The Strength of Obama’s Foreign Policy

by Nick Ahamed, ’14


I am not here to make excuses. I recognize that my beloved President Obama has arguably struggled in addressing many difficult, complex issues facing the United States throughout the past 4 years. However, on at least one issue, foreign policy, he has done the best we can expect of a president. As I outline the last 12 years of foreign policy, I would like you to keep two things in mind. First, Obama was not given a mandate to govern. Though he won overwhelmingly in the Electoral College, only 53% of the country voted for him. Presidents represent the whole nation to the world, not just their own party. Second, context is everything. As a student of economics, I view everything as a series of trade-offs. And so while the outcome that occurred may not be our optimal policy preference, we have to ask if it was better than the practical alternative. With these two premises acknowledged, I argue that it is vitally important to reelect President Barack Obama in the context of foreign policy.

The Bush years were a period of militant American unilateralism. In those 8 years, we were not afraid to use our Armed Forces, regardless of international opinion. The most notable cases are obviously Afghanistan and Iraq. The justifications for invading Afghanistan are at least understandable. We were attacked by a group with loose ties to the ruling Taliban and were generally given international support. Iraq is nearly the opposite case. The evidence for invading Iraq was somewhere between weak and invented. The United Nations Security Council refused to authorize the invasion and Kofi Annan said it was specifically illegal. Noted conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer declared this in support of Bush: “The question is what to do if, at the end of the day, the Security Council or the international community refuses to back us? Do we allow ourselves to be dictated to…? The answer has to be ‘no,’ not just because we are being willful, but because we have a special role, a special place in the world today, and therefore a special responsibility.” This is the attitude that dominated American foreign policy: America is exceptional and is duty bound to intervene where others would not. This is a belief that spurred our invasion of two nations with the Coalition of the Willing. This is the belief that dominated American diplomatic institutions and practices for eight years. This is the belief that President Obama had to reverse.

This brings us to the 2008 election. Many of us remember then-candidate Obama as the peace candidate; however, this is not representative of the policies he actually advocated. Yes, Obama advocate for a responsible end to both wars, but also argued in a Foreign Affairs article that we must “renew our leadership — military, diplomatic, moral — to confront new threats and capitalize on new opportunities.” I argue that Obama appeared peaceable only because of the stark contrast against John McCain. McCain’s memorable foreign policy quote is that U.S. troops could spend as many as 100 years in Iraq. He also stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2008 that withdrawal from Iraq would be “reckless” and a failure of “moral and political leadership.” Against this backdrop, it is easy to see how Obama was pictured as the peace candidate. And we did what any rational voting body would do: we voted for the candidate who would best further our progressive foreign policy ends.

With the context of the Bush years and juxtaposition of candidates in ’08 in mind, we must evaluate President Obama’s commitment to progressive ends. Despite many criticisms that Obama has expanded the war on terror, across many metrics Obama has served us well. First and foremost, he has followed through on his commitment to bring Bush’s wars to a responsible end. By the end of 2011, all troops were out of Iraq. What’s more, the number of deployed combat troops is on a steady decline. Deployed combat troops peaked just before he took office at 187,900, according to a Congressional Research Service report. We’ve seen a 64% decrease to 67,500 for the fiscal year of 2012. Additionally, President Obama has been committed to shrinking the overall military. According to Defense Secretary Panetta, the Army and Marines plan to have 100,000 fewer ground troops over the next 10 years, while also cutting the budget by $487 billion. For the first time since September 11th, the FY2013 military budget was less than the year prior. Obama has also pushed to close many of the 662 military installations, despite strong Congressional opposition. President Obama has consistently worked to reduce the massive structure of the military and to end the two wars he inherited.

But not only is Obama winding down our existing engagements, he has also hesitated to initiate new conflicts. The only notable conflict into which he led us to intervene was Libya. However, it is ludicrous to compare our involvement in Libya and our involvement in Iraq. The mission on Libya was limited and only supported the local movement; we did not fight for them. It also highlights Obama’s commitment to internationalism. The NATO no-fly zone was ordered by the United Nations Security Council. Likewise, the United States has not intervened on behalf of the rebels in Syria. I attribute this to a mixed will of the international community – the UNSC has failed to pass many resolutions. No longer are the days where the United States was a democracy bully; now we are a partner in the international order. The last official deployment of troops was to Uganda. In October, 2011 President Obama sent 100 special forces troops to assist the Ugandan Army and International Criminal Court in finding Kony and the LRA – prior to the Kony2012 uproar. We did not force ourselves on the Ugandan operation; Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda’s military spokesman, said of the troops: “We are happy about it. We look forward to working with them and eliminating Kony and his fighters.” Despite many progressive critics, Obama has been committed to reducing our military presence abroad and to internationalist policies.

So where do we go from here? As November 6th approaches, I would urge us to throw our support behind President Obama. The possibility of Romney as president is scary. His book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, outlines his dangerous foreign policies ideals. First, the title of the book attacks Obama for apologizing to foreign leaders for the mistakes made by the previous administration. Second, in it he asserts that we must inflate our military by 100,000 ground troops, increase our nuclear stockpile and build a missile defense system. Moreover, he has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers. This is the same strategy W. Bush adopted in his 2000 presidential election bid – the same strategy led to our invasion of Iraq. Romney also stated that Russia was our number one geopolitical enemy, leading conservative military expert Colin Powell to say, “Come on, Mitt – think!” Given how the two-party system plays out in national politics, I believe we essentially have a choice between Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden. Having Mitt Romney institute his foreign policy agenda would be disaster for our cause. Thus, I think it is absolutely imperative that we use our energy to re-elect President Barack Obama.


Nick is a Sophomore, majoring in political science with possible minors in English and Economics. He hails from the great state of Minnesota, but was born in Canada. On campus, he is actively involved in the Stanford Democrats and helps organize the Obama campaign on campus. Issues of distributional justice, equity and foreign policy are very important to him. 

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