Discerning Barack Obama's foreign policy in any detail is far from easy. The great majority of his statements on the subject consist of criticism of the Bush administration. Asked during the first presidential debate how he sees "the lessons of Iraq," Obama replied, "I think the first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place." Later he added: "The strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there. The question is, was this wise?" The constant lamentation over Bush's mistakes, justified though it may be, leaves obscure what Obama thinks we should do now. A close examination of his pronouncements on foreign affairs nevertheless suggests the general outlines of his likely foreign policy. Like the Clinton administration, an Obama administration would set out determined to rely on diplomacy, backed where necessary by economic sanctions and, in some cases, limited and precise military strikes--the sole exception being Afghanistan, where Obama proposes an open-ended commitment of American troops to win on what he regards as the central front in the war on terror.


Obama and his team have made it clear that they intend to rely on diplomacy to achieve most of their objectives in the world. Obama's declaration that he would meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without preconditions" defines his approach to the Iranian challenge. Asked in a 2004 debate with his Republican Senate opponent Alan Keyes how he would handle potential threats from Iran and North Korea, Obama answered, "Well, I think that we have to do everything we can diplomatically." Noting the failure of the international nonproliferation regime, he blamed U.S. strategy and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which he said "has to be rewritten and renegotiated." In April 2007, he recognized that Iran and Syria "want us to fail" in Iraq: "I am under no illusions there." But given what he believes are common strategic interests, he continued, "It's absolutely critical that we talk to the Syrians and the Iranians about playing a more constructive role in Iraq." During the January 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama cited the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program as evidence that "if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior."

Criticized for promising to meet with Ahmadinejad, Obama added nuance in the first presidential debate: "Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he might not be the right person to talk to." The conversation then descended into an argument about the meaning of "without preconditions," with Obama explaining: "It means     that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, 'Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you.' There's a difference between preconditions and preparations. Of course we've got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks." It is not clear whether the Obama team envisages reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. During the Cold War, the United States had full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union--and negotiated with Moscow, as Obama often points out. Denis McDonough, Obama's foreign policy coordinator, noted in June 2008 that "every one of our European allies maintains full diplomatic relations with Iran.     So I am very confident that our European allies would welcome greater American engagement in this." It is extremely difficult to negotiate presidential-level summits when major issues are at stake even with full diplomatic teams in both capitals, so the question of Obama's intention to reestablish relations is important.

A similar emphasis on diplomacy characterizes Obama's approach to North Korea, Russia, and Lebanon. In May 2008, he responded to Hezbollah's attack on the Lebanese government by calling on "all those who have influence with Hezbollah     [to] press them to stand down," and added, "It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy." His approach to North Korea is similar. In September, Susan Rice, senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, said that he "would have a tough policy that combines stronger sanctions, but to pursue this through diplomatic means to the maximum extent possible." Obama called for a "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" toward North Korea in an article in the July/August 2007 Foreign Affairs, and also proposed creating a more permanent "international coalition" to replace the "ad hoc" Six Party Talks the Bush administration has pursued.

Harsh words toward Russia following the invasion of Georgia in August were tempered by Obama's principal Russia adviser, Michael McFaul: "As a general philosophy, we are better off in direct negotiations with them, and trying to do things of mutual interest, versus isolating, containing them." On those grounds, Obama and his advisers have rejected the idea of expelling Russia from the G-8 and blocking its full accession to the World Trade Organization and continue to emphasize negotiating arms control agreements with Moscow aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals, making the current intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty global, and containing the dangers of nuclear proliferation from Russian scientists, among other things.


Obama recognizes that diplomacy will not always achieve his objectives and that it cannot be successful on its own. In such cases, his preferred course of action is to adopt or increase punitive economic sanctions on the offending regime. In May 2007, he complained that Bush's sanctions package against Sudan was inadequate: "Conspicuously absent from this package of sanctions is maximal punitive action against the Sudanese oil industry.     Targeted pressure by the international community against the Sudanese oil economy is a much-needed step to stop the killing and displacement of innocent civilians in Darfur." Noting that Tehran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a "game changer" that "we cannot tolerate," Obama explained in the first presidential debate:

Now here's what we need to do. We do need tougher sanctions. I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation from countries like Russia and China that     have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon.

In the second debate, he expanded on the theme:

If we can work more effectively with other countries diplomatically to tighten sanctions on Iran, if we can reduce our energy consumption through alternative energy, so that Iran has less money,     if we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis.

