A Look Back at Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

A look back at the pivot to Asia, the reset with Russia, Obama’s deal with Iran and the war in Libya.

Xi Jinping Barack Obama
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States speak at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

Barack Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication.

The feeling was that the United States had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China.

The economic failure was seen as being confirmed by the financial crisis that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers a month or so before the election.

The foreign policy failure was seen as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed one day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Even during the presidential lame-duck period leading up to Obama’s inauguration, a number of politically or symbolically negative global events occured, including the throwing of a shoe at Bush in Iraq, the 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas War in Gaza and the Mumbai attacks in India.

Good and bad war

Obama ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008 as an upstart candidate in the Democratic primary. He attacked her where she was least popular, which in foreign policy was her support for invading Iraq while in the Senate in 2002.

The primary was a close one: Obama won 53 percent of the delegates but actually lost the popular vote as well as the largest state of California.

As such — though it is always hard to untangle political strategy from principled belief — it does not seem far fetched to imagine that Obama’s campaign policy of Afghanistan being “the good war” and Iraq “the bad war” was, at least in part, devised in order to exploit Clinton’s Iraq weakness without appearing to be dovish or isolationist.

We do know Obama was not above abandoning his own principles for the sake of victory; he publicly opposed gay marriage until mid-2012, for example, when for intellectual and dispositional reasons it was obvious he was privately in support of it even at the time.


Upon coming into office, Obama formed three main foreign policy positions.

One was the “pivot” to Asia, which included both the reprioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq as well as the rhetorical move to acknowledge the twenty-first century as “America’s Pacific Century” (which became the title of a widely heralded article in Foreign Policy written by Secretary of State Clinton).

While both the withdrawal from Iraq and the public assumption of a rising Asia preceded Obama’s arrival in office, he was a natural fit to promote such policies given that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (as 42 percent of the Democratic politicians in Congress had done in 2002; Obama did not enter the Senate until 2005, so he did not vote on the issue) and also that he had personal experience in the Pacific, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended college in Los Angeles.

While Obama’s pivot to Asia was mainly rhetorical — it had to be, since the American military never left Asia in the first place and so could not truly pivot back to a region it was already in — he and Clinton did begin healing American relations with a very important Asian country, Burma, a diplomatic feat similar to the one Obama would repeat in his second term with both Cuba and Iran.


Another policy was the “reset” with Russia, which — as with the later reset with Iran — centered around nuclear deproliferation but was intended as a broader political reconciliation between countries.

Obama was attacked heavily by Mitt Romney and Republicans in the 2012 election for having carried out this reset, to which he and the Democrats successfully responded by ridiculing the Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War”. This now appears tragically ironic, given how the 2016 election campaigns turned out. But Obama’s reset with Russia was quite rational.

America needed Russia in order to effectively carry out the surge of American troops into Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014. Russia retains, among other things, a substantial amount of political influence within countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which neighbor Afghanistan — and an estimated 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is either ethno-linguistically Tajik or ethno-linguistically Uzbek.

The fickle American media was also enormously more concerned with China than it was with Russia at the time, since China’s economy had not yet appeared to slow down and since Russia had not yet formally annexed Crimea or involved itself forcefully in other areas of Ukraine or in Syria.

Moreover, Obama’s reset with Russia eventually contained a big caveat: the doubling-down of America’s growing military relationships with East European countries like Poland and Romania.

Today, with with American-Russian tensions having risen tremendously and with the European Union no longer seeming like a potentially potent force, these relationships seem crucial and continue to grow. At the time, they were meant to reassure countries like Poland that they were not being abandoned in the reset and at the same time to return the favor those countries had provided when they sent lots of soldiers (relative to the size of their populations and economies and relative to countries in continental Western Europe) to fight alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, this move included Obama planning missile defense system components in Poland, Romania and Turkey. This occured a few years after Obama initially canceled Bush-era plans for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Russia canceling missile plans in Kaliningrad.

The Russians objected loudly to any missile defense program, since they did not want to see the American military presence in Eastern Europe grow. Obama responded that the Russians were being paranoid and that the defense systems were in fact intended only to block future Iranian missile capabilities.

This was a ridiculous claim, given that most of the countries involved in the plan surrounded Russia. But the American media mostly ate it up, either because they did not bother to look at a map or because conservatives preferred to attack Obama as too weak on Russia rather than too strong on Russia. Or because many liberals did not want to question Obama in general.

