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Restraint and Its Discontents

by Richard Fontaine

Evaluating two terms of Obama’s foreign policy

It was clear from the outset that Obama would preside over national retrenchment. George W. Bush had waged a global war on terror and campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, pursued years of confrontation with North Korea and Iran, increased defense spending and foreign aid, and, with a “forward strategy of freedom,” aimed to end tyranny around the world. The traditional American goals of security, prosperity, and freedom would be advanced, his administration generally held, through deep global engagement and the vigorous and confident assertion of U.S. power.

Obama entered office believing that he could achieve the same broad goals by doing less rather than more. In this he was with the American people; as Senator John McCain’s foreign-policy adviser in 2008, I could see the weariness among those who had, since 9/11, waged or funded the country’s battles, who worried about future confrontations and global unpopularity, and who sensed that the terrorist threat, because it was diminishing, was not impelling the action it still required. The financial crisis put the mood in stark relief, but it had built steadily throughout Bush’s last years in office.

Obama offered not fundamentally different ends but alternative means. America, he said, would be secure, prosperous, and free not by fighting endless wars but by bringing wars to a close. It would best its adversaries not by confronting them but through the extended hand of dialogue. It would vanquish terrorism not by remaking societies in which extremism thrives but by stepping up American efforts to attack the terrorists themselves. And it would boost its economic fortunes not through the vigorous projection of U.S. power abroad but by redirecting resources and energy toward nation-building at home.

This recipe for restraint and retrenchment focused mostly on limiting the exercise of America’s military power and avoiding steps that might require its employment. It permitted ambitious, even grandiose, diplomatic initiatives, ranging from resetting relations with Russia and the Iran nuclear deal to a new beginning with the entire Islamic world. And it rested on a particular ideological disposition. For Obama, the biggest foreign-policy crises have arisen not from America’s failure to act when needed but from intervening where it should have stayed aloof.

As Obama explained in 2013, “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.” “Some of our most costly mistakes,” he added a year later, “came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures.” The lesson of recent history seemed clear enough: On balance, the United States should do less in the world. The closest thing to an Obama doctrine would dictate not a course of action but what to avoid — “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” Rather than peace through strength, America could have strength through peace.

Or peace of a sort. Obama sought to avoid not military conflict per se but rather large-scale war of the Iraq variety, involving ground troops and extended deployments. Despite having pledged to end wars, he increased their number, carrying out military attacks in seven countries — more than his predecessor. But his fear of the slippery slope to another Iraq led his administration not only to wind down the wars but at times to telegraph its lack of commitment to winning them.

In practice, the effects were often dire. Obama surged troops to Afghanistan but set a deadline for their removal, allowing the Taliban to bide its time and all parties to factor in American irresolution. The complete withdrawal of forces from Iraq eliminated America’s hard-won influence over the Maliki government, which over time hollowed out the Iraqi security forces, followed Tehran’s political direction, and watched as its misrule helped give life to ISIS. The abandonment of Libya — with no stabilizing force to follow the toppling of its dictatorship — produced a civil war, a terrorist sanctuary, and a vector for migrants hoping to reach Europe. Failing to arm moderate Syrian rebels when it mattered most, or to enforce the “red line” on chemical weapons, helped fuel a humanitarian catastrophe that has given sanctuary to ISIS and destabilized the European Union. Obama did not meaningfully arm Kiev after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and did not respond to Russian attempts to distort U.S. democratic practice until well after Election Day. For months, the Navy refrained from exercises to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as Beijing embarked on a major land-reclamation and reinforcement effort. In the earnest attempt to avoid Bush-like sins of commission, Obama engaged in his own sins of omission.

His administration often defended inaction by appealing to the clock — what the 2015 National Security Strategy called “strategic patience.” According to this view, Russia is a declining power whose economic and demographic problems will increasingly limit its influence, and Moscow has courted quagmire in Syria. ISIS is the JV team whose barbaric ideas will eventually collapse under their own weight. China, with its unwelcome assertiveness in the region, is actively isolating itself in Asia. In Iran, the moderates will eventually triumph, and in Syria, Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and will eventually go. The arc of global history bends toward justice — and toward order, security, and freedom as well, even if the United States isn’t engaged in the hard work of bending it.

The counterfactuals cry out: How do we know things would have turned out better had Obama made different choices? We can’t, but the administration’s behavior is instructive. In many of these cases, after a period of restraint it ended up engaging anyway — slowly, incrementally, hesitantly, but with the aim of staving off disaster. Obama rescinded the Afghan-withdrawal deadline, sent troops back into Iraq, armed Syrian rebels, conducted belated freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and imposed sanctions and expelled spies in response to Russia’s interference in the American election.

