There seems little doubt that 2014 will go down as a truly horrible year for American foreign policy. From the Russian seizure of Crimea and further irregular incursions into eastern Ukraine, to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to a worsening security problem in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated U.S. drawdown, to the rise of fringe political parties in Europe, to Iran’s onward march to a nuclear capability, to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa—combined with an American public portrayed by pollsters as weary of the burdens of U.S. global leadership as well as a solidly bipartisan majority in Congress for sharply declining spending on national security—well, it’s been quite a pile-on for the “world’s sole superpower.”
Tragically but also comically, in the way of the world, the only good news of 2014 has been the absence of still more bad news. Fareed Zakaria, one of the Obama administration’s more tenacious sympathizers, took to hisWashington Post column on August 7 to herald “Global Success Stories” in Indonesia and Mexico. He of course promoted it on Twitter to his half-million followers. That happened to be the very day the president was announcing a military strike on ISIS targets to prevent the slaughter of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis holed up on Mount Sinjar. The juxtaposition led Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed to weigh in with a classic put-down: Linking to Zakaria’s exercise in self-promotion—“Wherever you look the world seems on fire. But some of the most populous nations are making amazing progress”—she tweeted, “not now, Fareed.”
As a summary of the condition of world politics 2014, “amazing regress” would be more apt. This may not be our worst year since the fall of Saigon in 1975. There was 1979, after all, with the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, and gas lines at home. Also, we had the 12 months in 1993-94 encompassing the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia, the further bloody deterioration of former Yugoslavia, and genocide in Rwanda. Or perhaps 2005-06, with Iraq spinning into full-scale civil war, Afghanistan looking to be falling apart due to insufficient international support against the resurgent Taliban, and the lingering effects of genocide in Darfur. But 2014 is certainly going to make any short-list of anni horribiles.
Three of the contenders cited above are instructive in more than just the ways of U.S. international misery, however. They also marked inflection points. The tumult of 1979 contributed to the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, and though a rebuilding of military power did begin under Carter after years of decline, Reagan would wed that new policy to a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union and a more assertive U.S. role internationally. For the Clinton administration, 1994 was the point after which policies and rhetoric based on a post-Cold War “peace dividend” and the ad-hoc stewardship (such as it was) of foreign policy under Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave way to a more robust view of the need for and value of U.S. leadership. Madeleine Albright encapsulated the transformation in her 1996 speech at Georgetown University calling the United States “the indispensable nation.” And in 2007, with Iraq slipping into chaos before his eyes, George W. Bush turned his back on the coalescing mainstream view in official Washington that the time had come to be done with it. Instead, he authorized the troop surge and the switch to a counterinsurgency strategy that would stabilize the country by the time he left office.
Of course the fall of Saigon in 1975 galvanized no such turnaround. The acute sense of limitation produced by military defeat, the debilitating effect of Nixon’s resignation on executive-branch power, and the view in the dominant “realist” policy circles of the day that the best the United States could do was manage decline through such policies as détente with the Soviet Union—all fed on each other to produce a long and deep period of U.S. retrenchment.
Which raises the question of where we stand in 2014. Are we heading toward another inflection point and a reassertion of U.S. leadership and influence, as in 1979, 1994, and 2006? Or are we at the beginning of what will turn out to be a protracted period of confusion, uncertainty, and decline, as in the years after 1975?
When the brightest minds of the Obama administration, including the president’s own, took up their positions in 2009, it seems fair to say that two consensus convictions about the United States and the world ran deepest among them. The first was that the United States had squandered much of the advantage of its position of post-Cold War power and influence through the mistakes and follies of George W. Bush and his administration. The second was that American power faced inevitable decline, at a minimum in relative terms, and that the United States should use its temporary position of strength to try to shape a more benevolent international environment for its less-dominant days ahead.
Hence the reset with Russia (designed to lock in Moscow’s active pursuit of a constructive role in international politics); hence a new diplomatic initiative with Iran (presenting a united global front against an Iranian nuclear weapon and an extensive package of carrots and sticks, from the promise of normal relations on one side to “crippling sanctions” and Stuxnet on the other); hence the de-emphasis on the centrality of transatlantic relations (on the grounds that Europe could take care of itself); hence the “pivot” to Asia (to pay more attention to global powers on the rise)—and hence the president’s personal commitment to ending wars.
On the latter point, it seems likely that of all the goals Obama set out in seeking the presidency in 2007–08, this was the one that came closest to and may even have surpassed in importance his top domestic policy goal, health care reform. The Iraq war, an endeavor Obama opposed as a mistake from the beginning, had become a huge drain on American resources essential to “nation-building at home.” Meanwhile, neither could the commitment to Afghanistan be permanent; states must take responsibility for their own security, and the United States must not permit them to perpetuate reliance on U.S. sacrifice.
It would be a mistake to view any of these policy initiatives apart from the convictions underlying them. “Decline is a choice,” Charles Krauthammer argued, and many Obama critics have followed him to that view. But policy-makers don’t embark on courses of decline. As Stephen Sestanovich convincingly demonstrates in his recent book Maximalist, American presidents have pursued policies of retrenchment when they believe U.S. commitments have come to exceed capabilities and they are unwilling or believe themselves unable to increase capabilities. That has been the Obama position.