While the systems would not be able to block the Russian missile arsenal if it ever came to war, they were an important symbolic gesture and another step in the growing American military alliance with states like Poland.

When Obama had earlier, in 2009, backed down on the missile defense issue — announcing, on the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939 — the cancelation of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, and later being caught on a hot mic in 2012 saying to Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on the issue once reelected, Romney attacked Obama sharply for doing so. But Romney’s campaign was ridiculed for mistakingly using the name Czechoslovakia, taken as a another proof of his being trapped archaically in the Cold War. Romney was especially reproached, even by Republican congressional leader John Boehner, for declaring Russia to be “America’s number one geopolitical foe”. (That Romney might now become Donald Trump’s secretary of state boggles the brain.) And while Obama may have reset with Russia early on, he has definitively broken with it since.


The third major policy early in Obama’s first term was an attempt at reconciliation with the Muslim world, and particularly with the Arab world, intended to reverse the negative feelings that had grown there — and that liberals in the West had perceived to have grown there — during the Bush years.

Obama was the right man for this job, given his moderate and liberal personality as well as his personal experiences in Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his grandfather’s conversion to (Shiite) Islam and his family in Kenya, a partially Muslim country.

Obama went to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt during parts of his first and second overseas trips as president and gave one of his most famous speeches, “A New Beginning,” in Cairo, the largest Arab city, at an event co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. Obama’s first-ever presidential television interview was with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news channel.

This “apology tour”, as Obama-bashers call it, earned him the ire of Republicans for not having stopped in Israel while in the region (though he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after making the Cairo speech).

It also helped racist or extreme rightwingers in their attempt to portray Obama as a hidden Muslim, quasi-Muslim or, in the case of those like the shameless, shameful Donald Trump, as possibly foreign-born and therefore not a legitimate president. (This was especially shameful given that the man Obama had beaten to become president, John McCain, was actually not born in an American state but rather in Panama’s Canal Zone.)

Incidentally, Shiite Muslims have a centuries-long history of publicly pretending not to be Shiite for fear of being persecuted by the majority Sunnis. This, combined with Obama’s family background, has now led some in the Arab world to accuse Obama of being a secret Shiite with an agenda to allow Shiite Iran to emerge victorious over Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

Of course, Obama’s outreach to the Arab public was put to the test two years later in the Arab Spring, which also centred in Cairo.

Predictably for an American president, Obama chose more or less to stand by America’s main allies in the Arab world: the Egyptian military and the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula. Obama only abandoned Hosni Mubarak (a former general) during the middle of the eighteen-day protest in Tahrir Square, earlier only suggesting that Mubarak not run for reelection following the end of the term he was serving as Egypt’s president at the time.

In the years since, Obama has not pushed back much against Abdul Fatah Sisi, who threw out the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in a military coup and has since declared the Brotherhood to be an illegal terrorist group. (The Sisi government also had support from the political parties which got the most votes in elections apart from the Brotherhood, namely the Saudi-backed religious Nour bloc.)

Similarly, Obama did not limit the Saudis from sending troops to break up Arab Spring protests in neighboring Bahrain, a Shiite-majority state ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Maintaining the power of Bahrain’s royal family was a key issue for the Saudis, as Bahrain is connected by a road to Saudi Arabia’s remote, vast, sparsely populated and Shiite-majority Eastern Province, where most Saudi oil is located.

Given that his support for Arabian kings and Egyptian generals was in some ways arguably an abandonment of the “Arab street”, which Obama had previously supported rhetorically and which the Western media was going gaga over during its coverage of the Arab Spring, Obama’s war in Libya showed that he was still not entirely pro-dictator in the Arab world. (This is not to say that Obama waged the war for cynical political reasons.)

War in Libya

The case for the Libya war was fairly straightforward: Muammar Gaddafi was an aging tyrant who had ruled for four decades, his impending death or incapacitation due to old age would have risked a war anyway given the enormously divided nature of Libyan geopolitics and any spillover from a war in Libya was unlikely to be too large given that Libya only has six million inhabitants and is surrounded by the Sahara.

Thus, eventually, we arrive at the events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.

Benghazi is the largest city within a vast radius of itself, especially to the south. It was the city that was initially the center of the anti-Gaddafi movement — the very city Obama had been aiming to protect from a massacre of Arab Spring protesters when he ordered the American military intervention in Libya.