He has also proposed sanctioning Venezuela for supporting the FARC rebels in Colombia and supports tougher sanctions on North Korea for violating its various agreements to suspend its nuclear program. In June, Obama explained, "Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to reimpose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." In September, he supported maintaining the embargo on Cuba "until we are seeing clear signs of increased political freedom and so we can maintain leverage in any direct negotiations that may take place." He has also proposed raising tariffs on Chinese products to force China to revalue the yuan.

Where sanctions are inappropriate or impossible, Obama proposes to manipulate American foreign assistance to achieve similar goals. During the second debate, he proposed responding to the Russian challenge by giving Poland, Estonia, Latvia, "and all of the nations that were former Soviet satellites" "financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild their economies." He strongly backed the proposal of his running-mate, Joe Biden--subsequently echoed by the Bush administration--to give Georgia $1 billion in economic assistance. Since he rejected direct economic pressure on Russia, Obama seeks instead to create pressure by helping the economies of all of Russia's neighbors.

In the case of Pakistan, Obama calls for a policy that "compels Pakistani action against terrorists who threaten our common security." He would do that by conditioning U.S. military assistance on Pakistan's performance in the fight against al Qaeda. He would also offer economic assistance to "add to the standard of living and quality of life" in the tribal areas (in the words of Susan Rice) and to help in "building schools and building infrastructure in the country to help develop and give opportunity to the Pakistani people" (as Obama himself said in July).

Elsewhere in the world, Obama has proposed simply increasing American foreign assistance both for general purposes and in response to specific problems. He promised to "substantially increase our [economic] aid to the Americas" and proposed that the United States "help the Lebanese government deliver better services to the Shiites 'to peel support away from Hezbollah.'  " He has not made clear how the Lebanese government will be able to do this in areas militarily controlled by Hezbollah. He summed up his approach by declaring, "The United States needs a foreign policy that 'looks at the root causes of problems and dangers.'  " This sentiment echoes an earlier declaration about Latin America: "Helping to lift people out of widespread poverty is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values."


Obama has been at pains since 2002 to make clear that he doesn't oppose wars--he opposes "dumb wars." He has repeatedly emphasized his willingness, even eagerness, to use military force in certain cases, but he is unwilling to have American soldiers on the ground in numbers anywhere except Afghanistan. His objective in Iraq is to withdraw all American combat forces as rapidly as possible. As he said in July 2007: "The mission I'm defining is one in which we are withdrawing in a gradual fashion, that we are helping to train Iraqi forces, and that we're going to initiate diplomacy as a more important tool at this point than the surge in order to achieve our goals." Asked if he would give General David Petraeus more time if the American commander asked for it (this was before the general's September 2007 congressional testimony), Obama answered: "There is no scenario that I can imagine right now in which over the next eight weeks we'll see a magic transformation in Iraq." More recently, Obama and Susan Rice have reiterated his determination to "end this war responsibly" by withdrawing American forces--within 16 months, they've said on numerous occasions--leaving behind only enough troops to "protect our embassy and civilians operating in Iraq, continue any operations that may be necessary to target remaining al Qaeda remnants, and finally continue the mission of training the Iraqi security forces."

With regard to Iran, Obama says, "I would not take the military option off the table, and     I will never hesitate to use our military force in order to protect the homeland and the United States' interests." He explicitly rejected the idea of keeping military forces in Iraq to counter Iran in November 2007, however: "We should not take steps that would increase troop presence inside Iraq with an eye towards blunting the impact of Iran. I always think that's a mistake." In 2004, in fact, he argued that American forces in Iraq reduced our ability to strike Iran militarily: "I am less optimistic about     our ability to deal with the threat in Iran, in part as a consequence of Iraq. Because I think that the Iranians at this stage are fairly confident that it's going to be difficult for us to mount any significant military strike there, but I would reserve all options." The military option Obama has in mind for Iran--to the extent he considers it live at all--appears to be a limited precision-strike, presumably against the Iranian nuclear facilities.

