From the Middle East to Russia to Asia, President Obama’s foreign policy has left the U.S. in a weaker position than when he took office, analysts say.
As Mr. Obama prepares to depart the White House, U.S. relations with traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have frayed badly, Moscow is exerting its power increasingly in Syria and in Eastern Europe, and even the U.S. relationship with Western Europe has been called into question. On his watch, U.S. influence has diminished in all of those regions.
“I can’t really think of any concrete success that President Obama’s had in terms of foreign policy,” said Nile Gardiner, a foreign affairs analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You can point to an overall weakening of American power on the world stage and an eroding of key alliances.”
When he came into office, Mr. Obama was faced with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a total of about 180,000 troops deployed. He also was dealing with a global financial crisis and recession that caused the U.S. unemployment rate to rise to 10 percent during the first year of his presidency.
“The president came into office eight years ago with the view of being principally a domestic president, with the financial crisis looming, and to be transformative,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The administration felt that his victory and the fact that he was not President [George W.] Bush would be sufficient in transforming the trans-Atlantic relationship and relations with Europe.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said among Mr. Obama’s biggest achievements in foreign affairs were bringing home all but about 15,000 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, ordering the Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 and re-establishing diplomatic and cultural ties with Cuba in 2014.
“That is an indication of the important progress that President Obama has made,” he said.
But the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in late 2011, critics argue, created a power vacuum that led to the rise of the Islamic State, the Salafist terrorist group that has launched horrific attacks against the West and has dominated the administration’s counterterrorism operations since 2014.
Meanwhile, Libya descended into extremist anarchy after the U.S. helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, with the Islamic State gaining a foothold there.
“President Obama’s approach was extraordinarily naive in the Middle East,” said Mr. Gardiner, a former aide to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “He also failed to combine his optimism with any hard power. That really enabled a number of very dangerous actors to emerge and to threaten directly the United States and its allies. It isn’t very clear that the Obama White House has any real strategy for eradicating ISIS. It’s a containment strategy; it’s not one of victory.”
In a final address to military brass and troops last week, Mr. Obama insisted that his strategy against the terrorist network is succeeding.
“We are breaking the back of ISIL and taking away its safe havens, and we’ve accomplished this at a cost of $10 billion over two years — the same amount that we spent in one month at the height of the Iraq War,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State.
Mr. Obama rested much of his strategy for the broader Middle East on reaching the deal with Iran in 2015 to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
“When President Obama took office, the No. 1 threat that was identified by the United States and our allies around the world was the risk that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Earnest said. “That would be extraordinarily destabilizing to not just the Middle East, but to the world. It would be extraordinarily concerning to our closest ally, Israel. And it would pose a threat to our allies in Europe that are within range of some of Iran’s missile capabilities.”
He said the administration’s “principled, hard-nosed diplomacy” has ensured that Iran is “now farther away from being able to get a nuclear weapon than they have been in some time.”
“All of that was accomplished without deploying a single soldier or firing a single shot,” Mr. Earnest said. “And that certainly is a testament to the president’s success in addressing some of the most significant threats facing the United States.”
Reset with Russia
The president’s critics at home and in Israel contend the deal gave too much to Tehran and won’t prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Mr. Gardiner called it one of Mr. Obama’s biggest strategic failures.
“The Iran nuclear deal will go down in history as a massive failure and a very dangerous, poorly thought-out move,” he said. “This deal is very short-sighted and will certainly allow Iran to [get a nuclear weapon] within this generation.”
Mr. Obama’s relations with Israel, never strong, reached a low point last month when the administration failed to veto a vote by the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Russia has confounded Mr. Obama almost since the start of his presidency. The infamous Russian “reset” of his first term is little more than a mocked memory, as the U.S. has been unable to reverse Russian military gains in eastern Ukraine or to thwart Russia’s decisive support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s 6-year-old civil war.
“The reset was a real foreign policy disaster and a complete misreading of [President] Vladimir Putin, and an underestimation of the scale of the threat posed by Russia,” Mr. Gardiner said. “Moscow ran rings around the Obama White House.”
Ms. Conley said Mr. Obama did receive cooperation from Moscow initially in several key policy areas, working with Russia and other world powers to negotiate the Iranian nuclear deal, cooperating on counternarcotics and military supply lines in Afghanistan, and negotiating the New START agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. But the relationship began to sour by 2011, as Mr. Putin confronted large public demonstrations and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Moscow of rigging parliamentary elections.
Mrs. Clinton’s actions so infuriated Mr. Putin that, U.S. intelligence agencies say, the Russian leader ordered a cybercampaign to undermine her presidential candidacy last year.
The problems with Mr. Putin culminated last month when Mr. Obama expelled 35 Russian operatives from the U.S. over the campaign of extensive cyberattacks in an effort to influence the November presidential election. While President-elect Donald Trump has questioned the administration’s conclusions, he and congressional Republicans have blamed Mr. Obama for failing to take seriously enough the overall threat of cyberattacks.
Even after highly embarrassing hacks of sensitive government personnel records in recent years, Mr. Obama said Sunday that he wasn’t paying enough attention to the threat from Russia.
“I don’t think I underestimated [Mr. Putin], but I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation for cyberhacking and so forth to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating,” Mr. Obama told ABC’s “This Week.”
Mr. Trump and other Republicans have accused the administration of trying to undermine his victory with claims of Russian meddling. The president rejected that accusation, saying he ordered a review of the cyberattacks to better guard against Mr. Putin’s hacking in the future.
European debt and migration
The president’s deteriorating relationship with Mr. Putin has followed a predictable pattern in relations between Moscow and Washington, Ms. Conley said.
“Almost every U.S. president comes into office thinking that they personally can overcome profound challenges of the U.S.-Soviet, U.S.-Russian relationship,” she said. “They get about two years into it, and then they run into the same roadblocks. We have very different values and very different interests.”
In Asia, Mr. Obama tried to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy chiefly through a 12-nation free trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, hoping to use it as a counterweight to China’s influence. But Congress has not ratified the pact, and Mr. Trump has panned it as a bad deal for American workers.
Mr. Earnest said the blame rests with Congress, where virtually all Democrats joined some Republicans to kill the agreement.
“The president is disappointed that Congress didn’t act to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said. “That certainly had the potential to strengthen our security and economic relationships throughout the Asia-Pacific. That was a missed opportunity, but I don’t think that’s one that you can pin on the president of the United States, because he did the hard work of negotiating the kind of an agreement that would have advanced our interests. It didn’t move forward because of Congress’ failure to act.”
In Europe, Mr. Obama seems to have miscalculated the impact of the debt and migration crises on allies from Britain to Italy. He personally lobbied British voters last spring to remain in the European Union, a bid that failed spectacularly.
“It was a bold and risky move, because I think the average American would not appreciate a British prime minister spending three days saying what they should do,” Ms. Conley said.
With the approach of the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II, she said, “Now we are understanding how fragile the European project is.”
“All of that has come into question. Europe itself has come into question,” she said.
These international developments present “huge challenges for the new administration,” Mr. Gardiner said.
“It has to clear up a lot of the mess that has been left by the Obama presidency, especially in the Middle East,” he said. “It also has to deal with a greatly strengthened Russia that is increasingly assertive and menacing.”