Of course, the Democrats are correct when they say that Republicans shamelessly used Benghazi in order to try to tar the reputation of Hillary Clinton in order to win the White House in 2016. (If Trump boomerangs on the Republican Party at some point, they might finally get what they deserve for this.)

Republican cynicism notwithstanding, however, supporters of Obama have arguably misunderstood the Benghazi affair. It is now seen entirely, or almost entirely, as an anti-Clinton or anti-Obama stunt. To understand why this may be an incorrect view, it is important to recall how the war in Libya was interpreted between Gaddafi’s death in 2011 and the Benghazi attack ten and a half months later; a period that overlapped with most of the Obama-Romney presidential race and immediately followed Osama bin Laden’s death.

The Libya war was, at the time, seen as an enormous success by both the center-left and the center-right. The center-right liked the war because the center-right is hawkish. The center-left liked the war because it was portrayed as a counter-argument to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq they so despised: Libya did not become a quagmire involving American ground troops; it was fought by a coalition that included European and Middle Eastern countries which had refused to be involved militarily in Iraq; it did not involve misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction (Gaddafi had already given Libya’s WMD program up in 2003, following the American invasion of Iraq); and it was part of a broader anti-tyranny movement, the Arab Spring.

With Bin Laden too having just been killed — another feat Bush failed to achieve — Obama seemed to be moving from strength to strength. As Biden put it in the campaign: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” As Clinton put it (regarding Gaddafi): “We came, we saw, he died.”

Wars almost always boost a president’s popularity in the short term. Given that the American economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and thus ready to vote for change (which they did eventually, with Trump), and given that the Republicans had controlled Congress since 2010 and so could and did block most of Obama’s non-military initiatives, having Libya be seen as a quagmire-free foreign policy success was a boon for Obama.

Though Obama went on to crush Romney in the Electoral College, his victory was in fact not a large one. Ohio, Virginia and especially Florida were extremely close. Obama received just 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide and the Democratic Party did not succeed in winning back control of the Senate or the House.

Not long after Gaddafi was killed, the media largely stopped paying attention to Libya. The Republicans began to pin more of their hopes on portraying the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as having been destabilizing and a sign of Democratic weakness.

However, the Benghazi attack, just 25 days before the election, risked showing the American public that Obama’s war in Libya — along with the various other conflicts in the Arab or Muslim world, including Iraq — was going to be somewhat messier than it had been portrayed as. This was an “October Surprise” that terrified the Democrats, since Obama was ahead in the polls.

Obama and the Democrats, it appears (though it is difficult to be sure), tried to obscure the Libya issue by exploiting the fact that the media was at the time spending most of its attention obsessing over an offensive, low-quality movie posted on Youtube, called The Innocence of Muslims. The claim was that the video had outraged Muslims and thus spontaneously caused protests that in turn caused the Benghazi attack — a somewhat ludicrous claim (though plausible and maybe even accurate) given that the attack was relatively sophisticated and, more importantly, that the attack was carried out on the anniversary of 9/11 and came in the wake of months of small attacks and attempted attacks on American and Western targets in Benghazi and in post-Gaddafi Libya in general.

The Obama Administration was later forced to walk this claim back and Susan Rice was forced to give up her bid for secretary of state because of the claim, at least ostensibly, because the Republicans would not let the issue drop.

However, that same Republican relentlessness arguably ended up backfiring, since most people saw that the Republicans were mainly concerned with exploiting a tragic event in order to tarnish Obama and Clinton.

(The Republicans also purposefully confused the issue because of the unpopularity of their own hawkish political ideology. The Republican stance on Libya had, in general, not been that entering Libya was a mistake, but rather that it was not forceful enough: They argued that Obama should not have “led from behind” the British, French and Italians, and that the United States should have committed more Special Forces.)

Red line

Moving on to Syria and specifically to Obama’s “red line”: It is difficult to know whether or not the United States should have intervened more forcefully in Syria. It is also difficult to know how much truth there is to Obama’s claim that he extracted significant concessions from Bashar Assad as a result of bluffing during the red line affair.

What we do know, though, is that in spite of the fact that most Republican supporters and even many Democrats claim that Obama was either weak for not following through on the bluff or stupid for bluffing in the first place, it is not at all clear that bluffing in matters of war is stupid or that failing to follow through on a bluff in the event that it is called — even despite the risk of losing credibility as a result — is a weak thing to do. Thus while Syria remains an immense tragedy and Obama’s role in it is open to debate, the certainty with which many claim that Syria will be remembered as Obama’s top mistake appears to be unfounded.

