Obama’s foreign policy successes and failures. And how Trump might operate.

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Questions:

1. What would you say was, and why, the brightest and the darkest hour of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy?

2. We see how views of POETUS Donald Trump and his nominees views differ in many areas regarding foreign policy. Do you think the new administration may operate like or they will have to find one voice rather quickly?

Answers:

Thomas Scotto, Professor of Government and Politics, University of Strathclyde

1. The darkest hour of Obama’s foreign policy was the Syrian crisis–the White House’s statement that the use chemical weapons by Assad’s forces constituted a “red line” that would spur the world to react will be remembered as a critical blunder. What sounded like a perfectly reasonable statement ended up as a signal as a lack of resolve on the part of the United States to act when the President made a statement.

People will differ by their political affiliation as to whether Obama’s six nation arms control agreement was a success or failure. A notable success came close to home as he ended what many saw as a counterproductive US policy and engaged Cuba–Analyst Lee Hamilton reminded us recently that Obama’s trip to Cuba was accompanied by criticism of Cuba’s human rights record and government that was enunciated to the Cuban people. Progress also was made on climate change, although much of this may be undone by President Elect Trump.

2. It is hard to see the new administration as having stable footing from the get-go. The President Elect’s stance on a number of foreign policy issues seem to change even over the course of a single conversation–witness the condemning and praising of Germany earlier this week. His nominees also have diverse opinions and many do not have high level diplomatic experience–with the president wavering all over the place and a foreign policy establishment deeply skeptical of Trump, it will be hard to the United States to “speak with one voice” early on. Expect uncertainty.

Kurk Dorsey, Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

1. There seem to me to be three big dark spots.  First and most obvious is the whole red line debacle in Syria.  Theodore Roosevelt once wrote “don’t draw unless you mean to shoot.”  He never should have drawn that line.  And of course it’s part of the larger problem of having no real policy for Syria.  Admittedly it’s a very complex problem, but the US did almost nothing to make it better.

The second problem was the inability to cut a deal to leave US troops in Iraq early in his presidency.  It’s hard to know whether things would have been better or if there were any terms satisfactory to the Maliki government under which US forces could have remained in Iraq, but all sort of things went wrong after that (like the rise of ISIS) and maybe some creative diplomacy could have solved the problems.

And the third was the inability to do anything about the Russian incursion into Ukraine.  Sanctions were probably all that could be done short of war, which would have been stupid, but it doesn’t look like Russia has suffered enough for breaking all the rules of the post-1945 world. If anything, Russia has become bolder.

The positives are less clear, because more than anything they’re about style rather than substance. It seems pretty clear that President Obama worked hard to improve the image of the US abroad, most notably with his speech in Cairo.  Small gestures, like improving relations with Cuba, do a lot to undermine the image of the US as a bully with weaker nations.

In the long run, it may be that the biggest positive or biggest negative was the deal with Iran.  If it brings stability and lessens the threat of war, it will be worth all the risk.  If Iran gets a bomb, then it will have been a really bad set of decisions.

2. As to Trump, it’s obvious that he does not have a deep attention span, so my guess is that he’ll allow his nominees to do what they want in most cases.  I expect that it will be somewhat like the Reagan Administration in that there were very deep divisions and much confusion until George Shultz took over as Secretary of State in 1982 and won many battles simply by threatening to resign, which Reagan recognized as a potential disaster.  It might be that Mattis and Tillerson will get along, but I don’t see both of them and Flynn seeing eye-to-eye on much.  So the question will be who gets fired or resigns first.  I doubt that Mattis or Tillerson will back down, so probably Flynn will be the first out the door.  Of course, that assumes that Trump doesn’t put Mattis or Tillerson in an impossible position with a Tweet at 3 AM about some foreign leader.

We have often had competing power centers in making US foreign policy, and even in 2009 Secretary-designate Clinton directly contradicted what President-elect Obama had said about Iran, but this level of disagreement seems unprecedented.

David MislanAssistant Professor, School of International Service, American University

1. I think that the signing of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) was the highlight of President Obama’s two terms. It was a tremendous effort and investment in diplomacy at a time when the world desperately needed to avoid another conflict or nuclear-armed state. Other highlights include the rapprochement with Cuba, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change. There are just as many disappointments, however. Obama’s failure to back up his “red line” threat against Assad’s regime was permanently damaging to America’s reputation abroad. Moreover, the rise of ISIS and the chaos in the Levant more generally will always be associated with Obama’s foreign policy, even though the US played only a contributing role in these developments.

2. I suspect that there will be little coordination between Trump and his cabinet on foreign policy. The question is whether or not this is intentional. If so, it might create an ambiguity that might be useful for US strategic interests in the short term, but catastrophic for global stability in the long term. One thing to note about Tillerson, et al, is that their opinions are likely to change once they take office. They will have better access to intelligence and advice, they will be pressured by the responsibilities of the office and they won’t be trying to please the Senators whose votes they need to be confirmed. I would wait and see how they act during their first crisis before passing judgement.

Jack GoldstoneProfessor of Public Policy, George Mason University

1. Easy to say.  Two brightest hours stand out, both risky and courageous actions that paid off.  First – sending a team to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in his refuge in Pakistan.  This was a high-risk operation that could have been embarrassing if the information proved wrong or execution became public too soon or miscarried.  It was, however, executed with precision and accomplished a goal that had eluded U.S. leadership for years.   Second – completion of a deal to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.  This was also a goal sought by world leaders for years, even decades; it was finally accomplished by Obama’s team in cooperation with other world leaders.  To do this Obama had to overcome doubts in the U.S. and opposition from Israel, incurring political risks; but Obama followed through.

The darkest hour no doubt was in Syria, when Bashar al-Assad was found to have crossed the “red line” Obama had set on using chemical weapons.  Obama found that America’s main allies and the U.S. Congress were unwilling to act decisively to punish Assad for this transgression.  Obama then had to rely on Russia to help broker an agreement which set the stage for Russia to become the dominant party in Syria.  That eventually led to Assad’s survival and mass bombing campaigns, which triggered the refugee crisis that has riled Europe, and to the marginalization of the U.S. in Syria.

2. PEOTUS has elucidated a foreign policy that would be a complete repudiation of U.S. policies over the last thirty years – turning away from Europe, promoting the end of the EU and NATO, putting trust and cooperation with Russia on an equal footing with Europe, and adopting a hostile policy towards China including trade wars and challenging the one-China policy by dealing directly with Taiwan.  At this moment, this is such a huge reversal and shock to established policies that no other U.S. political or military figures can accept them.  Cabinet nominees therefore gave more conventional views in line with traditional U.S. policies.  However, Trump’s spokesman has said that while Cabinet members are expected to have their own views, Trump will make the key decisions and once confirmed and in office Cabinet members will fall into line.    So we should expect that the Trump administration will pursue major changes to past U.S. policies.

 

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