AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY UNDER BARACK OBAMA
WHEN Barack Obama demits presidential office and comes to write his political memoirs they will no doubt be an elegantly persuasive account of the ideas that guided his presidency. But until then “The Long Game”, an apologia by Derek Chollet, is a vindication of Mr Obama’s distinctive approach to grand strategy and is likely to be the closest that anyone will come to understanding the thinking behind U.S. foreign policy that has many critics.
Mr Chollet is qualified and well placed in delivering such a resounding defence of the Obama leadership. He has served in senior positions in the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and has been close to the action during Mr Obama’s tenure of the White House. His contention is that the foreign-policy establishment in Washington has underestimated the extent of the president’s achievement. Policymakers at home lambast Mr Obama for having overlearned the lessons of Iraq, for his extreme caution and aversion to the use of America’s hard power in support of global order and for a reluctance and unwillingness to shoulder the burdens of leadership. This, say some, has dismayed allies and emboldened foes.
Detractors on the left have been horrified by his cold-bloodied use of drones to kill America’s enemies, his determination to commit to a costly nuclear modernisation programme and his bombing of more countries than George W. Bush. So which is he, asks the author: a woolly-headed liberal idealist or an unsentimental realist?
The answer, as it happens, is neither. Chollet argues that Mr Obama is misunderstood because he likes to play what the writer calls the “long game”. The book portrays the analogy of a president trying to be Warren Buffett in a foreign-policy debate that is dominated and driven by day traders. He has an unwavering view of what is in America’s long-term interests and refuses to be forced by impatient demands for action to intervene in ways that may be temporarily satisfying but have little prospect of success at acceptable cost.
To this end, Chollet asserts with reasonable conviction that Mr Obama has formulated what amounts to a long-game checklist, a series of principles that should be applied to managing American power and making strategic choices. The first of these is balance: balance between interests and values, between priorities at home and abroad, between declared goals in different parts of the world, and between how much America should take on and how much should be borne by allies. And balance, too, in the use of the whole toolbox – military power, diplomacy, economic leverage, and development. Mr Chollet openly contrasts this with the lack of balance Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush: a tanking economy, more than 150,000 troops deployed in two wars and sagging American prestige.
The other key principles of the Obama checklist drawn upon are: sustainability (avoiding commitments that cost too much to stick with); restraint (asking not what American can do but what it should do); precision (wielding a scalpel rather than a hammer); patience (by giving policies the time and effort to work); fallibility (the modesty of what can be achieved); scepticism (a caution of being wary of those peddling easy answers to difficult questions); and, exceptionalism (the recognition that because of its enormous power and attachment to universal values America has a unique responsibility in the world that cannot be ducked).
For the author this mix of cautious pragmatism and realism finds an echo in the approach of two Republican predecessors, Dwight Eisenhower and the first George Bush, whose reputations have grown considerably since their departure from office. Mr Chollet believes that this president’s foreign policy will look pretty good too once hindsight kicks in.
Perhaps. Eminently sensible, however, the checklist appears to be, rather than setting the appropriate conditions for action, it might also be used as a way to do too little, too late. By and large, and it is worth acknowledging, Mr Obama did manage to get right his policies towards China (the ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia was timely and has been quite effective) and Russia (the ‘reset’ of the first term delivered some benefits; when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and opted for confrontation with the West, Barack Obama responded accordingly). But in Afghanistan, Iraq and, significantly, in Syria, the Obama doctrine has had terrible consequences.
In Afghanistan, Mr Obama’s long-debated troop surge was fatally undermined when he announced that U.S. forces would start to come home in 18 months. He repeated the error in May 2014, announcing that the residual American force in Afghanistan would be fully withdrawn by the end of 2016. He has had to reverse that false promise. By setting timetables for forced reductions unconnected to conditions on the ground, Mr Obama has given encouragement to the Taliban and left Afghan security forces wilfully exposed.
President Obama’s decision to pull all American forces out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was even more disastrous. He used the excuse of the difficulty of negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqis to do what he wanted to do all along. Had a few thousand American troops been left in Baghdad, Mr Obama and his administration would have known much more about the Maliki government’s subversion of the US-trained and US-equipped Iraqi security forces, as well as having had some leverage to prevent it. Some might argue that the emergence of Islamic State in 2014, an organisation that has been able to take and hold Iraqi cities, is a direct result of Mr Obama’s insouciance. Right wing elements in America certainly think so.
The catalogue of errors in Syria is far too long to itemise. Mr Obama’s extreme reluctance to do anything to help the moderate rebels, as well as his failure to punish the regime for crossing his previously declared ‘red lines’ on the use of chemical weapons were turning points that has contributed to the scale of the catastrophe which has since unfurled in the country. While Mr Chollet is reluctant to blame Mr Obama, he was among those arguing for the president to take a different course of action.
Undoubtedly, though, the one clear unambiguous policy success that Mr Obama’s long game can claim is the nuclear accord and deal with Iran. Patient and tactful diplomacy, along with the building of international support for a crippling sanctions regime, combined with a credible threat of military action if all else failed, resulted in an agreement that has effectively dealt with concerns about Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb over the next decade or so. If the deal holds, it will be the defining achievement of the Obama presidency. Not every problem facing American resolve can be approached in the same painstaking, deliberative way.
The president is far from being the inept wuss portrayed by his critics. But nor is he the master of grand strategy that Mr Chollet makes him out to be. His loathing and contempt of the interventionist excesses exploited by his predecessor, his wariness of arguments of “doing more”, a disdain for military advice and his ingrained pessimism about the utility of hard power have had the effect of reducing America’s capacity to do good in a brutally torn world. If Mr Obama is succeeded by Hillary Clinton, she is likely to provide a modest and welcome corrective. If Donald Trump is the next president, the long game that has underpinned most of the Obama doctrine, whatever its defects, will be sorely missed.
– The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. By Derek Chollet. $26.99 and £17.99.