The Iran deal

Finally, let’s talk about Obama’s position regarding Iran, which, in the long term, will possibly be considered his most significant legacy in foreign policy, the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s reacquaintance with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or even of Richard Nixon’s reacquaintance with Maoist China.

The Obama stance on Iran has often been misunderstood in at least one of the following three ways.

One, that it is primarily about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is not (though this is of course not to say that nukes are not a very real issue).

Two, that Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were at odds over America’s stance on Iran. They were not (though this is not to say that relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been hunky-dory or that Israel is not rightfully wary about the improving American-Iranian relationship and Iranian weaponry).

Three, that Obama’s policy came from a place of dovishness. In fact, it came just as much from a place of hawkishness: Iran is in some respects a crucial potential American ally.

The conflict between America and Iran began to heat up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This was because both invasions had created overlapping spheres of influence between US soldiers and Iranian proxies and because both invasions had strengthened Iran’s regional influence. Iran had been enemies of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Saddam’s regime had been led by part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority whereas most of the rest of Iraq are Shiites like the Iranians or else Sunni Kurds (and Kurds are ethno-linguistically closer to Persians than to Arabs).

Iran had fought a war against Iraq in the 1980s in which millions of its citizens were killed; the Iranians are now interfering in Iraq in order to ensure this never happens again.

The Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are predominantly composed of Sunni Pashto speakers, yet Afghanistan also has a sizeable minority of Shiite Muslims and is more than a quarter Tajik (and Tajik is mutually intelligible with Persian). Iran had threatened to go war with the Taliban in 1998, following the group’s killing of Iranian diplomats. Apart from Pakistan, Iran is the crucial Muslim neighbor of Afghanistan. Iran’s border with Afghanistan is half as long as the enormous US-Mexican border and even harder to build a wall across.

With Saddam’s Ba’athists and the Taliban out of power in cities like Baghdad and Kandahar, the Iranians were free to spread their political wings within the region, especially once the United States left Iraq.

To clip these wings, the United States enforced sanctions on Iran and played good-cop bad-cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out strikes against Iranian military and infrastructural targets. At one point, around 2010-2013, it was commonly expected that Israel and/or America would attack Iran imminently.

This good-cop bad-cop role also served both Obama and Netanyahu quite well in their own respective domestic politics. Obama did not anger his base by appearing to be a warmonger while Netanyahu was able to portray himself as bravely standing up to both the White House and the mullahs in Iran in an attempt to ensure security for the Israeli public at any cost.

Indeed, Israeli-Iranian tensions were declining even before Netanyahu’s famous speechs in New York or, later, in Washington. Hamas’ relationship with Iran weakened as a result of Iran’s backing of Assad (Hamas’ leadership moved out of Syria in 2012, to Qatar, the only Gulf Arab monarchy that is supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood). Iran’s proxy Hezbollah also became too distracted with helping to prop up Assad in Syria to focus on Israel as it had in its war with Israel in 2006.

Moreover, around this same period, Israel’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated sharply as a result of the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010 and later because Turkey was angered by the coup against Mohamed Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the Hamas movement was originally sprung.

The Iran-Hamas breach over Assad, Hezbollah’s distraction and Israel’s growing wariness of Turkey brought a thaw between Iran and Israel.

But politics is politics. For now, both countries remain boogeymen in the eyes of one another’s medias.

Many, similarly, believe Obama and Netanyahu to be hated rivals or at least frenemies, when it is not at all clear that their opinions of one another are really so low as they are portrayed. Those who watch NBA basketball (as Obama does) would be familiar with the “hold me back” strategy Obama and Netanyahu arguably used against Iran in the years leading up to the signing of the American-Iranian deal on nuclear and sanctions reductions. The real breach between Israel and the United States, if indeed there is to be one in the years ahead, is likelier to occur over issues like Palestine or even Pakistan (where the larger nuclear threat to Israel is located, arguably) than Iran, given Iran has a number of important shared interests with both Israel and the US.

The Obama rapprochment with Iran occured as a result of the fact that Iranian influence was curtailed by the Arab Spring, with the Saudis quelling Shiite protests in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and, even more importantly, with large chunks of territory within Syria and Iraq being taken over by militant Sunni groups, including but not limited to the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Nusra.

