Small Wars Journal

Obama’s Military Policy, International Order, and the Next Administration

Wed, 11/02/2016 - 1:11pm

Obama’s Military Policy, International Order, and the Next Administration

Richard Best

In a valedictory address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016 U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized his commitment to an international order based on “as imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law.” We must, he argued, contemplate a “course correction” to “sustain our commitment to international cooperation rooted in the rights and responsibilities of nations.”[i] Obama was, however, circumspect in describing the means by which these goals are to be attained. Left unsaid was the reality that the rights and responsibilities of nations must be, on occasion, maintained by military force.

International order is not self-executing; it must be enforced. The United States and its Allies attempted to do in the years since the end of World War II, not always consistently and not always successfully, but the North Atlantic Alliance did deter aggression from the Soviet Union, the independence of South Korea and Kuwait was secured, the sea-lanes have been kept open, and the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein removed. The massive American role in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970’s remains controversial, but it was seen by successive Administrations as a means to protect the self-determination of the South Vietnam against the invasion that ultimately succeeded. The military role in protecting and preserving international order can be include anything from showing the flag through a port call by a naval ship to the dropping of a nuclear bomb. Once established, international order is ordinarily maintained without military pressure; indeed, a major responsibility of governments is to avoid a resort to force and if force must be a resort to choose proportional options. Ultimately, however, military force undergirds relations among states and serves to deter or resist aggression. Given the usual inability of the major powers to act with the unanimity envisioned by the drafters of the United Nations Charter, the role of American and Allied military power in upholding international order has in practice provided the base of security on which free governments, open markets, rising standards of living (even if inequitable), and in many cases functioning democracies have developed in the past sixty years. The current international order is far from perfect but had an international order been supervised by the Soviet Union and its minions, it would have been far different and considerably less benign.

Not just the UN speech but the cumulative record of the Obama Administration reflects the President’s disinclination to accept a role for American military power in creating and maintaining international order. His aversion to the use of force contributed to the success of the insurgency in Iraq and the chaos that is Syria.  The unwillingness to move beyond economic sanctions in the aftermath of the Russian absorption of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine places his successor in a challenging and weakened position.

Obama based his presidential campaign on a commitment to rectify the perceived mistakes of his predecessor who had led the Nation into two bloody but inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Once in office, he sought to go further, to replace Cold War-era policies that in his view overly depended on the use or potential use of military force. The Obama Administration would focus on transnational threats—climate change, treatments for diseases such as Ebola, reducing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and ultimately the elimination of nuclear weapons themselves.  Military power would be narrowly employed on counterterrorism operations and held in reserve to deter or counter direct attack on the U.S. Homeland.

It is ironic that Barack Obama has generously and thoughtfully acknowledged the importance of American military strength. In his 2006 book, Audacity of Hope, soon-to-be candidate Obama argued that after World War II it was in America’s interest to work with other countries to build up international institutions and promote international norms, a commitment not based on “a naïve assumption that international laws and treaties alone would end conflicts among nations or eliminate the need for American military action, but because the more international norms were reinforced and the more American signaled restraint in the exercise of its power, the fewer the number of conflicts that would arise—and the more legitimate our actions would appear in the eyes of the world when we did have to move militarily.”[ii]

Obama linked U.S. military commitments with other elements of “the infrastructure of a new world order”—NATO, the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the IMF and the World Bank. Taken together they led to “a successful outcome to the Cold War, an avoidance of nuclear catastrophe, the effective end of conflict between the world’s great military powers, and an era of unprecedented economic growth at home and abroad.”[iii] It is striking that in 2006 Obama put NATO, a military alliance, first among the elements of international order in the postwar era. 

In an eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, Obama acknowledged the role of American military power:

Whatever mistakes were made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believed that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”[iv]

In retrospect, it seem that the American experiences in Iraq played a crucial role in President Obama’s thinking about the need for restraint in the use of American force. Iraq was a major factor in his successive campaign for the presidency. In 2007 he had maintained that “we cannot impose a military solution on a civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions. The best chance we have to leave Iraq a better place is to pressure these warring parties to find a lasting political solution. And the only effective way to apply this pressure is to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces. . .  .”[v]  The decision to remove U.S. forces from Iraq was facilitated by the Iraqi Parliament’s disinclination to approve a status of forces agreement even minimally acceptable to the United States, but the Obama Administration was clearly inclined to bring the troops home and leave the Iraqis to their decisions and devices.