The Obama administration did seize important opportunities. Building closer ties with countries across Asia is the right strategic impulse, and Obama had real achievements. He built on the transformation of ties with India that began under Bush, strengthened alliances with Korea and Japan, and won rotational access for U.S. troops in Australia and the Philippines. The administration also engaged in the East Asia Summit, ratified a treaty with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and strengthened ties with Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore. It remains to be seen how much the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s demise will undermine these achievements, but certainly it will provide an opening to China to take a position of regional economic leadership.

Elsewhere, too, the administration had key successes. Its aggressive approach to al-Qaeda helped decimate its ranks. Its belated fight against the Islamic State has gathered steam, and the efforts to bolster NATO in Eastern Europe and boost maritime security in Southeast Asia have helped reassure nervous partners. Reaffirming America’s commitment to defending Japan and European allies signaled important resolve.

And yet the administration has been of two minds about allies. Logic suggests that, in retaining the traditional objectives of American foreign policy but seeking to do less in their pursuit, Obama expected America’s partners to do more. Free-riding allies would have to step up and spend more, take on additional military burdens, lead diplomatic initiatives, and endure domestic political challenges to seal economic agreements.

Obama-era retrenchment, in the best-case scenario, would have spurred other governments to take on their own responsibilities. More frequently, however, vacuums emerged and were then filled in ways that damaged American interests. ISIS and al-Qaeda found safe haven in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Russia is more active in the Middle East today than it has been at any point since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it has initiated a program of disruption and intimidation across Europe. China has stepped up its efforts to solidify claims over most of the South China Sea and enhance its economic influence over the region. Iran has become the primary external actor in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

A policy of retrenchment prioritizes international efforts, both by importance and by odds of success. The administration’s foreign-policy agenda was quite often perplexing, ranging from the obviously important, such as fighting terrorism, addressing climate change, and pivoting to Asia, to the idealistic, such as global nuclear disarmament, to the admirable but impossibly unlikely. Obama’s administration devoted inordinate time and energy to this last category, whether in attempting to secure an Israeli–Palestinian peace accord when the odds of success were virtually nil or in striking a cease-fire and Assad-transition deal with Moscow, which, in the absence of American leverage, faced similarly poor chances. Opportunity costs abounded.

Key allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, whose appetite for American engagement rose with their sense of regional peril, watched with concern as the administration and Congress combined to demonstrate domestic political dysfunction, military incrementalism, hesitant economic leadership, and haphazardly set foreign-policy priorities. Adversaries attempted to take the opportunity to press their advantages. The world, and Americans, wondered where all this was headed.

The immediate post–Cold War era was a period of uncontested American primacy, with our country in search of a new global role and the domestic political will to sustain it. After 9/11, the national focus turned to fighting terrorism and wars in the greater Middle East. And as counterterrorism has subsided as the organizing principle in U.S. foreign policy, new forces have risen to take its place.

Their most pronounced features are global competition and local fragmentation. The great powers are increasingly competing for regional dominance and global influence. Ideology has reentered the arena, with liberal democracy, populist autocracy, and radical Islamism among the available alternatives. At the same time, longstanding features of the international landscape are fragmenting, from the European Union to Middle Eastern borders, from global trade liberalization even to American alliances with countries such as the Philippines.

Much of this would have happened even if a different administration had conducted American foreign policy for the past eight years. In some areas, Obama improved matters. But in more, his restraint and retrenchment fueled the competition and fragmentation that are today’s hallmarks. For all his sunny optimism about the arc of history, the president convinced Americans that the world is endlessly complicated, broken in key places, and often inhospitable to U.S. engagement. Much more often than we’d like, the conventional wisdom now goes, there just isn’t much the United States can do about problems around the globe, and certainly not at an acceptable cost.

And yet for all that, Obama’s foreign-policy failures should not discredit the ideas of restraint and caution. Just as the Bush administration’s stumbles in Iraq should not have tarnished the notion of ambition in foreign policy — or of America’s standing up for freedom on behalf of the oppressed, or of the need for military power as an instrument in foreign policy — the incoming administration should not reject deliberation, judiciousness, and a healthy skepticism about marshaling reasonable means to achieve international goals.

Restraint is a virtue in foreign policy, at least sometimes. Pushed too far, as Obama pushed it, and transformed into a rigid ideology, it becomes a vice — just like ambition, or the use of military force, or anything else in this life. But the underlying instinct is not intrinsically wrong. It’s healthy, to a point. Where exactly that point lies is a matter of human judgment, of politicians and policymakers attempting to locate the national interest in an ever-changing world. On their ability to do this turn America’s fortunes, and its future.

– Mr. Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

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