The Munk Debate: Obama’s Foreign Policy

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Be it resolved U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy is emboldening our enemies and making the world a more dangerous place.

Arguing for the pro side is Robert Kagan is an American author and historian. Taking the con side is Fareed Zakaria, an author, journalist and hosts CNN's flagship foreign affairs show.

Question: Mr. Obama promised Americans he would end the Iraq war and focus instead on the war in Afghanistan. Do you think his handling of Afghanistan will leave that nation stable and secure?

Robert Kagan: It's still an open question because we don't know what President Obama plans to do in terms of leaving American troops behind [in Afghanistan] or whether he intends to pull them all out by 2016. Judging by what's happened in Iraq, you would think [the President] would want to leave a residual force in Afghanistan, but he may be completely wedded to his campaign commitment to get us out of both places. In fairness, he inherited a bad situation, but his early decisions both to do a [troop] surge and set a deadline [for exiting] probably worked at cross-purposes. The net result is that things are not as good as they could be, but they are not as bad as they will be if we withdraw all American forces.

Fareed Zakaria: Obama has handled Afghanistan about as well anyone could given the circumstances. When he took over, the Taliban had gained significant momentum and it seemed as though they had enough momentum to break the back of the political process. He approved the surge in troops but also, by a more targeted series of assassinations, got rid of a number of key Taliban leaders. So now as the troop drawdown begins, I would argue Afghanistan is more stable [than when Obama became President.] After a successful election, there's now a power-sharing deal between the two leading candidates, both of whom have reached out across ethnic and sectarian lines. Both [President Ashraf] Ghani [Ahmadzai] and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, seemed to have learned the lessons not just of Afghanistan but of Iraq, which is that unless you have a broad inclusive coalition it is very easy for people to play the role of spoiler and upend the entire project. All that said, the Taliban remains powerful – it's not just a military reality but also a political reality that part of the Pashtun population believes it is unrepresented by the government and they continue to fight. I tend to be relatively optimistic about Afghanistan, but I want to emphasize the 'relative.' This is going to take a while.

Question: When she ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign made much of the 'red phone,' questioning whether Mr. Obama was up to the task. Looking back, what was Mr. Obama's red-phone moment, his biggest unexpected test of crisis management, and how well did he handle it?

Robert Kagan: I don't know that he has had a 'red phone' moment, but the closest thing he has faced to an emergency requiring rapid response probably has been ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. I say that despite the fact that people could see the ISIS problem growing for quite some time, but it didn't reach a critical mass [until recently.] So I suppose the issue is how Mr. Obama has responded to that. And I think he has responded in the way he tends to respond to all occasions where military force is required: which is extremely hesitantly, almost certainly inadequately. It is the unanimous judgment of even his own military advisers that this [U.S.-led military intervention] is not going to work without the presence of some American advisers and spotters and people who can call in [air] strikes embedded with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. So Obama's made a decision that was probably enough to ease the pressure on him but not enough ultimately to succeed. And I fear the consequences of that not just in terms of what happens on the ground but also in terms of the American public's support. If there's one thing we don't need right now it's another unsuccessful military operation. In general, his reticence about taking action, his reluctance about getting the United States involved in a problem even though we're in it whether we like it or not, has repeatedly led to bad consequences.

Fareed Zakaria: Certainly the "red phone" moment for Obama was the [Osama] bin Laden assassination. Everything we know about it was that it was a very high-stakes game with very little credible information. It was a very gutsy move because it involved violating Pakistani sovereignty. It involved putting Americans in harm's way and risking a significant international incident if things went wrong. And Obama handled it very calmly, very coolly. In a way, it was the wrong test for Obama; he's a very cool character. He has realpolitik running through his veins. He has greater problems when faced with a murky situation [where he] must maintain his strategic sense of restraint while both appearing to do something and perhaps doing something for humanitarian reasons, and, I am, of course, describing Syria. He's a conflicted realist. He's Kissinger with a conscience.

Question: Is Iran likely to be a foreign policy success, or failure, of Mr. Obama's presidency?

