Patient Diplomacy And A Reluctance To Act: Obama's Mark On Foreign Policy

Sep 20, 2016
Originally published on September 20, 2016 5:50 pm

For nearly eight years, President Obama has been putting his stamp on U.S. foreign policy both by what he's done and by what he chosen not to do.

His legacy includes achievements like the international climate agreement.

It also includes festering problems like the Syrian civil war.

Obama is summing up that legacy himself Tuesday, as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly for what's likely to be the last time as president.

There are crises aplenty as Obama nears the end of his time in office, from the ongoing terrorist threat posed by ISIS to nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea. But supporters say the U.S. is better positioned to deal with those challenges thanks to Obama's patient diplomacy throughout his time in office.

"I contend that by almost every measurement, we are better off today than we were eight years ago," said Derek Chollet who served at the State Department and the Pentagon under Obama. "That's not to discount the turmoil in the world. The question is what can the US do about it?"

Chollet contends the U.S. has done a lot under Obama, such as brokering the Iran nuclear deal, combating the Ebola virus in West Africa, and restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba.

But Obama's legacy is also defined by areas where he's resisted action such as Syria, where he initially refused to arm rebels battling President Bashar Assad, and where backed down from his threat to retaliate for Assad's use of chemical weapons.

"He is willing to buck the trend," said Chollet, who is now a security and defense adviser at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington think-tank. "And that's of course what successful presidents have to do."

Obama has used drone strikes and special forces aggressively to target suspected terrorists overseas, but he's been wary of large-scale military involvement. That's partly a reaction to what he sees as mistakes by the George W. Bush administration. But critics complain that Obama has over-learned that lesson.

"I think the president viewed his mandate as getting us out of Iraq and getting us out of Afghanistan and not getting us into any more wars," said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "What we have seen is if you get out too fast, that creates a void which contributed to the rise of ISIS. If you don't get in, we have seen some others who have opportunistically gotten involved and made the situation worse."

Conservative opponents like former Vice President Dick Cheney go further, saying Obama's reluctance to engage militarily against adversaries like Assad has emboldened other leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"We've got the Chinese on the march in southeast Asia. We've got Russia on the march in Europe. We've got ISIS and the caliphate established now in the Middle East," Cheney said last year on CNN. "We think the threats against the United States are as great as at any time since World War II."

Obama's defenders are not persuaded that a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria would have made the situation there any better. But it would have sapped energy from other elements of Obama's agenda.

"What the president has done is he's refused to allow his presidency to be dragged into the quicksand of the Middle East," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, in an interview with the Axe Files podcast. "And in so doing he's found enormous opportunities that are going to transform the standing of the U.S. in the world."

Supporters point to the Paris climate agreement, which Obama spearheaded in partnership with China's Xi, as an example of America's leadership in a non-military arena. They also say the administration's diplomatic opening to Cuba has paved the way for improved relations throughout the western hemisphere.

One of the president's most significant foreign policy moves has been the effort to raise America's profile in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. But a central piece of that effort — a giant, 12-nation trade deal — could be jeopardized by political opposition here at home. Obama and some of his Asian counterparts have warned that if Congress fails to pass the trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, U.S. credibility in the region would suffer a serious blow.

"The reason I'm pushing this so hard is because I know and other countries know and China knows that if we get this done, advantage America," Obama told reporters at the White House last week. "And if we don't, then we're going to be disadvantaged for a long time to come."

Because many of the president's foreign policy initiatives are crafted with an eye towards the long term, they don't necessarily lend themselves to score-keeping at a convenient eight-year interval. The fruits of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, won't be known until well after Obama has left office. But supporters argue that historians will view this president more favorably than many foreign policy observers do today.

"Often it takes historical hindsight to appreciate the avoidance of mistakes," said Chollet, the former administration official. "President Obama certainly has made some mistakes. But I think he's avoided a lot."

