War Stories

The State of Obama’s World

Why the president’s foreign policy legacy is hanging in the balance.

Has Obama’s foreign policy been a disaster or a triumph? The president during his year-end press conference at the White House Dec. 18, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Has Obama’s foreign policy been a disaster or a triumph? The president during his year-end press conference at the White House Dec. 18, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

As 2015 comes to an end, President Obama’s foreign policy is either crumbling amid disaster or beaming on a victory lap. The case for the latter view: the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the rebuilding of alliances across Asia. The case for the former: the rise of ISIS, the shattering of Iraq and Syria, and the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

The problem with the president’s list of triumphs is that they’re provisional, while the failures are all too tangible and threatening. The potential for peace, prosperity, and global improvement, arising from his diplomatic achievements, is considerable, even transformative; but the results aren’t yet in—no one can foresee whether Iran will abide by the deal, Cuba will evolve toward democracy, the world’s nations will meet the warming targets, or the TPP will be ratified. By contrast, the Middle East is in flames, a million refugees are flooding into Europe, Americans are fearful, and the prospects for a swift, stable settlement in Syria—military, political, and humanitarian—seem dim.

President Obama sees his current poor ratings in polls as stemming from a failure to communicate. Aides say that he plans to spend more time next year explaining his policies and describing what he has been doing both to defeat ISIS abroad and to stop acts of terrorism at home.

Messaging is part of Obama’s problem—a puzzling fact, given how eloquently and persuasively he’s gone before the nation to discuss the complexities of race, faith, and gun violence. Maybe it’s because America has been dealing with those issues since its inception, whereas it has only recently confronted foreign terrorists and hasn’t engaged in a serious conversation about their implications.

It must have taken him by surprise that the San Bernardino attack, which killed 14 people, spurred fervent demands to ban Muslims’ entry into the country and dramatically raised people’s fear of terrorist attacks, which opinion polls now cite as the American public’s No. 1 concern. Not to trivialize the attack, but these killers were not ISIS agents in the same sense as the gunmen in Paris had been. This husband and wife team, instead, were the classic “lone wolves,” inspired by ISIS but not acting under orders from abroad.

Again, not to minimize the murders or brush away the fears, but these sorts of off-the-radar attacks are extremely difficult to prevent. They’ve almost happened several times before—the most notable cases being the truck bomber in Times Square and the underwear bomber on Northwest Flight 253. Each would have killed many more people if the perpetrators had been a little less stupid.

It is strange—and a reflection of our collective failure to grapple with the issues underlying terrorism—that this one attack set off such waves of fear. It’s also a stretch—and a reflection of the fear of randomness—to blame the president (any president) for its occurrence.

It is, however, legitimate to hold this president accountable for failing to take command of the narrative—for letting the worst sort of demagogues take up the slack—and that’s a failure that he at least acknowledges and hopes to repair.

Meanwhile, the biggest single cause of these terrorist attacks is the growth of ISIS—as a politico-military force in the Middle East and as a lure to discontented young Muslim men who dash off to join its holy war against the infidels.

If ISIS were defeated militarily, if the territory it has grabbed were grabbed back, then its appeal would be snuffed out. This is why the West does have an interest in this war. But in this realm, poor messaging is not the main reason for Obama’s failure to break through.

It’s true, as Obama has tried to point out, that the war against ISIS, in certain respects, isn’t going too badly. ISIS troops haven’t gained any new footholds in months, and they’ve never occupied any land with majority-Shiite populations. In recent weeks, with the support of American air power, a Kurdish-Arab alliance has pushed them out of Sinjar, a key town on the main road between Iraq and Syria. A mix of Iraqi soldiers and Sunni militias is battling at this moment to retake Ramadi. Overall, ISIS has lost an estimated 14 percent of the territory it held, in both countries, at the start of the year—including 40 percent of the land it once held in Iraq.

However, foreign recruits still pour across the border, the fighting continues, and, most important, the dynamics of the fighting are deeply rooted. One element in this dynamic is the continued reign of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose brutal attacks on peaceful Sunni protesters galvanized the rise of ISIS. (Many ISIS military commanders were once Saddam Hussein’s generals. Few of them are religious, but all see the movement as a vehicle for the restoration of Sunni rule.) As ISIS spread, Iran, which aspires to create a Shiite crescent across the region, intervened to fight the jihadis. When Assad’s reign seemed about to end, Russian President Vladimir Putin—who values Assad’s regime as Moscow’s only foothold outside the former Soviet Union—reinforced it with tanks and jet fighters.

Compounding the complexity, almost all the other countries in the region despise ISIS for various reasons, but many of those countries despise one another even more. Turkey views the Kurds as a greater threat; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are loath to do anything (such as help crush ISIS) that might prop up Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, the United States has long been pursuing policies to defeat ISIS and oust Assad—which, though both aims might be necessary in the long run, are contradictory, even self-defeating, in the short-to-medium run.

There are fuzzy signs of hope on the horizon. The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a timetable for free elections in Syria. But there are unresolved issues so drastic as to make the deal meaningless. First, the cease-fire does not apply to the fight against terrorists, but everyone disagrees on the meaning of terrorists. Russia and Iran define it as all warring factions besides Assad’s Syrian army—including the “moderate Syrian rebels” that the United State supports. Second, the fate of Assad has not been settled: when, if ever, he must go and whether he should take part in elections.

The good news is that the Russians and Iranians seem to be tiring of this war. After seeing dozens of its officers killed, Iran has withdrawn most of its troops. And Russia isn’t doing well either: Its bombs, most of them inaccurate, are killing a lot of civilians but doing little damage against anti-Assad rebels. Its tanks, lent to the Syrian army, are getting bashed by the rebels’ TOW—or tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided—missiles. Still, both Iran and Russia are committed if not to Assad personally, then to a successor regime that they can control.

In other words, there are several kinds of wars going on simultaneously—civil war, sectarian war, proxy war, geopolitical war—involving multiple parties, none of whom line up on some coherent side of the battle.

Against this mess, Donald Trump’s call to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, or Sen. Ted Cruz’s desire to “carpet bomb” ISIS “into oblivion,” may have a visceral appeal—but they mean nothing and, if they were somehow translated into a war plan, would do more harm than good. Yet against this melodrama, Obama’s assurances—that his strategy is the right one, that progress is being made, that the road is a long one, and that patience is required—strike many as “feckless” or insufficiently “robust.”

The telling fact is that none of his critics have presented a plausible alternative besides dropping more bombs (on what?) and shouting louder (into whose ears?), nor have they even attempted to explain how their plan would prevent another Paris or San Bernardino from happening.

This is a mess, maybe an intractable one, fitting of this region locked in ancient disputes and social upheaval. From the start of his presidency, Obama has wanted to pivot away from these absurd conflicts and to other parts of the world where the United States has more vested interests and more attractive opportunities. Hence his hard work on nuclear proliferation, climate change, the Asia Pacific, and ending the last remnants of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. His nightmare may be that his legacy is shaped less by these efforts to shape the future than by the dogged pull of the primitive past.