President Barack Obama set out to “fundamentally transform America” upon taking the oath of office in early 2009. It appears that over the past eight years, he has been somewhat successful, both at home and overseas. This president has certainly steered the country in a certain direction. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the racking up of debt surpassing $19 trillion, record numbers of Americans on some sort of government assistance, combined with anemic economic growth and refusal to become more energy independent with the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S., this president has had both of his hands in the country’s leftward shift toward socialism.

What may be more damaging to the country, depending on one’s point of view, is what President Obama has done to America’s standing in the world. After going on his infamous “Apology Tour” in his first year in office, apologizing to other countries for the erroneous arrogance perpetrated under George W. Bush’s administration, Obama embarked upon his own path, in terms of foreign policy, taking America out of the driver’s seat.

Jeff Goldberg’s recent cover story in The Atlantic greatly encapsulated Obama’s view of America’s role in the world. Labeled, “The Obama Doctrine,” by some, this strategy was infamously and initially described as not doing “stupid shit.” But, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated, that is not a foreign policy. Obama’s aims go much deeper than removing the U.S. from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, his ultimate goal is to remove America from the mantle of lone superpower and guarantor of global security and stability.

The greatest blunder over the Obama years has been his handling of the spiraling and seemingly unsolvable conflict in Syria and Iraq. Syria, especially, “represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq” to Obama. The president has always believed that Syrian President Assad and the civil war underway in his nation does not have a significant impact on America’s national security. Neoconservatives and other politicians and thinkers on both sides of the aisle in support of the “War on Terror” will recount that al-Qaeda was given safe haven in Afghanistan and was able to successfully launch the attacks of 9/11 with that space granted. Obama would counter by saying that this is not America’s fight to wage; Middle East countries must stand up for and defend their own security.

Obama has always been annoyed with the foreign policy establishment crowd in D.C. He was greatly criticized for failing to act after Assad apparently crossed the red line that Obama drew regarding the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Many feared that America’s credibility would be forever tarnished if we did not strike against Assad for defying America’s demands. But, Obama remained steadfast and did get more involved in Syria militarily.

Obama claimed that the preservation of credibility led to Vietnam, and that dropping bombs on someone just to prove that you can is the worst reason to use force. So why did Obama make that empty threat in the first place? That is a perplexing question to answer. At the end of the day, Obama did not believe that getting involved in Syria was worth the effort. 

Furthermore, it could not be 100% proved that Assad did in fact use the sarin gas on his own people. It very well could have been ISIS or another terrorist organization looking to bait Western countries into the fight. When intelligence director James Clapper told the president that the intelligence on Assad’s use of sarin gas on his own people was “not a slam dunk,” he moved to not intervene.  

Many in the American foreign policy world were devastated that Obama chose not to intervene in Syria during the summer of 2013. Even the French felt greatly betrayed by Obama’s inaction. Criticisms emphasized how by not getting involved earlier in the conflict and not intervening now, the situation is now probably unsolvable by Western intervention, barring a major 100,000 troop intervention from the U.S. 

King Abdullah of Jordan complained about Obama’s failure to involve the U.S. directly in the Syrian morass, saying, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.”

However, though likely not his plan initially, the lack of American action led to the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons cache. This was a huge turn of events in which the Russians assisted in the logistics of and even Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu praised the end result, calling it “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”

Goldberg noted Obama’s feeling of liberation following this turn of events:

“I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American ‘muscle’ for their own narrow and sectarian ends.”

Here, we are starting to understand Obama’s philosophy regarding the use of American force. He appears to believe that America’s “allies” are regularly exploiting American military might to obtain their own goals. By holding fast to his non-interventionist strategy, Obama showed the world that America is changing and they better get used to it. He remained steadfast against doing the bidding of Israel and other Arab allies while maintaining a hard line on his negotiations with the Iranian regime over its nuclear weapons program.

President Obama has ignored his generals more than any other commander in chief of recent timesproving that he really is a different kind of American President. Whether his failure to heed the advice of his generals will turn out positively or negatively for America’s security in the future remains to be seen. What seems apparent now is that a majority of those interested in or involved in American foreign policy viewed Obama’s reversal on Syria “calamitous.” Defenders of the president, meanwhile, say that our credibility as a nation has not been diminished in any way and we will gain more respect from other countries with America’s new way forward.

In 2006, Obama stated quite directly how he views Middle Eastern dictators and strongmen as posing little or no threat to the U.S.

