’s swagger and disregard for laws. Yet both men fell victim to their bosses’ late-in-the-day course changes.

For Obama, Hagel’s removal is the latest and most convincing sign that the president has committed to a foreign-policy reboot. Obama’s September 2013 decision not to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons — a call made after a now-famous walk around the White House South Lawn with chief of staff Denis McDonough — became the apogee of what has since been seen as the president’s retiring approach to American power. Obama washed his hands of postwar Libya after allowing Europe to lead the tide of intervention, refused all entreaties to intervene in Syria, withdrew entirely from Iraq, and planned to do the same in Afghanistan. While he disavowed the philosophy of “leading from behind” ascribed to one of his top aides, the denial was made less convincing by his reluctance to lead from up front.

He has pursued terrorists aggressively through the use of surveillance and drones, but he has shown a marked preference for countering enemies through low-profile, lower-risk behind-the-scenes tactics rather than open confrontation. Even the daring and triumphant raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was not enough to counter the image of a president who seemed to think most overtly bold national security moves were doomed to fail. Subsequent Navy SEAL operations, including this weekend’s attempt to save the life of doomed hostage Luke Somers, are stealthy, measured maneuvers timed and calibrated to protect the lives of those who carry them out.

While the strategy pleased war-wary liberals, playing it safe turned out to be more dangerous than Obama had bargained for. Calculating that the United States had turned inward, Russia’s Vladimir Putin seized Crimea and turned eastern Ukraine into contested territory, striking fear across the rest of Russia’s near abroad. Militias seized control of Libya, and the Taliban continued to widen its zone of control in Afghanistan. Against calls for the U.S. president to do something, Obama insisted that the perils of action most often outweighed those of inaction. In an April 2014 press appearance in the Philippines, Obama called out those who “haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade,” that “where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world … not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us.” He spoke of his foreign policy as avoiding “errors” and hitting singles, doubles — not swinging for the fences. In his May 2014 West Point commencement speech, Obama again rejected the view of “interventionists” that “America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

The shock of the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul planted the seeds of a rethink. Events had overridden Obama’s foreign-policy narrative of having extracted the United States from two long, draining wars and keeping it free from any new such entanglements. While his first speech addressing the issue of the Islamic State (IS) on June 19 stressed that “this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis” and that the United States would not have a combat role, Obama quickly authorized 300 military advisors to be dispatched to the region. He also acknowledged that, though faraway, if unchecked IS could ultimately threaten “ourselves, our personnel overseas, and eventually the homeland.”

Since then, we’ve witnessed a gradual transformation led from the Oval Office, a president trying his hand at writing a new story. Obama has doubled down against the Islamic State, increasing the number of military advisors on the ground tenfold to 3,000 and leading an international campaign of air attacks. Then, in early December, he announced that he will extend America’s combat role in Afghanistan, reversing an earlier pledge to conclude it this year; the anomalous result is that the United States has announced both the end and the extension of the Afghan mission within just a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Obama has led the global response on Ebola, deploying troops to beat back the deadly disease and browbeating other countries to do more. He pulled off a coup of sorts when, just days after Democrats were creamed in the midterms, he announced a series of trade, climate, and visa deals with China that demonstrated political prowess abroad in a moment of weakness back home. Coupled with bold action at home on immigration reform, the contours of a new narrative of the Obama second term seemed to take shape. Those who had just weeks before derided Obama’s impotence were suddenly fuming at an imperial presidency. The sacking of Hagel is the most dramatic sign yet that Obama is determined to change how the history of his foreign policy gets written.

The fourth-quarter foreign-policy correction is not new to the American presidency. Deep into his first and only term, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the dovish Jimmy Carter turned into a hawk, recalling the American ambassador from Moscow, calling for the postponement of Senate action on the SALT II Treaty, and boycotting the 1980 Olympics. Carter also ordered the risky and ill-fated April 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission, finally giving up on six months of fruitless diplomatic appeals.