Obama articulated his new approach in June 2009 in a carefully prepared address given at Cairo University—a major speech intended for the entire Muslim world. He sought to demonstrate respect and appreciation for the roles of Islam while encouraging Muslim countries to help address the economic and technological challenges facing the modern world and to find ways to reconcile Islam with modernity by undergoing reforms similar to some that have changed Christianity. He encouraged Muslims to undertake service projects in the United States along with exchange programs and scholarships and called for a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority nations. He called for collaboration on finding new sources of energy, creating green jobs, digitizing records, producing clean water and growing new corps. He regretted the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. He defended the role of the U.S. military in protection against terrorists, but he called for Middle Eastern countries “to join together on behalf of the world that we seek--a world where extremists no longer threaten our people and American troops have come home . . . .”[vi] There is a striking difference between Obama’s 2006 discussion of the post-World Wat II international order and his 2009 address concerned with the post-Cold War environment. In the former he carefully put U.S. troops and NATO as central elements of international order; in the latter he specifically excluded the role of the U.S. military.  In the Cairo address there was no suggestion that American troops remaining in the area could contribute to the achievement of the desirable goals.

The Middle East presented Obama with as many challenges as it did to his predecessors and he has had to devote enormous attention to the issue of the potential use of U.S. military forces in that region.  Clearly determined to avoid military engagements that may turn out to be counterproductive and highly unpopular domestically, he is apparently willing to downplay the importance of the region to American interests generally. Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, in an oft-cited April 2016 review of the Administration’s national security policies based on first-hand interviews, quotes Obama as believing that that “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.” Further, “even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place.”[vii]

The Administration’s equivocal views of the Middle East have been clearly reflected in its approach to the Syrian civil war. Proposals for a greater American military role in supporting anti-Assad forces in Syria were rejected and even a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons was ultimately not enforced. The Administration saw American military intervention including the establishment of “no-fly” zones as counterproductive and without a foreseeable end-point. Even if peace could be attained (or imposed) it would be a significant challenge to establish a government that would allow its various ethnic and religious groups to co-exist after years of bloody hostilities. It was a challenge for which Obama sees no American solution or even substantial contribution. According to Goldberg, “Obama has bet, and seems prepared to continue betting, that the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction.  And he is sanguine enough to live with the perilous ambiguities of his decisions.”[viii] Syria is a classic hard question and the situation on the ground may have changed significantly by the of the current Administration, but it is most likely that long-term U.S. plans and commitments have only been postponed until the next Administration.

Other Middle Eastern crises reflected the same tentative approach. In 2011 the United States along with Arab and European allies participated in the final stages of the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, but it was a one-off intervention, not part of a carefully framed Mediterranean or Middle Eastern policy.  President Obama subsequently acknowledged that in supporting the revolt against Gaddafi, “we didn’t do enough to plan for the day after,”[ix] reflecting a failure to plan for nation building in Libya resembling the Bush Administration’s initial determination to remove Saddam Hussein and depart after a very brief period of transition. Libya remains unstable and a source of desperate refugees trying to reach Europe even as the United States has renewed military attacks on Libyan groups tied to the Islamic State.

The choices taken by the Obama reflect a decisive re-direction of American national security policy that may be his most significant and unfortunate legacy. According to several authoritative accounts, Obama’s reluctance on several occasions to approve the use of American forces in the Middle East went up against the advice of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel, senior military officers, and intelligence officials. The tortuous decision making regarding troop levels of Middle Eastern deployments is described not only by Goldberg but also by Clinton,[x] Gates,[xi] and Panetta,[xii] and by informed reporters such as Bob Woodward[xiii] and Mark Landler.[xiv] The decision-making process reflects not so much a strategic approach to the region but a more of a sensitivity to prevailing views among Democratic activists and Members of Congress and influential media commentators whose skepticism about national security policy borders on isolationism. For the Obama White House these views ultimately outweighed the counsels and recommendations of Cabinet officials and senior national security policymakers as well as the denizens of the numerous D.C. think tanks few of whom, according to Goldberg, appear to enjoy the President’s respect.[xv] The next President will undoubtedly find similar opposition to a more active military policy along with resurgent Republican isolationists.

The next Administration will have to judge how important the stability of the Middle East, a region of over four hundred million people (some pursuing singularly hostile ideologies) but possessing large energy resources remains for the United States. If its importance is ultimately accepted, the difficult challenge will be finding a way to encourage the emergence of a group of viable states in the Middle East able to coexist relatively peacefully, without WMD programs, and with sufficient respect for ethnic and religious minorities to provide a degree of stability. The next Administration will have to use all instruments of American influence, including military capabilities, to help achieve this heretofore elusive goal and expend considerable political capital in the process.