Even as he's tried to focus on the long-term though, Obama has repeatedly been tripped up by crises of the moment. And some, like the Syrian Civil War now in its sixth year, turn out to have lasting consequences of their own.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the attacks on New York took place just before the annual meeting of the United Nations there. And today, the assembled world leaders hear from their host. President Obama has defined U.S. foreign policy for almost eight years now, both by what he's done and what he chose not to do. His legacy ranges from an international climate deal to the Syrian civil war. Now, Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly one more time. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Aides say President Obama has used his annual meetings at the General Assembly to deal with international crises of the moment and to pursue an agenda for U.S. engagement with the rest of the world. There are crises aplenty this year, including the ongoing terror threat posed by ISIS and nuclear saber-rattling from North Korea. But Derek Chollet, who served under Obama at both the State Department and the Pentagon, argues the U.S. is better positioned to deal with such challenges thanks to Obama's patient engagement throughout his time in office.

DEREK CHOLLET: I contend that by almost every measurement we are better off today than we were eight years ago. That's not to discount the turmoil in the world. But the question is what the U.S. can do about it.

HORSLEY: Chollet argues the U.S. has done a lot under Obama, such as brokering the Iran nuclear deal, combating the Ebola virus in West Africa and restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba. But Obama's legacy is also defined by areas where he's resisted action. The president famously summarizes his cautious approach as don't do stupid stuff and Chollet, who's now defense and security adviser at The German Marshall Fund think tank, says that takes discipline when even some of the president's own advisers are clamoring for more action.

CHOLLET: He is willing to buck the trend - what sometimes passes for the conventional wisdom - in service of what a long-term strategy is, and that's of course what successful presidents have to do.

HORSLEY: The most glaring example is Syria where Obama initially resisted calls to arm the rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad and later backed down from his own threat to retaliate for Assad's use of chemical weapons. Obama has used drone strikes and special forces aggressively to target suspected terrorist overseas, including Osama bin Laden. But he's been wary of large scale military involvement. That's partly a reaction to what he sees as the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration. But editor David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy magazine worries Obama has over learned that lesson.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: I think the president viewed his mandate as getting us out of Iraq and getting us out of Afghanistan and not getting us into any more wars. What we have seen is if you get out too fast, that creates a void, which contributed to the rise of ISIS. If you don't get in, we have seen some others who have opportunistically gotten involved and made the situation worse.

HORSLEY: Conservative critics go further, saying Obama's reluctance to engage militarily against adversaries like Assad has emboldened other leaders, like Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. Here's former Vice President Dick Cheney speaking last year on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK CHENEY: We got the Chinese on the march in Southeast Asia. We've got Russia on the march in Europe. We've got ISIS and the caliphate established now in the Middle East. We think the threats against the United States are as great as any time since the end of World War II.

HORSLEY: Obama's defenders are not persuaded that a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria would have made the situation there any better. What it would have done, they argue, is sap the energy from every other piece of the president's foreign policy agenda. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made that case on "The Axe File" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE AXE FILES")

BEN RHODES: What the president has done is he has refused to allow his presidency to be dragged into the quicksand of the Middle East. And in doing so, he's found enormous opportunities that are going to transform the standing of the United States in the world.

HORSLEY: Supporters point to the Paris climate agreement, which Obama spearheaded in partnership with China's Xi. And they say the administration's diplomatic opening to Cuba has paved the way for improved relations throughout the Western Hemisphere. One of the president's top foreign policy priorities has been the effort to raise America's profile in the fast-growing Asia Pacific region. But a central piece of that effort, a 12-nation trade deal, could be jeopardized by political opposition here at home. The White House warns if Congress fails to pass the trade deal, U.S. credibility in Asia would suffer a serious blow. Obama told reporters last week, he's not giving up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reason that I'm pushing this so hard is because I know and other countries know and China know that if we get this done, advantage America. And if we don't, then we're going to be disadvantaged for a long time to come.

HORSLEY: Because much of the president's foreign policy is crafted with an eye on the long term, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to scorekeeping at a convenient eight-year interval. But Chollet, the former administration official, thinks historians will view this president more favorably than many foreign policy observers do today.

CHOLLET: Often it takes historical hindsight to appreciate the avoidance of mistakes. And, you know, President Obama certainly has made some mistakes, but I think he's avoided a lot.

HORSLEY: Even as he's tried to focus on the long term, though, Obama's been repeatedly tripped up by crises of the moment. And some, like the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, turn out to have lasting consequences of their own. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.