Obama also favors limited military precision-strikes against al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan. The parameters of such strikes are unclear. As controversy grew over whether Obama had or had not proposed "invading" Pakistan, the senator clarified his position, noting in the first debate: "If the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out." He subsequently added, however, "You've got cross-border attacks against U.S. troops [in Afghanistan]. And we've got a choice. We could allow our troops to just be on the defensive and absorb those blows again and again and again, if Pakistan is unwilling to cooperate, or we have to start making some decisions." This would appear to imply a willingness to hit not only al Qaeda targets, but also Taliban targets (since the Taliban stages by far the largest number of cross-border raids) in Pakistani territory. In almost all other conversations, however, both Obama and Susan Rice have been careful to say only that he would hit al Qaeda targets. It is not entirely clear from Obama's comments that he makes a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, moreover, which could dramatically affect the scale of any action he might take.

Obama has made much of his determination to stop or prevent genocide around the world, even if it means using military power. In practice, however, he does not appear to support deploying American soldiers in any numbers to enforce this determination. In July, he denied that preventing genocide in Iraq was sufficient reason to keep large numbers of American forces there, adding, "By that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now     which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done. Those of us who care about Darfur don't think it would be a good idea." Earlier this month he spoke again of the genocide in Darfur and concluded by recommending "logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone," and helping the African Union troops to stop the killing.

For all of Obama's emphasis of the priority of Afghanistan over Iraq, he has offered very little in the way of detailed proposals for winning the war there. In the second debate, he summed up the three points of his approach as being "to get more troops into Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to do what it needs to do, eliminate some of the drug trafficking that's funding terrorism." In particular, he proposes sending "two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan." Getting those forces to Central Asia he believes is so important that we must "end the war in Iraq" in order to do it.

Obama's commitment to maintaining as many as seven U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan (his additional three plus the three already engaged in combat and one in training Afghan security forces) appears to be limitless. He has not suggested that sending perhaps 10,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan (three combat brigades) would be decisive any time soon, nor has he explained how he would do better in combating the drug trafficking problem than the NATO forces that have been working on the problem since the start of the war, nor has he described how he would help the Afghan government become more effective. His approach to dealing with safe havens in Pakistan appears to combine economic aid for the surrounding areas with precision strikes against key leaders there.

In short, the surge of troops for Afghanistan Obama is proposing is likely to be anything but brief--his strategy appears to anticipate the need for at least 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan throughout his presidency, and probably more. It is not, in fact, a surge but a fundamental redeployment from an open-ended commitment in Iraq to an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan.


Obama's foreign policy plans do not appear to recognize that Iraq will continue to be an extremely important area of interest for the United States for years to come, whatever the outcome of the current conflict. Although Obama is at pains to describe the nature of America's relations with Islamabad, Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, Havana, Damascus, and Brussels, he does not describe the relationship he expects to see with Baghdad. Will Iraq be friendly toward the United States? The possibility in his plans that America might continue to train Iraq's military forces (but only if the Iraqis meet our benchmarks and requirements) suggests that Obama imagines at least a reasonably positive relationship. The determination to continue to use American Special Forces and precision weapons to whack terrorists in Iraq presupposes some sort of Iraqi permission. At least, Obama has not indicated that he would conduct such operations against the will of Iraq's government, as he has said he would do in Pakistan. Obama certainly does not see an American presence in Iraq as any sort of constraint on Iranian behavior there or anywhere else. Is Iraq itself going to be a bulwark against Iran, a partner of Iran, Tehran's client, or neutral? Obama does not say.

It is unclear, in fact, whether Obama imagines that Iraq will survive at all. He continues to assert that the surge has failed because "the Iraqis still haven't taken responsibility, and we still don't have the kind of political reconciliation" required, as he explained to Bill O'Reilly in September. His plan for Iraq claims that U.S. withdrawal will facilitate the rebuilding of Iraqi society: "A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order." He recognizes, however, that it may not work: U.S. forces will help train Iraqis "as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism." If Iraq's leaders did start moving toward sectarianism, Obama's plan, it appears, would cut off U.S. assistance, but would not attempt to stop the violence. Only in the worst case would Obama intervene again, reserving "the right to intervene militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal violence within Iraq." The Obama plan aims at forcing Iraqis to make their country work but appears ambivalent about the likelihood they will succeed--and would curtail relations with Iraq if the attempt failed, re-engaging only if there were a genocide.

