Diptesh Soni is a Commentator for The Student Journals and is studying for an MA at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has had little in the way of a doctrine or grand strategy. Instead, Obama’s foreign policy has reflected his calculated political nature. While some failures are glaring – Guantánamo-- and some initiatives dangerously foreboding – increased drone strikes -- overall he has tactfully managed issues and, in line with historical precedent, has preached lofty ideals while maintaining the national interest above all other priorities.
To his and his administration’s credit, he has strengthened the State Department, namely by increasing the number of Foreign Service Officers and resources available to the USAID (Agency for International Development). He also recently began the strategic “pivot to Asia”, entailing a strengthening of ties in the Asia Pacific region, primarily to keep a watchful eye on a resurgent China. Such a move is naturally accompanied with less emphasis on the Middle East – the War in Iraq is effectively over, while the Afghanistan conflict is winding down.
Obama has also used both petty bickering in Congress, notably the budget deadlock during the summer of 2011, as well as the nation’s financial constraints, to implement long-overdue cuts to defense spending. As a result, the US is applying an approach of “doing more with less”, while simulataneously withdrawing from its role as international police chief, and calling on other allies to bear more of the burden of global security.
This was evident in Libya. The “leading from behind” approach, as one of Obama’s advisors put it, displayed how the US does not have to act unilaterally in an international crisis, and that European nations with strong armed forces can, and should, successfully coordinate their efforts when need be.
Aside from Libya, Obama’s approach to the Arab Spring has been rightly cautious. His administration has been hesitant to use military force but nonetheless have kept it as an option – evident today with Syria – instead opting to diplomatically work with international organizations. The administration’s lack of support for protesters in Bahrain – rich in oil and home of the US’s 7th Fleet -- reflects the fact that when push comes to shove, the national interest will ultimately supercede ideals of civilian freedom abroad.
Bahrain aside, Hillary Clinton’s efforts at “leading through civilian power” have, and will continue to, pay off. As Secretary of State, Clinton has placed a greater emphasis on engaging civilians by placing freedom of expression, particularly through the internet and new media, as a pivotal tenet of US foreign policy. Her promotion of women’s rights is not only a worthy human rights issue; it is crucial to the development of civil society.
These changes have greatly improved America’s image abroad, and indeed the mere fact of a Barack Obama presidency has played a role too. A Nobel Peace Prize-winning African-American President who embraces logic over force is a welcome change to the previous eight years when Americans abroad had to continually explain how they didn’t vote for Bush.
“You may be sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day…”
By calling for a return to the 1967 borders, albeit with mutually agreed land swaps, and making his disaffection towards Israeli PM Netanyahu rather apparent, it is clear that Obama rightly disagrees with the hawkish faction of the pro-Israel, anti-Iranian faction. He should not take all, or even a majority, of the blame for the continual failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process.
The fact that the process has ultimately been failing since its inception is no rationale for blamelessness on Obama’s part. More than anything, it is a natural failure brought on by a fundamental contradiction in American foreign policy at large. So long as support for Israel remains “a bedrock American commitment”, as Sec. of State Clinton puts it, and so long as politicians continue barking threats at Iran while turning the other cheek on new settlements, the US’s claims to be a friend to the Arab world will be forever tainted.
Behind the Shadows
The most significant change during Obama’s tenure is by far the exponential increase in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones. For the administration, the benefits of this new form of warfare are numerous and clear: drones are cheaper, since they require less troops on the ground, which in turn means less casualties and less opprobrium from the American public while simultaneously taking advantage of the US’s technological edge.
Less troops on the ground and a reduction in military spending is nothing to sneer at. Drone strikes and targeted killings, like those which killed Osama bin Laden, have been very effective in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban. What is more troubling is the insidious way in which Obama has been increasing the clandestine nature of such warfare, particularly by giving the CIA more and more power over strikes.
Drones have not eradicated Islamist militants. Instead, it has forced many of them to move, especially to the Horn of Africa, with the CIA in tow. Strikes are now frequent in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and despite civilian casualties, intergovernmental tensions, and a host of other problems, the program is likely to continue expanding.
That President Obama does not have a concrete foreign policy strategy is not a valid criticism in itself. As recent history has shown, attempting to cope with a complex world according to a simplified “doctrine” can have dire consequences. Obama has had to temper his grander, idealistic goals with the realism of the situations at hand. For the most part, he has done well, but there is room for improvement.
His campaign pledge to close Guantánamo Bay prison – an ugly stain on the American conscience -- has fallen by the wayside, and despite the political difficulties of a closure he should do so on principle alone. He should also reassess the drone program, particularly by checking the power of the CIA and scaling down the scope of operations in the Horn of Africa. Such moves would perhaps allow him to earn that Peace Prize after all.