Obama’s strategy for the defense of Europe has also been equivocal. Especially telling was the reaction of the United States to the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014.  Goldberg argues that for Obama: “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.”[xvi] Led by Washington, the Western response was limited to resolutions of disapproval and economic sanctions. This approach apparently reflected a conviction that maintaining international borders, even broadly interpreted, is not a compelling national security interest of the United States or of the international community.  

International rivalries have reached an especially dangerous level in Eastern Europe, but there is not yet an apparent willingness either in Washington or in Western Europe to accept the reality of another Cold War with Russia as a permanent enemy. The Administration’s limited moves to enhance the forward presence of NATO forces, and engage in exercises closer to Russian borders as part of the European Reassurance Initiative may be only the first step and further measures may be necessary if Russian pressure on its neighbors is to be resisted. According to a senior State Department official, U.S. policies regarding Russia are admittedly not without “challenges and internal contradictions.”[xvii] The next Administration will be faced with major decisions regarding NATO-Russian relations from its first day in office.[xviii]

The one arena in which the Obama Administration has been most inclined to use military force has been counterterrorism.  Here Obama has readily used all available military and intelligence resources to counter the danger of terrorist attacks and devoted intense efforts to identifying and destroying terrorists originating in the Middle East and elsewhere. Taking out Osama Bin Ladin in 2011, his most celebrated achievement, has been followed by a series of lethal strikes against other jihadist leaders, including at least one American citizen.   The employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) has become an oft-relied upon policy option for the duration of the Administration. Although rigorous planning for drone strikes is undertaken, even to the extent of establishing a targeting review and authorization process coordinated by the National Security Council staff to avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties, the strikes have been subject to repeated criticism that they seek to protect American interests at the expense of unintentional casualties in the local population.  Goldberg gives Obama the accolade of “the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency”[xix] but eliminating individual terrorists is not the same as establishing an international order that effectively discourages terrorism.

The larger policy context is crucial. Even within the Obama Administration there is a realization that simply killing terrorist leaders is inadequate; the larger problem lies with states that harbor terrorists or that are unable to control their own territory. In the case of Yemen for instance the U.S. has launched many drone strikes and killed numerous terrorists (and some innocent bystanders), but the regime is not stable and not in control of its territory.  Even within the Administration some have recognized the limitations of an approach that eschews military contributions to nation-building programs. In a 2012 address, John Brennan, then the White House Counterterrorism Adviser (and subsequently CIA Director), maintained that “any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true.”  According to Brennan, “President Obama understands that Yemen’s challenges are grave and intertwined. He has insisted that our policy emphasizes governance and development as much as security and focus on a clear goal to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen advance political, economic and security reforms so it can support its citizens and counter [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula].”[xx]  Despite these encouraging sentiments, the Obama Administration’s contributions to stability and development in Yemen have, however, been limited in scope and have brought neither peace nor stability to the troubled country.

The next Administration should reassess the balance between counterterrorism efforts and governance and development assistance.  Given conditions on the ground in Yemen and in other regional states expanded assistance for governance and economic development will require at least a degree of military protection.  There needs to be comprehensive planning among all relevant U.S. agencies and the establishment of appropriate decision-making procedures.

Military force is not a panacea and it can be (and at times has been) counterproductive, but the presence of outside force can deter aggression and also provide necessary stiffening for a government emerging from a debilitating civil war or civic breakdown.  If the United States had pulled its military forces from Western Europe or Japan, as originally planned in 1946-1947, it is quite likely that postwar development in those countries would have been less peaceful and less successful.  Even the residual forces that the Obama Administration currently retains in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed materially to the local struggle against ISIS and the Taliban. In the local context U.S. capabilities are significant and they also serve meaningfully as reflections of the U.S. commitment to the government in Kabul.

In a larger context, the U.S. military deployed globally reflect the American commitment to international order in the most tangible sense.  Military power does not stand alone and soldiers should not attempt to accomplish what is the proper role of diplomats and economic advisers. However, diplomats and economic advisers (and civilian counterparts) can only succeed if they are secure. American interests are not narrow; as Obama acknowledged at Oslo, the U.S. “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”  There has indeed been a conviction that global security based on respect for major international norms—no aggression across recognized borders, no new WMD programs, no genocide—is a vital national interest. The United States and its allies cannot accomplish that alone but it can play a far larger role than has been the case since 2009 and a carefully considered military role will be a necessary option.  This is a responsibility that our European allies on their own are not yet ready to resume nor is it one that a series of patched-together U.N. expeditionary force can play for the foreseeable future. Not only in the Middle East there will have to be an all-encompassing and no doubt agonizing reappraisal of the ways and means needed to survive in a global environment in which aggression, WMD’s, and genocide are increasingly common.