This approach makes sense only on the assumption that Iraq is not intrinsically important to American security, while Afghanistan is the key. Obama seems willing to accept a failed and even violent state in Iraq while insisting on an open-ended commitment to establishing a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan with a government that is "responsive to the Afghan people." Obama does not see Iraq as any sort of focal point for Iranian-American relations (except that he expects to talk the Iranians into helping us advance our supposedly common interests in Iraq). He most certainly rejects the notion of Iraq as an important front in the war on terror.

This approach is problematic. Iraq has never been irrelevant to the modern Middle East and won't be in the coming eight years. Iraq has oil reserves potentially as great as Saudi Arabia's; a large population astride the Sunni-Shia faultline; borders with Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait; a Kurdish population that both aspires to a region-shattering declaration of independence and harbors an anti-Turkish terrorist group; is the traditional center of Shia Islam; and suffers from two low-level terrorist campaigns waged by al Qaeda and Iranian proxies. Iraq, moreover, has not been part of the international community for 40 years. The rise of a new, Shia-dominated Arab state in Mesopotamia that attempts to rejoin the regional community will shake up Arab politics, whatever the success or failure of U.S. plans. As a first priority, an Obama administration will have to develop a more balanced approach to Iraq, one that recognizes the country's regional importance, considers the real nature of American interests there, and commits to one vision of Iraq's future and the Iraqi-American relationship.


Obama's foreign policy principles are not new. Broadly speaking, they are a return to the principles that guided Bill Clinton's approach to the world, adjusted incompletely to the global changes that have occurred since Clinton left office. It is worth reviewing the Clinton foreign policy both as an indicator of how an Obama administration (which will incorporate many former Clintonites) will act and as a way of evaluating the likely success of some of Obama's proposals.

Having campaigned on the slogan "It's the economy, stupid," Clinton took office with American forces engaged in two theaters. In Iraq, they maintained no-fly zones, while concentrations of ground troops protected Kuwait. In Somalia, the ill-considered humanitarian relief effort launched by George H. W. Bush was drawing American forces into a civil war.

Clinton established the pattern for his relationship with Saddam Hussein at once. Following word of an attempted assassination of Bush during an April 1993 trip to Kuwait, Clinton ordered the launch of 23 cruise missiles against targets in Iraq. Meanwhile, determined to get American forces out of Somalia, Clinton's defense secretary Les Aspin refused the requests of U.S. leaders in the theater to send armored vehicles to U.S. troops operating in an increasingly dangerous environment. The refusal was based largely on the desire to avoid being seen as "escalating" American involvement in a conflict from which Clinton was attempting to escape. The result was that the United States did not have the capabilities necessary to rescue Special Forces shot down during an operation in October 1993. Some of those soldiers were subsequently captured, killed, and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, turning the orderly withdrawal of American troops from Somalia into a humiliation.

Apprised of the likely costs of a war against North Korea during the first confrontation over Pyongyang's nuclear program in 1994, Clinton opted for diplomacy, negotiating the first of a series of deals to which today's Six Party Talks (and the ongoing Korean nuclear program) are the successor. Continuing the feckless policy of George H. W. Bush in the Balkans, Clinton pressed the Europeans to take responsibility for security on their own continent and worked to find a diplomatic, multilateral solution to the spiraling civil war and ethnic cleansing there. As U.N. forces in Bosnia were about to be overrun, Clinton intervened decisively, launching a large-scale air campaign in conjunction with our NATO allies and then deploying more than 20,000 American troops to Bosnia. Clinton continually promised that the deployment, to which many Republicans and some Democrats objected, would be short, but American troops remained in Bosnia from 1995 to 2005. Civil wars spread across the former Yugoslavia, arguably in part because of Western inaction early in the conflict, and in 1999 Clinton intervened again with a massive NATO air campaign against Serbia, followed by the deployment of U.S. ground forces to Kosovo, which remained there until 2007.

The Kosovo air campaign badly damaged relations with Russia, which regarded it as an illegal attack against Russia's traditional ally, Serbia. U.S.-Russian relations had been deteriorating before that attack, partly in response to the process of NATO enlargement begun in 1997, when Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary started talks with the alliance. The process culminated in their accession to full membership in 1999, 12 days before the war in Kosovo began. Russia, then as now, regarded the eastward expansion of NATO as a violation of a pledge Bush had given Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War. Then as now, Moscow linked NATO decisions in the Balkans to Russian operations in the Caucasus: Six months after the start of air operations in Kosovo, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin acting prime minister and almost immediately launched a large-scale military operation in Chechnya that brutally crushed a separatist movement there. Putin and other Russian leaders now commonly cite the U.S.-European recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year as the basis for their invasion of Georgia in August.

