WASHINGTON – There is a scenario that one can imagine is unspooling in the mental multiplexes of the president and his top White House advisers. It is Christmas time. Stockings everywhere are filled to overflowing due to a resurgent U.S. economy. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is beginning to wither under the pressure of the American-led coalition. In Afghanistan, a new government has repaired relations with the United States, and an agreement to leave a smallish U.S. military force in place promises to ensure stability for years to come. And a deal has been reached – or is within reach – for the United States and Iran that reduces the threat that Tehran will soon be overseeing a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Sitting by a crackling fire, Barack Obama (who in the late summer of 2014 seemed on the verge of foreign-policy ignominy thanks to a string of lousy policies and bad luck) lifts his mug of eggnog high and toasts his team for engineering a remarkable turnaround. He has regained his mojo, and architects are scrambling to add back the foreign-policy wing to the plans for the Obama presidential library. No more Ditherer-in-Chief or Hamlet-on-the-Potomac jokes. The most powerful man in the world has re-entered the building!
Of course, in order for this scenario to play out a number of things must go very well, and the public must willingly sets aside two major categories of knowledge: everything they know about the past and everything they might reasonably expect regarding the future.
Setting aside for a moment the economy – which is actually an area where the president and his team have made huge progress for which they neither give themselves nor receive enough credit – the obstacles to this scenario on the foreign-policy front are formidable. The bombings that the United States conducts in Iraq and Syria need to do more than blow up the occasional Humvee or armed pickup truck; some capable ground force needs to take advantage of the impact these assaults do have. For such a mobile enemy to be defeated, key elements of its forces need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and sustain real damage, especially to the enemy’s leadership ranks. In Afghanistan, the administration not only needs to cut a suitable deal, but the new government has to gather and maintain support, political enemies need to refrain from undercutting it, and the Taliban and other opposition forces need to sit on their hands. Finally, as far as Iran is concerned, not only does a deal have to be struck, but the political conditions associated with the deal have to be acceptable in both Washington and Tehran. This new deal cannot trigger new sanctions from the United States or new provocations from Iranian hard-liners – to say nothing of the reactions that might come from America’s allies like Israel or those central to the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Experience suggests that all these things will be hard to achieve. It also suggests that other issues may emerge that could overshadow (or call into question) the president’s foreign-policy rebound – whether Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, being linked to protests in Hong Kong, or self-inflicted wounds like the president’s ill-considered move to blame his lag in addressing the Islamic State threat on an intelligence community that had, in fact, warned him of the group’s rise since it began last year. Experience also suggests that the approach the coalition is taking to defeat the Islamic State – air power combined with dubious ground-force support – is not going to work, that forces of instability have the upper hand in Afghanistan (both inside the government and out), and that even if Iran were to truly forswear nuclear weapons, it could still be a big thorn in the side of U.S. interests (as it has been for the past three decades, during which time it has never had, of course, nuclear weapons). All of this means that not only is the happy holiday scenario unlikely to unfold exactly as described, but even the momentary lift Obama’s foreign policy is experiencing this fall is likely to dissipate when longer-term historical trends start to regain the upper hand.
But one can hope. And there is no denying that the president has been both bolder in addressing the Islamic State crisis than he appeared just weeks ago and has been pretty stalwart (as has his State Department team) in pursuing the goals in Afghanistan and Iran that have been important goals of his since he took office.
But there is another way to interpret recent moves and foreign-policy initiatives of the administration. They do not represent a change for the president. Instead, they are all really just a continuation of past policies and characteristics of how Obama deals with foreign policy. In each case, scratch the shiny surface rhetoric and one finds that what lies beneath is a common impulse – to postpone many of the toughest choices associated with addressing major problems until after the president has left office. In short, the goal is to get out of the White House in one piece and leave the hard work to Hillary.
Because hopes and wishes and spin of the White House aside, most of these U.S. policies seem to have been conceived with the idea of doing just as much as is necessary to handle the short-term political needs of the president while creating as little risk as possible for him during the remainder of his term in office. Indeed, you don’t have to take my word for it.
The president’s own assertion that his primary foreign-policy goal is only to hit “singles” and “doubles” and not “do stupid s–-” drives the message home with absolute clarity.
Take the “war” against the Islamic State. First, the president has been resisting action to contain the rising threats associated with the conflict in Syria for three years. Two-hundred thousand people have died there; chemical weapons were used more than a dozen times; foreign fighters flocked to the fractured state; extremist groups flourished with the help of America’s “friends”; and still nothing was done. Indeed, action was only taken when, after a series of gaffes and some horrifying videos of beheadings, the president was at the absolute nadir of his foreign-policy standing (doing little to effectively stand up to Putin didn’t help). Indeed, the threat he seemed most concerned with came not from the Islamic State but from public opinion.