The next Administration should not enter office expecting to concentrate narrowly on domestic issues. Even as opinion polls indicate little interest in overseas adventures, the external realm is fragile and dangerous and likely to deteriorate further in the absence of a greater American role. By January 20, 2017 incoming policymakers should have a solid sense of U.S. interests in maintaining international order and have prepared policies for specific regions of instability having carefully reviewed of the accomplishments and failures of its predecessors.

At this moment the American public may have no enthusiasm for foreign entanglements, but there may be an emerging disinclination to remain uninvolved in regions that directly affect longstanding national interests and humanitarian concerns.  Ultimately, it is not realistic to assume that the public will remain passive while hostile nations engineer aggression and turmoil to reorder the global environment to American disadvantage.  Policymakers would be well-advised to make appropriate preparations and take necessary initiatives rather than wait for another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to jolt the country into demanding action.

End Notes

[i] Address by President Obama to the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

[ii]Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), page 285.

[iii] Audacity of Hope, p. 285.

[iv] Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 2009.

[v] Barack Obama, “Renewing America’s Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, July 2007, p. 5.

[vi] Remarks by the President at Cairo University, June 4, 2009.

[vii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016, p. 90.

[viii] Goldberg, p. 90.

[ix] Remarks by the President in Commencement Address to the United States Air Force Academy, June 2, 2016.

[x] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hard Choices (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

[xi] Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014).

[xii] Leon Panetta with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

[xiii] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

[xiv] Mark Landler, Alter Egos, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (New York: Random House, 2016).

[xv] See Goldberg, p. 76: “A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks are doing the bidding of their Arab and pr0-Israel funders.”

[xvi] Goldberg, p. 87.

[xvii] Testimony of Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing: “Russian Violations of Borders, Treaties, and Human Rights,” June 7, 2016.

[xviii] A recent RAND report demonstrates the complexity of such an undertaking:  David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

[xix] Goldberg, p. 79.

[xx] Council on Foreign Relations, Transcript of John Brennan’s speech on Yemen and Drones, August 9, 2012.


About the Author(s)

Richard A. Best has served as an analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.  The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own.


For those who still do not believe that the political objective of the U.S./the West has been and continues to be (a) the transformation of outlying states, societies and civilizations more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines and (b) the integration of these states, societies and civilizations more into the western-led global economy/international community,

For those who still do not believe the above, then I suggest that they consider President Obama's final speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016. (Reference item/End note No. 1 of the paper/article above.)…

Herein, one will find the president addressing (a) the reality of this U.S./Western political objective (b) the suggested benefits that have been derived from pursing same, (c) the costs that have been and still are being incurred re: this effort and (d) the corrective actions that our current president suggests are needed to reduce these such costs/reduce the negative effects of same.

Bottom Line:

In sum, the above speech by our outgoing president makes exceptionally clear that the political objective of the U.S./the West has been, and still is (at least up to inauguration day: Friday, Jan. 20, 2017), to (a) transform outlying states, societies and civilizations more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines and to (b) integrate such states, societies and civilizations more into the Western-led global economy/international community.

The problem of course being that by banking on/relying on, post-the Old Cold War, such erroneous notions as "universal (Western) values, the "overwhelming appeal of our way of life," and "the end of history" (the Western version of this such idea), we choose not to acknowledge the existence of -- and thus could not/would not address many of the costs/the conflicts related to -- the continued pursuit of our such "expansionist" objectives?

This, until it was actually too late to save our international order (both foreign and domestic support for these "transformation"/"integration" projects has eroded/is now gone?) -- an international order which is/was specifically based on the dogged pursuit, and the actual achievement of, these such "expansionist" goals (outlined above)?

The problem with the continuation of the international order -- established by the U.S./the West and discussed above -- is that there now appears to be:

a. Not only an external/international/foreign resistance movement -- re: the exceptional requirements of this unique "world order." (In this regard, think of the actions of Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, AQ, etc., today and the appeal of same to certain of their populations?) But also

b. An internal/home-grown/domestic (to the U.S./the West) resistance movement -- re: this unique world order and its exceptional requirements . (In this regard, think of the appeal and actions of our own, and other, "populist" movements in the West today?)

Herein, and in both the external/international/foreign case noted above -- and indeed in our domestic cases also -- the central underlying problem being that this globalism/this international order based thereon:

a. Asks much more of "them" -- and of "us" -- re: their/our freedom, their/our individuality, their/our self-determination and their/our independence, etc.,

b. Than either of us (the foreign/non-western folks and indeed we ourselves) are willing to continue to give/to give up?