“I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Obama’s words ended up being somewhat prophetic. Though some of the resulting chaos coming true is likely due to the fact that Obama decided to pull American troops out prematurely from a fragile, yet stable Iraq in order to score political points back home. However, Obama, along with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, would correctly state that we should not have gotten ourselves involved in Iraq in the first place. Unfortunately, we went in there. And, we went in there with a larger coalition of nations than Obama has been able to muster in the fight against ISIS. Regardless, the 2003 invasion of Iraq is called by many experts the greatest foreign policy blunder of all time.

“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” Obama told Goldberg one interview.  “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” This, I will quibble with the president about. Allowing ISIS to exist and grow can be a threat to the U.S. Though not quite existential, at least not yet, they could certainly upend our country and force us into another unwinnable war down the line following another deadly attack on the homeland. That is a fact. What is up for debate is whether or not human beings can or should do anything about the supposed “climate change” that is coming for us all.

Obama has certainly made some positive moves forward in transforming America’s role in the world. He appears to be a realist, though sometimes hamstrung by his idealistic view of American power. Goldberg has had much access to the president over the years and notes his increasingly realistic view of American power:

“I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements — controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal.”

Yet, most of these “achievements” – “provisional” as Goldberg noted – will need to be continued by a committed predecessor dedicated to enforcing these fragile agreements. The likelihood of that happening is about 50-50 at this point, with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump both looking increasingly hated yet sure to be nominated soon. These moves were also accomplished mostly by Obama himself, with little bipartisan support or commitment from allies abroad. 

“But he (Obama) also has come to learn that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.” Obama clarified, “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results.”  This reveals how America can never take a back seat to the global agenda. Countries around the world thirst for American leadership. Sure, many countries do not trust us, but many more look to us to lead than fear what we might do.

Obama’s view on America’s role in the world has been defined as isolationist, neglecting reality. The president would take issue with both of these points, as revealed by how he views isolationism as something we cannot do as “the world is ever-shrinking,” and we cannot hide from the conflicts of the world in an ever-connected world.

America has to pick and choose which fights to jump headfirst into. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact,” Obama noted. Yet, it has been difficult for allies to know what Obama will do as his policies have been somewhat haphazard and random over the years. Furthermore, Obama’s strategies rely on the strengthening of international institutions. Working through organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United Nations, Obama emphasizes acting in concert with other nations to solve conflicts around the world. Unfortunately, both of these organizations look to America to lead as well, pointing once again to how our country is relied upon in just about every corner of the Earth. So, how can these organizations that rely on American leadership succeed if America is not leading?

Many critics of the president have called his strategy “leading from behind.” Obama takes issue with this critique, explaining how he is aiming to spur other countries to take action for themselves rather than wait for the United States to lead. However, when other countries have grown used to America leading the way, the world could get much more dangerous before it gets safer if our foreign policy continues along this route.

One of the most perplexing moves of Obama’s operations abroad included the 2011 intervention in Libya. He comes clean about the mess he made in the north African nation, saying “it didn’t work.” That much is obvious. What is less clear is why we got involved in that desert country in the first place? In the first term of his presidency, Obama fought initiating further action abroad, yet, he seems to have been convinced, maybe even pressured, into “saving” the Libyan people from an authoritarian regime by close aides Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes.

At least Obama did it his way.

The Libyan intervention included zero American boots on the ground, always an imperative for the Obama administration. A UN coalition was formed and other countries committed significantly to the takedown of Libya’s oppressive Gaddafi regime. Five years later? Obama now calls the country a “shit show” that has been ruined by what he calls “tribalism,” not American intervention. ISIS and other terrorist groups are now essentially in charge of the former former Italian territory. But, perhaps Libya influenced Obama’s future decision to not entangle U.S. troops in Syria, educating him to the realities and difficulties of the Middle East and North Africa, places he concluded, were “best avoided.”

Maybe if Bush did not get us bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq in the way that he did, then perhaps we would have a significant force on the ground in Syria right now. “If there had been no Iraq, no Afghanistan, and no Libya,” Obama told Goldberg, “he might be more apt to take risks in Syria. He did promise American voters to get us out of chaotic conflicts that have no end in sight in the near term. Obama clarifies his decisionmaking:

“A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military—any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”

Obama has therefore been hesitant to use American force in some instances as opposed to others. He has stopped short of sending American troops into Syria or Iraq in any significant capacity since the terrorist entity ISIS has risen to prominence in the region. Sending in an additional 250 special operations troops recentlyit unfortunately appears that Obama is trying to put a bandaid on the situation until the next commander in chief takes over next year.

