Obama’s Real Foreign Policy Legacy

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary Magazine

October 16, 2015

Throughout most of the last year, we’ve heard a great deal about President Obama’s foreign policy legacy. The vicious, partisan brawl waged by the administration for the Iran nuclear deal was motivated in large measure by the notion that Democrats were fighting for more than a pact that gave international sanction to Iran’s nuclear program. They were really working to save what the president saw as the crowning achievement of his presidency with regard to foreign policy. The president wasn’t merely defending an effort that would supposedly prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon he was initiating a new era of diplomacy that put to rest a conflict with Iran that stretched back to the 1970s. That it will almost certainly do no such thing is beside the point. Obama believes it to be so. Though he tells us that if it fails it be his name on the policy, he will exit the White House claiming that he has truly changed the world, even if the change is for the worse.

But an Iran deal that will go very sour sooner or later isn’t the sum total of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Yesterday’s announcement that the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan would be slowed to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in the country through the end of his term in office is another watershed moment that illustrates just how much a mirage the expectations of a “hope and change” presidency turned out to be. The president’s vision of an America that could safely withdraw from the Middle East and end an era of wars was nothing more than an exercise in wishful thinking.

As our Max Boot wrote on Thursday, the president’s decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq were motivated more by his misguided political strategy than any interest in winning either war. Indeed, President Obama doesn’t believe in the concept of military victory. Obama’s precipitate withdrawal from Iraq threw away the victory that had been won by President Bush in his last years in office and saw it replaced by the rise of ISIS and chaos. In Afghanistan, the president has maintained just enough of an American presence to stave off disaster. His latest move will ensure that there is no humiliating defeat of American allies by the Taliban while he is in the White House, but the fate of the conflict beyond that point will be in the hands of his successor.

But that just illustrates how completely false Obama’s self-image as the “peacemaker” president has been. As Michael Crowley noted in Politico, the president successfully campaigned for re-election as the man who ended America’s Middle East wars and retroactively earned the Nobel Peace Prize he received in his first year in office. Wars end when both sides stop fighting, not just the United States. Despite all the grand rhetoric, all the president has accomplished is to help create a power vacuum into which dangerous forces such as his Iranian negotiating partners, ISIS, and now Russia have stepped in to fill.

The conceit of American foreign policy for the last seven years has been the notion that Obama’s faith in outreach to Islamists, his dedication to multilateral diplomacy, and his aversion to conflict would transform America’s image in the world and leave it a better place. But that has turned out to be only partially true. Obama may claim that Iran or Russia are acting out of weakness, and that ISIS is merely the JV of terrorism, but the rest of the world knows better. Though George W. Bush made some big mistakes (though he kept America safe in the years after 9/11) and was reviled in some quarters, his America was not thought of as weak. Unfortunately, the catastrophe in Syria and Iraq is just the first indication of what happens when America is not only perceived as a paper tiger but actually acts out of weakness. We can only guess at what new horrors will arise as that situation unravels but the rise of a newly strengthened post-nuclear deal Iran will only worsen the situation for American allies in the coming years.

Nor can we leave the Israel-Palestinian conflict out of the discussion of his legacy. The president was sure that the resolution of that century-old war could only be achieved by creating more daylight between the United States and Israel and he was unceasing in his efforts to create more of it. But far from encouraging the Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution or pushing the Israelis to take new risks for peace, all he accomplished there was to encourage the Palestinian leadership to be even more resolute in their refusal to make peace since they believed America no longer had the back of the Jewish state. Indeed, in just the last week, the administration’s reflexive even-handed approach has caused it to equate the fate of Israeli victims of terror with that of slain terrorists. Can it be any surprise that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has become the leading inciter of terror while enjoying the enthusiastic support from Obama as a champion of peace. The president inherited a stalemated peace process. But on his watch, he did what many thought was impossible in 2008 since the conflict has actually worsened and peace is even more unlikely that it was then.

The true Obama legacy abroad has nothing to do with the peace that he craved to make between Israelis and Palestinians or in the wars that he believed himself to be ending. The aftermath of his presidency will be one in which American power and prestige fall to its lowest point since Jimmy Carter. U.S. allies are isolated and weakened while its foes such as Iran and Russia are embarked on the sort of adventurism not seen since the 1970s. But the president is right about one thing. He has changed the world. Just not in the way he or his adoring fans ever dreamed it would happen.