Tonight in Charlotte, at the Democratic convention, the Obama administration is expected to trumpet its foreign policy and national security record. It’s therefore worth taking a look at what President Obama has actually done.
The president’s signature campaign promise—withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq—has had serious and potentially grave consequences. The Obama administration’s early rhetoric on ending the war quickly caused Nouri al-Maliki to realize, as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane testified this year, “that his relationship with the United States Government had changed dramatically from what was previously his experience under the Bush administration.” Baghdad subsequently rejected the Obama administration’s proposed residual U.S. military presence, and America’s hard-won influence in Iraq has now been undermined. Al Qaeda and other extremist groups continue to wage a deadly campaign against Iraqi civilians; the nation is nearly defenseless against external attack. Iraqi politics are paralyzed; and, having been left to fend on his own without a residual American force to keep him oriented towards the West, Prime Minister Maliki has demonstrated an alarming illiberal streak in his style of governing and been drawn deeper into Tehran’s orbit, even acquiescing to Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to help bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In Afghanistan, efforts to stabilize that country and defeat the Taliban insurgency have been handicapped by the president’s policies. Mr. Obama rightly deserves credit for increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country from an approximately 35,000 troops when he took office to a peak of 100,000 in March 2011. However, the president provided fewer additional forces than Gen. Stanley McChrystal requested in 2009, and the administration’s reduction of forces this summer to 68,000 troops earlier than desired by commanders will put the hard-won gains of 2010 and 2011 in places such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces at risk. Success in Afghanistan requires keep U.S. troop levels at as high a level as possible for as long as possible until the 2014 transfer to Afghan control, not cutting support for the Afghan Security Forces, and maintaining a robust U.S. presence to support and train them as well as conduct counter terror missions after the handover. Such commitment will require an extraordinary degree of will and resolve, which the Obama administration has, thus far, failed to demonstrate, as it enters Charlotte interested only in talking of ending wars, not winning them.
The administration’s other major foreign policy initiatives – engaging America’s foes such as Russia, Iran, and Syria – were also endemically flawed. The president’s outreach to Dmitry Medvedev, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Bashar al-Assad effectively committed U.S. policy to supporting authoritarians even in the face of pro-democracy uprisings against their regimes, just as he was slow to back the people of Egypt in their efforts to oust Hosni Mubarak in 2011. While liberal foreign policy experts may argue that the Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate with some of these despotic regimes limited America’s options for success, the Obama administration’s regime centered approach likewise undermined America’s traditional role as a beacon of freedom.
This was most evident in June 2009, when the president stood by, silent for days, as the Iranian people took to the streets to protest the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad and were gunned down en masse by the regime. Because the administration entered office hoping to strike a diplomatic bargain with Tehran, the White House did not want to risk offending the mullahs. Iran’s leaders have now rewarded President Obama with only more threatening rhetoric and progress toward a nuclear weapon’s capability.
The effort to “reset” relations with Russia has failed to persuade Moscow to support serious sanctions against Iran and Syria at the U.N. Security Council, or any other measure that would threaten the stability of those regimes. The administration has also balked at bipartisan efforts in Congress to sanction Russian human rights violators, and stood by even as anti-Kremlin protests rocked Russian cities this year as Vladimir Putin was returned to power under questionable circumstances.
Furthermore, the administration was agonizingly slow to cease efforts to engage Bashar al-Assad as demonstrators took to the streets in Syria. While mass protests began in March 2011, it was not until August of that year that the administration formally announced its policy of supporting regime change. Doubt still remains that the administration is fully committed to it, as the death toll grows beyond 20,000, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and as members of the Syrian opposition claim the U.S. is failing to deliver even the promised non-lethal aid to their effort.
The president can rightly claim successes in his foreign policy – the killing of Osama bin Laden, the progress made in Afghanistan before his premature withdrawal of the surge, his use and expansion of Bush administration counter terror tools to go after al Qaeda and affiliated groups, and the ouster of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. However, the president’s signature initiatives have, in many respects, been counterproductive at best, and, when combined with his gutting of our military, are leading to a world in which America will be unable to defend American interests and influence an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.
Jamie Fly is executive director and Evan Moore is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.