But will retrenchment be successful? “Hope is not a policy,” critics have likewise insisted. But unless a favorable outcome from a policy choice is certain regardless of exigent circumstances, unforeseen consequences, and the decisions of others, hope is always an element of policy. One picks from one’s political choices having done one’s best assessment of the likely consequences of each. The accuracy of the assessment is the question, and the test is how the policy fares in action in light of subsequent events, including Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”
If this sounds like a defense of the administration’s decision-making, it isn’t: In fact, it points the way toward a deeper understanding of the failure of Obama’s policy decisions. Obama set down markers of retrenchment across the globe based on his assessment of the problems facing U.S. policy and strategy. Whether because of those policies or despite them—his defenders will always be able to say, with Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that things could have been even worse—the events of 2014 are before us. And no one would call 2014 anything but a bad year for the United States.
Because, really: With Russia’s military takeover of Crimea and irregular incursion into Ukraine, no one can say the reset succeeded in bringing Russia into a constructive role in global politics. As for the supposed decline of the strategic salience of Europe, would anyone now say this assessment was correct with regard to NATO allies on and near Russia’s borders?
With the rise of ISIS, no one can say the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq worked out as planned (or hoped). Nor has Obama’s personal decision (against the united advice of his top advisers) not to involve the United States in the Syrian civil war on the side of the resistance earlier produced results to the liking of the United States or any of Syria’s neighbors, including U.S. allies.
Meanwhile, Iran policy is still riding its grade of “incomplete,” but is anyone optimistic these days that Iran is in the
mood for a grand bargain bringing
the country in from the cold at the cost of a nuclear weapons capability? How to assess something as amorphous as the “pivot” to Asia is a mystery, but would anybody say it is the most important focus of U.S. foreign policy?
Then there’s the problem of counterfactuals: In politics, as they say, you begin where you are. We can’t go back and un-leave Iraq, nor can we be more assertive in trying to work with the Syrian resistance early on. We can’t retroactively admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO to deter Russian aggression against them (nor would that likely have been a good idea when it was under discussion in 2008). The Iranian nuclear program is where it is, not where it was. And as we now know from events in Dallas, we won’t be containing the spread of Ebola to a few hundred cases in West Africa.
So where do we go from here?
If at this point it sounds like I am painting an unrelenting portrait of the failure of Obama administration decision-making, well, that’s not altogether right either. Because there are some interesting indications that the troubles of 2014 are closer in spirit to those of 1979 or 1994 or 2006 than to 1975. The administration is adapting to changing circumstances in a fashion that suggests senior officials are recalculating their choices.
A few headline observations: We are back in Iraq, this time at war with ISIS, and the war now extends into ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. Though Obama’s plans are still limited in their dedicated means, he himself foresees a multiyear campaign that will “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. This is, if anything, a more startling reversal of course than George W. Bush’s surge, and accordingly as big or bigger a tacit admission of policy failure. And the American people, though perhaps not a majority within the president’s own party, seem to understand and support the necessity of this new war effort, notwithstanding their supposed war-weariness.
In changing course, Obama has been immensely aided by senior military commanders who have devoted considerable thought to the question of what might happen in Iraq in the wake of complete U.S. withdrawal. And it now seems that the senior leadership in the Pentagon is on guard against measures insufficient to accomplish the stated objectives of the new policy and is willing to push back internally and possibly in public. I would add that if we had indeed been able to obtain a “status of forces” agreement with Baghdad to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq, which senior military commanders believed was achievable, then it seems to me the Iraqi government would likely have been more tractable and Iraqi security forces more capable than in light of our departure. I also suspect the commander in Iraq and his boss at CENTCOM would have been raising high alarms about the spillover danger of U.S. inaction in Syria.
While Obama has not indicated any willingness to adopt a bellicose posture in defense of Ukraine, he has established U.S. disapproval of Russia’s redrawing of international borders by force. The outward manifestation of this disapproval is a sanctions regime that will likely burden U.S.-Russia relations for the foreseeable future. In this, he has found reinforcement from our European allies. Germany has anOstpolitik tradition stretching back two generations, and Vladimir Putin’s adventurism has shaken it to the foundation. Obama has also found support from a generation of career Foreign Service officers in the State Department who have worked on Central and Eastern European integration into Western institutions since the end of the Cold War and are personally and viscerally disgusted by Russia’s new course. Their ranks enlarge exponentially once you include former officials and the NGO world.
At the same time, Obama has indeed adopted a more bellicose posture toward Russia in defense of our current NATO allies, especially those on Russia’s borders. He traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, to meet with Baltic presidents, there to emphasize the commitment of the United States under Article V of the NATO treaty to defend our allies against armed attack. The renewed urgency of NATO’s original mission of territorial defense galvanized what would otherwise have been a sleepy summit in Wales this fall. Here again, Obama found internal political support for such an affirmation in his own State Department as well as capabilities and a familiarity with the challenge inside the Pentagon. Again, I’d be astounded if anybody a year or two ago could have imagined the president taking a special trip to the Baltics to reassure Europeans about the integrity of our alliance commitments.
Now, as well, indications are we will have a much larger force in Afghanistan past 2014 than anyone foresaw a year ago. It looks like the administration may now deem a repetition of the Iraq withdrawal to be imprudent. And we now seem to be ready to go into Africa in numbers large enough to take Ebola seriously.
Of the hopes stemming from resets and diplomatic corrections, only those over Iran remain alive. And the notion that the United States can adroitly lock in gains in a period of comparative strength against the challenges stemming from its relative decline now seems a bit fanciful, if not a kind of hubris. Our normative aspirations may be locked in, but nothing makes them the governing principles of international politics or a meaningful moral core for U.S. foreign policy in the absence of American power and leadership.
And with a nod to Fareed Zakaria, may I note the strong “no” vote in Scotland on independence from the United Kingdom as a sign of “amazing progress”—in this case, against the centripetal forces threatening Europe? It looks like the center may be holding. There are grounds for hope that 2014 will also be the year in which the Obama retrenchment finally ran its course.