Obama’s unambitious foreign policy agenda

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 26, 2013


As he completes his second month into his second term, President Obama’s foreign policy agenda is turning out to be unambitious. If during his first term Obama sought to reverse his predecessor’s most controversial policies—including the war in Iraq—Obama’s second term foreign policy agenda lacks a focus and so far has failed to assert American leadership.


When he first came into office in 2009, President Obama had a clear foreign policy agenda. He wanted to restore America’s good reputation. After 8 years of unilateralism under Bush, American soft power was at its weakest and the financial costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were doing serious damage to the long term stability of the U.S. economy. By not being Bush, Obama was able to mend relations with several historical American allies. Since he opposed the war in Iraq and vowed to withdraw combat forces within a year after being elected, Obama swiftly decreed the end of America's most controversial military involvement in the last 30 years.  The contrast with President Bush was sufficient to make President Obama the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.


The positive effect on ending the war in Iraq allowed Obama to move far more slowly on some of his other campaign promises. Though he campaigned on closing Guantanamo, the military base has remained open and the U.S. has continued to engage in covert action against suspected terrorists. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 legitimized the use of controversial intelligence strategies to combat terrorist groups. Under Obama, the use of drones to target enemies of the U.S. has grown. Drones have been used kill U.S. citizens in foreign territory who were suspects of terrorisms. The controversial practice has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on grounds that such attacks violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process of law.   As Americans pay less and less attention to the events unfolding in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration’s covert operations have received far less criticism than during the Bush presidency.


The economic crisis in the U.S. has limited Obama’s ability to engage more actively in some of the world’s political hotspots. Though the U.S. did get involved in helping bring the end of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Washington’s involvement in the Middle East has been timid at best.  The U.S. has mostly stayed out of the civil war in Syria.  Events in Egypt have unfolded without significant input from Washington. American influence in the Middle East is at its lowest in decades. President Obama’s recent trip to Israel and Palestine was intended to heal wounds with both sides of the conflict, but the expectations about a possible breakthrough were so low that there were not even signs of disappointment after the trip produced no visible results in the negotiations for a dual-state solution path.


In other areas of the world, American influence is also decreasing.  China is increasingly a more prominent player in Asia and Africa.  In Latin America, the U.S. has a less influential voice than ever before since the early 20th century.  Even in countries like Colombia, where the U.S. had a prominent role in combating drug trafficking, American influence has decreased.


The spending cuts forced by sequestration will have an additional negative impact on the defense budget.  Though the U.S. will retain its position as the world’s most powerful military, everyone in the world—including America’s friends and foes—knows that Washington cannot afford another war.  The pressure the U.S. can exert around the world is significantly more limited when the threat of military action is absent. 


President Obama’s foreign policy priorities take these facts into consideration. Though the American economy is showing signs of recovery, the fiscal situation will limit Washington’s ability to engage more actively on political and social developments abroad.  Negotiations over fiscal spending will eventually slow defense spending cuts and will allow the Pentagon to fund key new weapons programs.  Spending cuts will also force the defense industry to improve productivity and be more efficient. That will help the American military be leaner and more effective.  Yet, the conversion will not be automatic.  President Obama can lead the reconversion process, but he won’t see results during his second term.  Moreover, some of the new technological developments will be controversial. The debate over the use of drones anticipates future controversies over new technological advances in U.S. military power.


Still, President Obama’s priority shift from hard to soft power has been far from successful.  By promoting soft power, the U.S. is certainly paying far fewer costs with its allies and it is spending far less in the military.  However, Obama’s soft power strategy has not helped the U.S. reposition itself as the world’s unquestionable political leader. From what it has shown so far, Obama’s foreign policy agenda in his second term will do little to help restore the influence the U.S. used to have in the world arena.