FPI Bulletin: Obama Legacy a Heavy Burden for Successor

January 13, 2016

In his final State of the Union address last night, President Obama sought to put the best face on his foreign policy record. He dismissed as “political hot air” the “rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.” He noted that the United States remains “the most powerful nation on Earth.” He observed that “when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.” These points may all largely be true, but having “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” does not render staggering defense budget cuts acceptable. And just because the world looks to America to lead does not absolve the administration’s failures to do so.

This distinction was particularly clear when the President argued that his foreign policy reflects a calculated effort “to keep America safe and strong without … trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem.” This argument presents both a false choice and a retroactive attempt to justify the administration’s inaction in the face of gathering threats.

President Obama claimed last night that while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) poses “a direct threat to our people,” they “do not threaten our national existence.” While this accounting is more accurate than the President’s once blithe dismissals of the organization, it still does not account for the administration’s failure to anticipate that its precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and hands-off approach to the bloodbath in Syria would lead to this kind of disaster.

Moreover, the President’s accounting does not reflect the warnings offered by experts inside his own administration. As Kimberly Dozier of The Daily Beast reported last month, the U.S. intelligence community believes ISIS “will spread worldwide and grow in numbers, unless it suffers a significant loss of territory on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.” This message was reiterated yesterday in the House Armed Services Committee, where former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell called ISIS “a significant strategic and lethal threat to the United States of America.” The rise of the Islamic State will tarnish any future account of President Obama’s legacy and leave a heavy burden for his predecessor.

At least as vexing for future administrations will be the consequences of the nuclear agreement that President Obama reached with Iran in July 2015. The President said last night that “Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.” However, the agreement that was signed this summer is fundamentally flawed in many respects: It allows Iran to resume large-scale nuclear enrichment within a decade, and has a deficient inspections and verification system. What’s more, as the Institute for Science and International Security noted last month, “Iran did not provide the IAEA with anywhere near a full declaration about its past nuclear weapons related activities and it did not provide the kind of transparency and cooperation required for the IAEA to conclude its investigation.”

The Iran nuclear deal, in other words, was designed to postpone a crisis regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. When that crisis reemerges, Iran will almost certainly be far wealthier and more emboldened than when Obama first assumed office.

What’s more, at the same time as he was delivering those remarks, Iran was holding 10 U.S. military personnel for reportedly “trespassing” into their territorial waters. Though the men were subsequently released, the episode — as Josh Rogin and Eli Lake write in Bloomberg View — “is a significant escalation in the Persian Gulf. It shows that despite a nuclear agreement with the West, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is willing to board U.S. vessels, take American soldiers into custody, and … confiscate the crew’s communications and GPS equipment.” This incident was preceded by incidents last month in which Iran fired unguided rockets near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, and launched two medium-range ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions this fall.

These provocations and the recent escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions may be just a preview of crises that Obama will leave for his successors to deal with.

The most striking disconnect between the rhetoric of Obama’s speech and the reality we face may be in Syria. Last night, the President praised his policy of “partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.” In reality, notes former Ambassador Robert Ford, the death toll in Syria surpassed a quarter of a million people last year, while Russia’s intervention in support of Assad has actually made the likelihood of a peace agreement less likely. This conflict is likely to churn for yet another year, taking countless additional lives and fueling extremist threats to the United States and our allies.

In his address last night, the President proclaimed that the United States “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis.” He added, “It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq  —  and we should have learned it by now.” But while Obama was adamant that the United States understand the risks of taking action, nothing in his remarks indicated that he had learned the dangers of inaction. His failure offers a lesson that will both weigh heavily upon Obama’s legacy and burden his successors in the Oval Office.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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