Wait, you say, don’t be so cynical. Obama took action.
Well, did he? And was it designed to actually solve the principal threat to U.S. national security the Islamic State represents? The United States has only really committed to half its “degrade and defeat” formula regarding the extremist group. America may degrade it. But there is not a shred of evidence or even a stated belief on the part of this administration that the United States will, during Obama’s term of office, defeat it. The Pentagon’s own spokesperson said the effort will take three or four or perhaps five or six or even more years – in other words, this campaign will continue into the next administration. While we have a coalition, virtually none of its members is committed to what is necessary to defeating the Islamic State – boots on the ground. (We'll see what Turkey does in the wake of its vote Thursday, Oct. 2, to commit military force to the anti-Islamic State effort.) In fact, the public still doesn’t know what the commitments of each of the members is. This is a formula for keeping a lid on a problem, for managing it – not for solving it.
Think about it from another perspective. Yes, terrorists are tricky and terrible. But the Islamic State is a force of only 20,000 to 30,000 that is roughly the size of the active military in the Dominican Republic. Or, the population of my hometown of Summit, New Jersey. By comparison, say, roughly 20 million people served in the German army during World War II – which took six years to wage, of which the United States fought for three and a half. The Islamic State has no air force, no navy, no dependable resource base on which to draw; it has had little training and is using lousy equipment. Still we estimate that even if we take 26 of the richest and most powerful nations on Earth, including its sole superpower, and “commit” to fighting Islamic State forces, we will still probably be fighting them six years from now. That’s not a commitment. That’s an effort to keep a lid on things.
Further, of course, the real problem is not the Islamic State – it is the spreading, virulent militant extremism that the president has said he has no real desire to address, categorizing it as a “generational” problem for regional powers to handle even though it is clear its spread could destabilize large swaths of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Further, even if we beat back the Islamic State, we have no clear plan (or even a coherent policy) for how we will deal with the way that may strengthen the group’s extremist enemies in Syria, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, or forces in Iraq that might not be committed to the Sunni empowerment that is essential to truly stabilizing that country.
As for Afghanistan, literally no one I know in the U.S. government or the NGO community who deals with the country believes the new Afghan government will be able to maintain control without a significant U.S. force (at least 10,000 or so) remaining in country, providing stability that will last precisely until the day they leave. In the meantime, all expect the Taliban to gain ground and political rivalries and corruption to eat away at the government like a cancer. In short, again, the best deals we are striking now are only likely to postpone the big issues until the term of the next president.
When considering the Iran deal, since both sides want to reach an agreement, there are really only two possibilities: Either a deal will be struck by the deadline in November, or both sides will find a way to prolong talks. A permanent breakdown is just not going to happen. The most likely outcome is a phased series of steps to dismantle some of Iran’s program to be accompanied by the sanctions relief the Iranians want and need. The first steps will be ones that the U.S. president can do without Congress. If Congress passes new sanctions, the president will veto them. Dealing with the sanctions that require congressional action will likely be delayed until, well, who knows – maybe after the next president is in place. And of course, that president will have to deal with whether Iran is holding up its end of the deal, whether it is continuing to destabilize the region via Hezbollah, whether reformers can maintain their roles in the face of hard-line pushback, and the hard part of enforcing a deal in which, in all likelihood, the Iranians will get more of what they want (economic normalization) than we get of what we want (delaying their ability to get nuclear weapons – we’ve already tacitly accepted the idea of their being able to build them within one year of breaking our agreement).
With Putin, he will get all he wants, and we will not take any steps to preclude him from his next aggressive action. That too will be left for the next president. Dealing with the spread of violent extremism – for the next president. Re-engaging with the necessary pivot to Asia – likely left to the person who best championed that pivot in the first place, Hillary Clinton. The list goes on and is too long to cover here. (Also yes, I get it. Hillary may not run, may not be the candidate, may not beat a Republican challenger. But right now, I'll take that bet. She’s the one person in the United States of America most likely to be its next president and thus the one person most likely to have to deal with all of Obama’s unfinished business.)
And therefore, in all likelihood, President Hillary Clinton’s first major foreign-policy challenge will be much like that which faced President Barack Obama – cleaning up the messes of her predecessor and sending a message to the world that she will not make the same mistakes. Perhaps that is inevitable. We have swung from one extreme to another, too much action to too little, too much appetite for risk to too little, too much of a conviction of America’s centrality to world affairs to too little. Clinton, who was too centrist for the political swing sought by the public in 2008, may be just right for a public desirous of splitting the difference between the shortcomings of one president who thought he could do it all unilaterally and another who built great coalitions to assist him in postponing problems until his successor could take office.
Rothkopf is CEO and editor of the FP Group. His next book, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear” is scheduled to be released Oct. 28.