As was expected, President Obama’s eighth and final State of the Union address did not possess the teeth of previous speeches. Though lacking far-reaching policy proposals and goals, President Obama used the address to tee-up his legacy by asking Americans to look toward the future. In terms of foreign policy, while some have questioned what the Obama doctrine is – with some expressing disdain for the notion of presidential doctrines – President Obama further clarified his overarching guiding principle in foreign policy last night: don’t do stupid stuff.
The Obama presidency from the beginning was established on urging caution when engaging in conflicts abroad – which is not to say this president has avoided using force as evidenced by the surge of troops to Afghanistan, hundreds of drone strikes in nearly ten countries against terrorist actors (including an American citizen), destructive cyber attacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and special forces raids to capture or kill terrorists, among others.
“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned it by now,” he said during Tuesday’s speech. “Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.”
President Obama gained popularity following his vocal opposition to the Iraq War and pledged to end American involvement overseas, in what he termed “dumb wars.” However, his goals of limiting the U.S. ground presence in conflict zones has become complicated with the rise of the Islamic State group globally and a resurgent Taliban offensive in Afghanistan. The president has been dragged back into conflicts in the Middle East which he attempted to terminate, likely prolonging U.S. involvement long after his presidency. In terms of emerging conflicts – or in the case of Iraq, past U.S. endeavors – President Obama generally sought the policy of strategic patience.
Often times critics of the Obama administration point out that Obama’s view that America’s power and influence is limited is only a truism when the Obama administration decides not to act in conflict zones. Recent criticism against the strategic patience approach came from a former top Obama official who believes such strategic patience directly led to the disaster in Syria. Obama “looked at Syria and he saw entanglement in another ongoing Middle East conflict where our involvement would be costly, lead to nothing, and potentially make things worse. In nearly every meeting on Syria when presented possible options to affect the Syrian civil war, the president would ask ‘tell me where this ends,’” wrote Dennis Ross, former special assistant to President Obama and career diplomat serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “[Obama] was surely right to ask this question. But he failed to ask the corollary question: Tell me what happens if we don’t act? Had he known that not acting would produce a vacuum in which a humanitarian catastrophe, a terrible refugee crisis, a deepening proxy war and the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria would occur, his responses might have been different. However, it was hard for him to ask that question because when he looked at Syria, he saw Iraq,” Ross said using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
Obama has long held the view that in many cases, action is worse than inaction. “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences -- without building international support and legitimacy for our action,” President Obama said at the 2014 West Point commencement.
Ross, conversely, contends that Syria has been a different issue than Iraq and other unilateral U.S. action in the past. “This was not an American invasion of a country but an internal uprising against an authoritarian leader.” Ross wrote that a vacuum was created not from action, but rather, inaction over learning the lessons of Iraq, contrary to the Obama positon. “[T]hat vacuum was filled by others: Iran, Hezbollah and Iran’s other Shi'a militia proxies; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar; Russia; and ISIL. Unless the U.S. does more now to fill this vacuum, the situation will spin further out of control,” he wrote.
President Obama still has fresh wounds from participating in the Libyan intervention led by Britain and France that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. provided aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance as well as munitions to the effort. The result was Libya becoming the poster child for a failed state currently with non-state actors running rampant, a declining economy, and a fragile peace deal that brought together the rival governments to form some semblance of order.
“So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’” the President told the New York Times regarding the lesson he learned from Libya. “Critics are frustrated by the Obama administration’s Syria policy, attacking him for indecisiveness or lack of will to defeat Assad, but President Barack Obama seems to have learned from the mistakes of Libya,” Alexander Decina, research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Daily Beast recently. “Rather than a headlong pursuit to take down Assad, Obama seems to be mindful of the consequences of an abrupt regime collapse. Instead of arming every group that memorizes the right talking points about democracy and pluralism, the administration has tried, though in some cases unsuccessfully, to limit its support and equipment to carefully vetted rebels….one would hope that the next administration will be as cautious, and remember the lessons of Libya.”
The U.S. has struggled to combat the threat from Islamic terror groups. Former special assistant to Preside Obama, Phillip Gordon perfectly articulated this challenge: “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.”
President Obama has always placed a great deal of importance on diplomacy and partner building as evidenced by the deal struck with Iran and five other world powers to curb the Islamic Republic’s unclear nuclear program as well as the multi-nation coalition against the Islamic State. As his administration comes to a close, history may look more fondly upon the “strategic patience” approach. However, if, as many experts believe, the situation in Syria – which is now garnering direct military involvement from more world powers with increasing differences in ideology – will continue to get worse, compounded with other actions such as Iranian boldness, President Obama could hold a special place in history – and not for good reason. Then again, he could be just a blip on the radar as another average president with few domestic and international accomplishments.