Robert Kagan:  At the moment, it looks like it is not going to be a success because I don't think Iran is prepared to make any concessions on its nuclear program. Every time [Iran's reformist President] Hassan Rouhani raises hopes, [Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini] Khamenei quashes them. I think Iran's negotiating position is rather limited and I think the [Obama] administration is limited in what it can offer. It has probably already gone beyond what it can sell to Congress. So we are likely to continue down the track of Iran getting closer to having nuclear weapons capability. Whether that will look like a failure before [Obama] leaves office depends on how quickly Iran moves. I'm prepared to say it's not going to be a success. I'm not prepared to say it will be something that everyone agrees is a failure.

Fareed Zakaria: If I had to bet now, I would bet it will be a failure. I think that's very unfortunate because there was an opportunity to really reshape the landscape of the Middle East with a significant rapprochement with Iran. I think it's unlikely to happen, largely for reasons outside of Obama's control, but I would give him some of the blame for it. Iran is not yet ready to make its peace with the modern world, the West and the United States. To add to that, Obama faces a difficult situation at home. He knows that no matter what deal he brings home the Republicans are going to cry 'treason' and [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu is going to criticize it. So he is constrained over how many concessions [to Tehran] he can make. To succeed, both sides need room to make concessions. In this case, both [Iran's reformist President Hassan] Rouhani and Obama operate under significant [domestic political] constraints.

Question: Two years from now, when Mr. Obama's successor sits down in the Oval Office, what do you foresee will be the gravest foreign policy challenge or crisis facing him?

Robert Kagan: Most presidents leave their successors with unresolved problems and crises. That seems to be the norm. Some of them leave looking good like [Dwight] Eisenhower, who actually left [John F.] Kennedy with all sorts of disasters waiting to happen, and some of them look worse, like [George W.] Bush, even though I thought he had Iraq ultimately under control. To say that Obama will leave headaches for his successor doesn't set him apart. But what we will be facing, undeniably, is continuing violence and turmoil with potential negative affects on the United States and globally from the Middle East. I think we will continue to face the challenge of China. I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of China looking at the American situation and deciding it's time for them to make more progress in achieving their goals in East Asia. And if Iran hasn't got nuclear weapons before Obama leaves office it will be much closer to doing so. The biggest problem that Obama is leaving for his successor is a defence budget that is obviously inadequate for dealing with the multiple problems that we are going to be facing. There's the unanticipated need to bolster our military's position in Europe. There's the unanticipated, at least by Obama, need to re-enter the Middle East with military force. That is going to continue and grow. And then the one thing he did anticipate, which was to bolster our position in East Asia. The biggest challenge for the next president will be to try and reverse those [planned defence spending] cuts.

Fareed Zakaria: At one level that's very simple, the military challenge he will face will be in the Middle East. The greatest challenges every president has faced for the last 25 years have been in the Middle East. People always ask, 'Where's the next place the United States will have to send troops?' That's easy: the Middle East. One scholar has noted that this intervention in Syria is the 14th military intervention in the Middle East since the Marines went to Lebanon [sent by then-president Ronald Reagan in 1982]. But the real challenge is a different one. The real challenge, I think, remains that the United States has to find a way to build and maintain and expand its role in Asia as a pivotal player there. For if the United States wants to be the dominant power of the 21st century, and I think it can be, it has to be the pivotal player in the Pacific. It has to be a Pacific power. In a few years, three of the four largest economies in the world will all be in Asia. And for the United States to play the role of balancer, shaper, agenda-setter, is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, it doesn't produce the kind of crisis that engages a president's time, energy and attention. The real challenge for the next president will be how to get the American political system to make the kinds of sacrifices and initiatives that are necessary for the long run in Asia. This is a foreign policy problem that is not triggered by two televised beheadings that shocked the world but actually has a much deeper, larger and broader consequence for America's standing in the world and, in fact, for global stability.

BIOS

Robert Kagan is an American author and historian. He is a senior fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy1 in the foreign policy2 program at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The World America Made3. Mr. Kagan served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to 1988 and was a principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz in the Reagan administration.

Fareed Zakaria, an author and journalist, hosts CNN's flagship foreign affairs show, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He also writes a column for Time and The Washington Post. Mr. Zakaria's books include The Future of Freedom4 and The Post-American World5. He serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. Born in India to a Muslim family, Mr. Zakaria is a U.S. citizen. He was a trustee of Yale University6 and the Trilateral Commission.

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