Fecteau: Does Obama’s Foreign Policy Jeopardize Our National Security?

Wednesday, September 02, 2015


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Critics contend that the Obama administration’s foreign policy jeopardizes the United States’ national security. To them, Obama lacks strong-arm, coercive leadership needed in this tumultuous world.

The Obama administration is not without setbacks. China is more influential than ever, the Islamic State supplanted al-Qaeda as a leading terrorist threat, North Korea remains an international pariah, and Syria and Iraq are in perpetual chaos.  Russia is increasingly more belligerent. 

Nevertheless, we should put the failings in context.  

United States has limits.  With few resources, the United States cannot vanquish every foe or win every battle, at least not without some international support.  Nothing makes this more evident than the Iraq War.

With one major, mostly unilateral intervention, the Bush led Iraq war will remain a stain on United States’ reputation for generations.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States forfeited our global capital, and initiated a war absent of real international partners or any end.  

The bulk of the Iraq War effort was paid in American blood and treasure.    

In stark contrast to President George W. Bush, Obama’s foreign policy could be characterized as measured multilateral cooperation in lieu of mostly unilateral action.  We simply do not have the resources to dedicate to perpetual nation-building, and international support is critical.  

The Obama administration realizes unilateralism is increasingly obsolete.  With the rise of China and India, and the rebuilt European states, the United States -- still a global powerhouse -- copes with various other influential state and non-state actors whom we depend on for support.  

The Obama administration is certainly is not war adverse.  Because the Obama administration is far less bogged down, the United States is heavily invested in conflicts in seven different countries:  Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

Though limited in scope, Obama administration is willing to use ground troops if necessary. For the longer term, almost 10,000 US troop advisors are in Afghanistan even after the arbitrary withdrawal date, and roughly 5,500 US troop advisors have been reintroduced into Iraq. 

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to use force. In undeclared warzones, under Obama, the CIA and the US military conducted nine times more drone strikes than the Bush administration. On a more limited scale, US Special Forces – specifically the Joint Special Operations Command -- routinely conduct covert and clandestine kill or capture operations across the globe irrespective or sovereign boundaries.   

The Obama administration is certainly not weak on terrorism. The most infamous terrorist organization in the world – al-Qaeda – is nearing defeat, and the world economy is slowing coming back.

Though, unlike his predecessor, Obama more willingly embraces multilateral action when the need arises.  

Take the strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Syria as an example.  With few dedicated ground forces, the Obama administration assembled a coalition of nine countries to dismember the Islamic State while using Special Forces sparingly.

Through international dialogue, the United States’ allies isolated and punished Russia.  The Obama administration grudgingly realizes little can be done to stop Russia’s aggression.  So he worked with the European Union to impose tough, painful sanctions. As a result, the Russian economy is massively contracting. 

At times, the Obama administration even talks and works with undesirables.

Through secret meetings, the Obama relaxed the archaic sanctions on Cuba, and even prodded Iran to come to the negotiating table in Oman. Consequently, we have more influence in Cuba, and a nuclear deal with Iran that will make it much harder for them to develop nuclear weapons. 

The Obama administration successfully used the United Nations to punish international outliers. 

After some prodding by the United States, the United Nations Security Council – which includes Russia and China as permanent members – levered stiffer sanctions against North Korea for nuclear treaty violations.  The United States worked with the Security Council to ensure the Assad regime gave up their chemical weapons, and as of right now, it is deemed a success.

However, foreign policy is a messy, convoluted business. 

Iran is a particularly complicated matter. While the United States views Iran as an enemy, the Iranian government assisted the US backed Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State. Simultaneously, the United States backs Saudi Arabia against the Iranian backed al-Houthi rebels in Yemen.  While complicated, the Obama administration realizes that nothing on the foreign policy stage is cut and dry.  

United States has other major accomplishments. Under Obama, the United States negotiated the most ambitious trade package in the history of the world. To address climate change, the Obama administration formed a 46 country coalition called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to rein in carbon emissions.  

These are real and noteworthy accomplishments. To say the Obama placed the United States in a weaker position is myopic.  On the international stage, the United States is stronger than ever, but, at times, willing to derive that strength from its allies in response to a new world order.   

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Matt Fecteau ([email protected]), of Pawtucket, lost to U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in last year’s Democratic primary. He is a former White House national security intern and Iraq war veteran.


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