Ronald Reagan, who began as a hawk, swung in the opposite direction during his final years in office. Sullied by the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan left the Panama coup and crisis to fester until it fell to his successor and built such a powerful rapport with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that the latter was able to leverage Washington’s new friendliness to finally persuade the Politburo to halt bankrupting levels of military expenditure.

Ironically, George W. Bush provides the immediate precedent. After six years of avoiding almost everything Bush had done, Obama is now taking a page from his playbook. With the team of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Robert Gates as defense secretary, the last two years of the Bush administration were an attempt at redemption. Rice focused on whirlwind rounds of diplomacy to sooth angry allies, a last-ditch effort to revive Mideast peace prospects in Annapolis, and securing a civilian nuclear deal with India. Gates was credited with taking a pragmatic approach to the Iraq War, recognizing its folly and working to control the fallout.

While Bush had far worse and deeper damage to undo, both he and Obama have learned things the hard way in office, and then struggled to apply those lessons before the clock runs out. Both deserve credit for facing up to where their policies failed, and taking at least limited risks to do something about it. In Bush’s case, the moves made some tentative swipes at a massive cleanup job that would fall mostly to his successor. Rice’s and Gates’s stewardships helped ready the massive foreign-policy bureaucracy for the much more fundamental shifts — including a fundamental overhaul of detainee interrogation practices and affirmative engagement in the United Nations system — that came once Obama took office. The same may be happening now: There is a growing sense that Obama over-corrected for the overreaches of the Bush years. His latter-day rejig may push the pendulum closer to a midpoint on issues of U.S. intervention and leadership globally.

Fourth-quarter course changes demonstrate that the president is not oblivious to what others see clearly, nor so headstrong in his beliefs that he cannot adapt to events. Whether consciously or not, the president’s moves seem aimed at tamping down swelling frustration within the foreign-policy apparatus and quieting outside critics who were gleefully goaded by every misstep that seemed to confirm their theory of what the president was getting wrong.

But end-of-term corrections also bespeak a loss of conviction. There can be little doubt that Obama believed what he said just seven months ago at West Point, when he proclaimed that counterterrorism operations must “meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” Yet, drone strikes, now a weapon of choice against IS, were judged in a June 2014 report by the Stimson Center to fuel terrorist recruitment even in some cases where — as is the case with U.S. efforts against the Islamic State — everything possible is being done to avert civilian casualties. With the U.N. now reporting that new recruits are flowing to IS on “an unprecedented scale,” Obama would be hard-pressed to confirm that his policies pass his own “simple test.”

And while Obama officially shuttered the United States’ combatant command in Afghanistan earlier this week, the president’s recent decision to extend U.S.-led counterterrorism operations raises questions about what — if anything — it will take to avert the country’s devolution back into the Taliban-controlled terrorist refuge it was when U.S. combat operations first began 13 years ago. Although Obama said that “there is no military solution” to the problem of the Islamic State, the No. 1 issue facing the soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will be finding a military solution to the problem. In each case, it’s as if having recognized that his original approach fell short, the president is left doing what he said he wouldn’t, despite still believing his own earlier arguments for why it wouldn’t work.

After the takeover of Mosul, Obama’s faith in his own strategy of avoiding errors, eschewing military engagements, and minimizing interventions abroad flagged. The slap-in-the-face of the midterm elections upped the ante, sowing fears that Obama’s directionlessness was leaving his party vulnerable with the electorate. Yet in his measured offensive against the Islamic State and decision to prolong U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Obama is grasping for a new theory that is still elusive. We know he favors negotiation, diplomacy, economic statecraft, and working with partners and institutions where possible. What we don’t know, and what he no longer seems sure of, is what to do when these tactics fall short. In recent months, seeing that doing nothing wasn’t working, Obama changed tacks. The appointment of Ash Carter, a doer, is part of that shift. But given the contradictions implicit in Obama’s shift to now do something rather than nothing, the ultimate task of fixing what’s wrong with Obama’s foreign policy will likely fall to his successor.

*Correction (Dec. 10, 2014): The two quotes from Barack Obama about the end of the Iraq War were made in 2011 and 2012. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Obama made them a few weeks before the Islamic State took over Mosul, Iraq, this year. (Return to reading.)

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

About the Author

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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