The former Illinois Senator reflected on how we cannot commit American power to fighting ISIS as they are not a direct threat to us yet. “There are going to be times where either because it’s not a direct threat to us or because we just don’t have the tools in our toolkit to have a huge impact that, tragically, we have to refrain from jumping in with both feet.” President Obama has been diligent in denying the liberal use of the American military abroad. Though critics have said he has greatly diminished America’s credibility, perhaps Obama’s lighter footprint strategy will keep us safer overall in the end.

Simply look at where ISIS has had its deadliest attacks outside of Syria and Iraq in the last year: Paris, France was hit twice by ISIS-inspired jihadists while Brussels, Belgium was hit hard by two simultaneous attacks in the European Union capital earlier this year. Sure, there was an ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California in December last year, but that was not nearly as deadly as other attacks around the world and has been the only one of note in the U.S. that is directly ISIS-related, though there have been other instances of jihadists in our midst over the past year.

While ISIS has not proven disastrously deadly to Americans yet, Obama’s doctrine of responsibility sharing with allies and internationalism has helped Russian leader Vladimir Putin raise Russia’s place on the pecking order of great world powers. Obama’s critics have said his flailing foreign policy and failure to defend allies such as Ukraine when Crimea was invaded in 2014 by Russia have emboldened our enemies to overstep. President Obama would counter these critics by saying:

“Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.”

Obama has revealed that some allies are worth defending and some are not. Georgia and Ukraine are not allies that we will go out of our way to defend and risk war with Russia over. Ukraine is a core Russian interest, but not an American one, according to Obama, and so Russia will always be more committed to keeping these countries in their sphere more than the U.S.

Conservatives will harken back to the days of Reagan and H.W. Bush when the U.S. was more muscular around the world but at the same time smart with its military. Obama would point to the fact that Reagan was not “tough” per say, but actually “cunning” and “diplomatic.” The president continued on the former California governor and his relations with the Soviets, saying, “he recognized the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy—which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made a similar clarifying note on President Reagan when he pointed out that “Reagan was actually very judicious in the interventions he got involved with. Reagan was also willing to negotiate with the Soviets,” the former 2016 Republican presidential candidate stated. “Reagan was a more complex character than some people give him credit for. Reagan did believe in a strong national defense. He did believe in stopping our enemies. But he didn’t always believe intervention was the answer.”

President Obama extended a similar rationale in handling a rising China. He proposes, “we have to be firm where China’s actions are undermining international interests, and if you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.” The U.S.-China relationship is likely the most important one for the future prosperity and security for our country. The recent rumblings China has been making in the South China Sea, creating air bases out of nowhere and claiming land that is under other countries’ purview, have been problematic for the Obama administration. The U.S. is certainly more committed to defending Japan in any conflict it may have with the communist Asian power with well over one billion residents. Obama’s record with China has been diplomatic for the most part, but China continues to press the issue in East Asia and has been frightening American allies in that part of the world.

Goldberg’s long article on the president looks to be summarizing his foreign policy legacy. Though it might not be known for some time, it is very possible that President Obama has made the world a safer place by retreating from places he does not believe America should be. It is difficult to see now and further pains will be felt, but a world with America sharing the load more with other global powers is a world more connected and therefore less likely to go to war with each other.

The global jihadist threat has not lessened under Obama’s watch. But, no major terrorist attack has really occurred on our soil with the exception of San Bernardino and Fort Hood. And those were relatively minor. However, Obama concludes that the Middle East is not a region that is terribly important to us anymore. Even if it were, a U.S. president, Obama believes, can only do so much to make it better. Americans have an innate desire to fix everything and lead every effort everywhere, but Obama has been a responsible parent in that regard, picking and choosing where to expend our finite military resources. America’s desire to want to do all of these things in other nations, has lead to the increase of our insurmountable debt and the deaths of far too many U.S. soldiers.

Yet, Obama would not go so far as to have America’s role on the world’s stage diminished. He realizes that the U.S. is a leader in so many different sectors of the great machine that is the global economy. The U.S. also guarantees the security of many nations currently, though Obama would propose that those who can defend themselves should defend themselves, without the unceasing help from the sole superpower (for now).

Goldberg’s final line sums up America’s topsy-turvy post-9/11 foreign policy through the lens of the past two commander in chief’s: “George W. Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.”

Let’s hope Obama’s decisions, or indecisions, don’t come back to bite us.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Bobby Shanahan

Freelance writer and researcher in Seattle, WA area. Work covers current political, economic, and national security related events. Objective angle strived for, but biases show on occasion. Emphasis on the individual over the state, freedom to make one's own decisions over forcing behavior by the barrel of a gun, and rule of law over crony capitalism/politics as usual. 2016 presidential election and current events in historical context are topics delved into at length.