Clinton's policy toward Iraq--one of diplomacy, multilateralism, economic sanctions, and spasmodic military action--was also counterproductive. Economic sanctions did fearful damage to the Iraqi economy and embittered a generation of Iraqis against the United States. The oil-for-food program established to alleviate the worst of the suffering backfired. Corruption marred the U.N. administration of the program, while Saddam redirected funds to his own comfort and security at the expense of his people. Continual low-level military confrontation, rising to air and cruise-missile strikes in 1996 and 1998, kept Saddam in perpetual fear of losing power. He responded with vicious suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings immediately after the Gulf war, tightening of military and police controls throughout the country, and the "Return to Faith" campaign enlisting Islam to the cause of the secular Baathist regime.

The "Return to Faith" campaign focused heavily on Sunni Islam, and Saddam continued to oppress Iraq's Shia. The religious leader of the Shia community, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, went into seclusion; the more radical, more political, and fiercely anti-American Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr (father of Moktada al Sadr) was murdered by Saddam's thugs in 1999. The campaign also had the effect of injecting radical Islamism into Iraq's Sunni community.

By 2002, Saddam had made sufficient common cause with al Qaeda that Baghdad was home to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who would head Al Qaeda in Iraq until the Coalition killed him in 2006, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Zarqawi's successor. Neither was involved in the 9/11 attacks, but both were intimately connected with the global al Qaeda movement with which they worked closely after the 2003 invasion. It appears that the surge has driven Masri out of Iraq, possibly to al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Even granting, therefore, that sanctions and military actions persuaded Saddam to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction programs, they did so at a very high price to the Iraqi people (which opponents of the 2003 invasion were prepared to continue to inflict indefinitely), and at the cost of driving a formerly bitter foe of Islamism to start making common cause with Islamists and radicalizing his own society. And even at that, U.S. policy before 2003 failed to secure Saddam's compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding unfettered inspections that would have demonstrated the end of his WMD program--with the result that almost every government and analyst believed that Iraq had a WMD program in 2003. Bush administration failures and mistakes seriously exacerbated many of these problems in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and ended up imposing an additional fearful price on the Iraqi people and on America. Even a skillful war plan, on the other hand, would have faced the significant challenges arising from more than a decade of sanction-and-strike policies.

The single worst failure of the first Bush and Clinton administrations, however, is the one that appears most likely to be replicated by Obama. After Soviet military forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States gratefully turned its attention away from a country it had never understood. We were surprised and dismayed but unwilling to act when the Soviet puppet-government did not fall at once, but instead held onto power until 1992. We were equally surprised, dismayed, and unwilling to act as the radical Taliban forces--including some groups we had helped arm and train against the Soviets--began to take control of Afghanistan, assisted by Pakistan.

As Osama bin Laden established base camps with Taliban support, Americans took little notice and no action. When al Qaeda bombers hit U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Clinton administration launched a volley of cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan (and Sudan), with no effect. It handed over to the second Bush administration a well-established terrorist network with unfettered access to resources and training bases in Afghanistan, and it had made no preparations to do anything about it--not even a war plan for going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Eight months after Bush took office--and eight years after the first World Trade Center bombing--al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. As policy failures go, that was rather dramatic. The unwillingness of the Obama campaign to think seriously about what happens in Iraq after our forces have withdrawn raises the specter of a repetition of this scenario.

If Obama takes office in January 2009, he will face a daunting set of challenges in the world. After the knife-fight of this presidential election, he and his team will need to take a deep breath and reflect. The temptation to excoriate the policies of one of the most unpopular presidents in history as a means of winning office was natural. The fierce battle Obama had to fight to secure the nomination in the first place created cleavages within the Democratic foreign policy elite that have further complicated the development of a coherent and consistent approach to national security. And the bitterness of the debate over the Iraq war has distorted the thinking of almost every political leader and many an analyst. Between an Obama election and inauguration, the new team will have to make up the ground the campaign has lost in thinking through its policies on the issues it will have to tackle from its first moment in office, for there is reason to fear that many of the current default policies are mistaken. The world has changed a great deal since the Clinton years, and even then the Clinton foreign policy was far from successful. Obama and his team will have a very short time to adjust their ideas to the world as it is now.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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