In a word Obama foreign policy has been adequate. His victories have been equally matched by his failures. His policy has neither substantially forwarded American interests nor set them back. The fundamental fallacy at the core of Obama's strategy was the idea that America could significantly reduce its commitments in the Middle East such that it could refocus its resources to the Asia-Pacific region to confront the rise of an aggressive China. This is representative of a crucial misunderstanding of the dynamics of the Middle East.
In executing this vision Obama set out to achieve three disengagements in the Middle East: the end of the War in Iraq, the end of the War in Afghanistan, and a nuclear deal with Iran. By accomplishing these goals a naive Obama sought to stabilize and democratize an insurgent Iraq, pound the Taliban and al-Qaeda into submission, and pacify a vehement American enemy. Severe miscalculations on all three parts would doom this strategy to fail. Firstly, Obama's cessation of the Iraq War in 2011 ultimately precipitated the rise of the Islamic State. Indeed Obama's failure to negotiate with the uncooperative Maliki government to keep a small contingent of troops on Iraqi soil enabled an insurgent military force to take advantage of unassuaged sectarian tensions as fomented by Baghdad. The removal of American forces thus left Iraq an unstable state full of incendiary divisions.
Iraq was primed for the instability that would emerge in the wake of the Arab Spring. The breakdown of order in neighboring Syria resulted in the emergence of a power vacuum that crossed the Syrian-Iraqi frontiers. Into this vacuum emerged a number of Islamist threats in the form of the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, the Khorosan Group, and others. One cannot fully blame the rise of these groups on Obama (indeed the instability of Iraq and Syria dates back to 2003), however it is clear that his idealistic compulsion to pull America out of this region enabled the evolution of a vacancy of power.
Fortunately, Obama's mistakes in Iraq were apparent by the time he was ready to remove troops from Afghanistan. Even then, however, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had to plead with Obama to leave additional troops in order to keep the Taliban at bay.
Overall Obama mishandled the Arab Spring on two fronts: Libya and Syria. At the outbreak of the civil war in Libya it can be argued that Obama and his allies made the right decision in militarily removing the Gaddhafi regime. Leaving Gaddhafi in power looked as if it would have resulted in a long protracted civil war wherein a falling despot could be rallied against to compel hordes of foreign fighters to travel to the country (as in Syria). Thus Obama was correct in intervening in Libya. However, as Obama admits, his administration and America's NATO allies failed to commit themselves to stabilizing the country after Gaddhafi's removal. Libya is now the second largest power vacuum in the Middle East harboring a strong branch of the Islamic State.
Obama's miscalculation in Syria, however, would have the most devastating consequences. Open American intervention in Syria looked as if it would come in September 2013. The civil war had already been raging for two years and thousands of fighters were rallying against Assad. Following revelations of the utilization of chemical weapons by a desperate Assad regime, Obama asked Congress for authorization to militarily intervene against Assad. This action set into motion a series of catastrophic events for American reputability on the international stage. First Russia seized the opportunity afforded by Obama's delay to forward a deal with its ally Pres. Assad. Russia thereafter successfully blocked American intervention against Assad on a number of occasions. Obama greatly faltered when he failed to hold Assad accountable for delays in the removal of chemical weapons. As a result Assad remained in power and the Syrian civil war raged on.
Russia's successful intervention against American interests in Syria ultimately catalyzed the greatest catastrophe of Obama foreign policy, the Russian annexation of Crimea. It can be argued that Russia's actions against America in Syria emboldened Putin to take advantage of what was appearing to be an increasingly indecisive, ineffective, and weak president of the United States. As a result, Putin did not hesitate to take advantage of a democratic yearning for freedom in Ukraine (something he labeled a "coup d'etat"). Russia began to wreak havoc at will in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Russia robbed Ukraine of its territorial sovereignty and clearly waged war against the government in the east under the guise of "Pro-Russian rebels." At the same time Obama imposed one weak sanction after another and could not even bring himself to supply the Ukrainians with weaponry, instead choosing to send them "non-lethal" military supplies.
These events provided the green light for Putin to openly intervene in Syria in late 2015. With Iranian and now Russian support it is unlikely that Assad will be deposed anytime soon. Obama's weakness permitted a rogue player to enter into the already complex Syrian civil war making peace even more unattainable. These actions have, moreover, brought the world the closest it has been to world war in a long time with the downing of a Russian jet over Turkish airspace.
All of these occurrences have forced Obama to reassure America's allies of his resolve and support. A defining feature of the Obama administration has been the acquisition of new allies and the dismissal of old ones. Obama has done a great job of fostering new international relationships with nations that were not always strong American allies. Most importantly Obama has expanded ties with India, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran. Unfortunately, in the process of developing these relationships Obama has often neglected those who have supported us in the past. Significantly Obama's unhindered motivation to strike a deal with Iran has alienated Israel and the powerful Sunni nations of the Gulf. Although a nuclear deal was necessary, Obama's previous foreign policy disasters likely inhibited him at the negotiation table which not only led to a bad deal, but also forced him to neglect some of his commitments to regional partners. As a result, Israel and the Gulf are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Something that could prove volatile moving forward as Saudi Arabia pursues proxy wars with Iran in countries like Yemen and Syria.
Over the past year, however, it can be said that Obama has largely learned his lesson. His actions are now much more pragmatic and rooted in an understanding of the world stage. His approach to combating the Islamic State (with the notable exception of his Syrian rebel training program which ended up doing more harm than good) has been working as the Kurds and Iraqi's consistently seize back territory. Moreover, Obama's recommitment of military resources to Eastern Europe and his strong stance on the South China Sea are a welcomed change of strategy. Only time will tell if these policies will induce Chinese and Russian aggression or keep it at bay. Ultimately, the most important test of the Obama legacy will be what arises out of the ashes in Iraq and Syria. Sectarian tensions are at an all time high and it will take a president with a good grasp on the dynamics of that region to restore peace.
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