Iran is no longer in a potentially dominant position in the Middle East. As a result, Obama has in recent years has been able to have warming relations with Iran and work, in effect, alongside the Iranians in containing ISIS and in trying to have American troops withdraw from Afghanistan without sacrificing major cities to the Taliban.

While the media now gives a lot of attention to how the American and Iranian interest in blocking ISIS have become aligned with one another, their shared or overlapping interests in Afghanistan are generally overlooked. But America desperately wants to avoid a situation akin to when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s, which brought civil war, the mutilation of the Afghan prime minister, a spillover of violence into Pakistan and between Pakistan and India and eventually Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on 9/11.

The Republicans, who continue to try to make Obama’s deal with Iran appear to be Munich-style appeasement rather than typical presidential diplomacy, do not usually point out any of this. Instead, they focus on the Iranian regime’s tyranny and religiosity.

Bringing up the extremism of Iran’s government should not be an irrelevant point, of course, but still it comes across as a rather weak excuse to fault the deal, given America’s closer alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia; an alliance the Republicans have played a part in. Their response that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, should be resisted mainly because it has the potential to become a regional power ignores not only the fact that Iran’s position has been set back by the ongoing war in Syria, but also the fact that the United States want Iran to help it contain more plausible regional powers, namely Turkey or Russia.

The American-Russian relationship has, of course, suffered seriously in recent years as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as because of the meddling of Russia in the recent American election (assuming that either Vladimir Putin or supporters of his were indeed behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails, as appears highly plausible).

The Iranians are useful to the United States in parrying Russian influence in both Central Asia and the Caucuses, in spite of the fact that Iran, Russia and even the United States have in effect been working on the same side of the Syrian Civil War at times. Iran has significant ties to a number of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, most notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Given that large Muslim populations in the Caucuses border large Muslim populations living within Russia, and given that Putin himself presided over the Second Chechen War, Iran’s position is of significance here.

Reviving the stagnant energy industries in Iran and in Iran’s Shiite-majority ally Iraq also helps reduce the price of oil and, in the long run, of natural gas, both of which Russia depends highly upon.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country that has a far larger economy than Iran, an economy that is not at all based on oil exports as Iran’s is thus much less exposed to the recent crash in oil prices.

Turkey is also, unlike Iran, a country that is dominated by a single ethno-linguisitc group.

Partly as a result of this, Turkey is not home to numerous separatist or regionalist movements like Iran is (the PKK being the notable exception). An estimated 75 percent of people in Turkey are Turkish whereas an estimated 60 percent of people in Iran are Persian. Iran is also a Shiite country, setting it apart from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

In recent years, a number of areas that were once in the Ottoman Empire have been hit hard by crises; notably Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus and Georgia. Turkish politics, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have also become more Islamic than at any time since the empire fell in World War I.

Recently, with Erdoğan’s accusation that the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen was behind the failed 2016 coup, and his demand the United States extradite Gülen, Turkey’s Islamic politics may be becoming more unified and anti-American.

American-Turkish ties have also become strained over America’s close ties to the Kurds in Syria and especially in Iraq.

While relations between Turkey and America are still decent in spite of this, in part because America wants Turkey to help block both Russia and Iran as well as reestablish a semblance of order within Syria and Iraq (where Turkey has troops), the writing is clearly on the wall: Turkey is more likely to be a major regional power than Iran is. Obama’s attempt at a political reengagement with Iran most likely reflected an understanding of this fact, given that Obama is a keen and “realist” policymaker, as most recent American presidents have been.


Ultimately, it is often said presidents are most important in their symbolism rather than in any specific deals they manage to hammer out. If that is correct, Obama appears to score quite well on the short roll of post-Cold War presidents.

Obama has been more articulate and likely more sophisticate than George W. Bush was and more scandal-free and likely more genuine than Bill Clinton was.

Obama’s critics often claim too that his most notable decisions in foreign policy were of the symbolic sort, whether it be his refusal to use the term “Islamic terrorism”; to attend funerals in solidarity with the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket victims in France (two weeks before attending King Abdullah’s in Saudi Arabia); or to decline the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him by starstruck Norwegians in the first year of his first term.

Even those that do believe the worst of Obama, however — and there really is little reason to do so — should acknowledge he has done less harm to America’s reputation in eight years than Trump, his successor, has in the past eight months.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, December 6, 2016.