Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card

President Obama

The Policy Tensor has at times been a harsh critic of the Obama White House’s foreign policy. While this page supported Obama’s decision to withdraw American army divisions from Iraq, it was not a fan of the President’s policy with respect to either Assad or ISIS.

Iraq: A

The worst foreign policy mistake of this administration was to outsource the arming of the Syrian rebellion to the oil monarchies; with predictable results. The window of opportunity, before the jihadists crushed the moderate rebels, was missed with nonsensical talk of rebalancing to Asia. Eventually, of course, this meant that the White House would come around to covertly backing Assad. To the President’s credit, the policy reversal was effected with quiet dignity.

Syria: C

Obama’s military strategy to defeat ISIS is not going to work. And containment of a Salafist-Jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East is unlikely to satisfy the American foreign policy establishment’s quest for security. What this means is that Obama has effectively kicked the can down to the next President.


US intelligence convinced pro-Western oligarchs to move against a Ukrainian government dominated by pro-Russian oligarchs. As Russia predictably moved to secure its near abroad, the Obama White House created a lot of brouhaha even as it was clear that the United States did not have significant interests at stake in Ukraine to counter a Russian military intervention. Had Russia been the US’ principal adversary, American meddling in Ukraine would have been understandable. But Russia was a potential ally against China. American shenanigans pushed Russia prematurely into Chinese arms. It was self-goal.

Ukraine: C

The problem with US’ Afghan strategy is that a US withdrawal is inconsistent with a commitment to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban: The United States must either reach an accommodation with the Taliban or commit to propping up an anti-Taliban regime on a semi-permanent basis. However, the solution to the Afghan conundrum is not to be found in Kabul but in Islamabad. For unless the United States can prevail on the ISI to stop patronizing the Taliban, it would be constantly swimming against the current in its efforts to prop up an anti-Taliban regime in Kabul.

To be fair, given the dangers of instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan, the United States cannot afford a breakdown of intelligence and military ties to the Pakistani deep state that would follow from a more aggressive policy against Islamabad that an anti-Taliban solution demands. Still, Obama could have done far more to put pressure on the duplicitous ISI generals; especially after it became clear that they had been sheltering bin Laden.

Af-Pak: B

Moving southeast on the subcontinent, President Obama failed to capitalize on the Bush opening to India. If the United States is serious about signing up Asia’s second rising giant for a balancing alliance against China, it must do more to shore up India’s military power which is falling sharply behind its far more powerful neighbour. Specifically, the United States should be easing India’s access to advanced weapons systems.

Advanced weapons production is dominated by prime contracting firms (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, DynCorp, BAE Systems et cetera) who remain largely in thrall of US market power. The United States uses access to its market as leverage to finely regulate other countries’ access to the advanced weapons technologies embedded in these prime contracting firms. There have been no moves in the direction of easing India’s access to advanced weapons systems. And relations between the world’s largest and the world’s oldest democracy remain cool.

India: B

To the east, the US opening to Myanmar was prompted by growing Chinese influence in the hitherto pariah state run by a brutal military junta. The trigger was the proposed $20 billion railway link connecting China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar which would’ve allowed China to circumvent the US’ stranglehold on the Strait of Malacca and gain access to the Bay of Bengal. The opening to Myanmar had the intended effect: In July 2014, the junta torpedoed the proposed rail connection. Myanmar’s nascent civilian democracy remains a façade behind which the military junta continues to rule. But the failed state is now securely in America’s geopolitical orbit.

Myanmar: A

Further east, Obama’s pivot to Asia has to be judged a dud. The problem is the following: While countries in the region are worried sick about China’s growing military capabilities and are keen to see the United States lean forward, it does not make much sense for the United States to forward-deploy military assets in the region. This is because China’s increasingly sophisticated reconnaissance-strike complex allows it to hold any and all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk in the event of a military confrontation.

The correct force-posture for the United States is therefore to forward-deploy only a fraction of its strength, holding the rest in reserve outside the range of Chinese cruise missiles. This, of course, doesn’t make for good optics. US allies on the Pacific rim continue to fret about US abandonment. Japan, the only state in the region that can stand up to China on its own, is trying hard to shore up its military capabilities.

The whole fan-fare surrounding the rebalancing was unnecessary and counter-productive. Instead of making a big fuss about rebalancing and pivots, the United States ought to have worked to quietly reassure regional allies and deter China from premature adventures.

Pivot to Asia: B-

The Obama White House trumpeted the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a key component of the pivot to Asia. While benefiting American holders of capital, the TPP will yield meagre geopolitical gains in terms of balancing China. Still, the TPP creates diplomatic momentum behind a unified stand against Chinese revisionism.


US opposition to China’s international development bank, the AIIB, must be judged an outright debacle. It made the US look petty and made a mockery of US claims that it wants China to emerge as a responsible stakeholder in the international order. Worse still, as US’ closest allies, including Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, joined the club, it made the United States look isolated and ineffective.


Across the Pacific, Obama’s opening to Cuba was welcome and long-overdue. For more than a half century, the United States followed a policy of unabashed economic warfare against Cuba. The harsh and vindictive policy of containment was meant to make an example of Cuba: This is what will happen to those who challenge the dominant state of the Western Hemisphere. It did not, of course, prevent the rise of confrontation states in Latin America. To the contrary, it may have exacerbated opposition to the United States and strengthened the hands of those advocating resistance to US domination.

In contemplating the policy reversal, the Obama White House would not have been wrong to imagine pockets of determined opposition, especially from Congressional foreign policy hawks. In the final analysis, they turned out to be minor and easily overcome; laying bare the thin basis on which the policy of containment had rested. Still, it took courage to challenge the policy of every president since JFK.

Cuba: A+

The real game changer, of course, is Obama’s opening to Iran. The Policy Tensor has advocated a realignment in the gulf for years. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the gulf. It is considerably easier to secure US interests in the gulf in partnership with the strongest regional power than in opposition to it. The only reason for a world power to confront a pivotal state in a strategically-important region is if there is an insurmountable conflict of interest. American and Iranian interests have become increasingly congruent in the past decade; setting the state for a strategic realignment. The election of a moderate government in the Islamic Republic provided an unprecedented opportunity for a reset; an opportunity that was not wasted by a far-seeing President.

The nuclear accord is nothing short of a diplomatic work of art. It makes it extremely difficult for Iran to obtain a nuclear deterrent by cheating. More importantly, the safeguards are stringent enough to push the deal through Congress. But the importance of the deal has almost nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

The only thing Iran would buy with a nuclear deterrent is insurance against a US invasion aimed at regime change. The Saudis would immediately obtain a deterrent of their own from Pakistan; thus neutralizing whatever strategic advantage the Iranians imagine they would obtain in the regional balance. On the other hand, an Iranian breakout would almost certainly reinforce Iran’s pariah status and guarantee relentless confrontation with the unipole. Iran could very well find itself even more diplomatically isolated and economically strangulated that is has been in the recent past; thus likely slipping further in the regional balance.

The nuclear deal allows Iran to reemerge on the international arena. It can now look forward to a lifting of international sanctions that would bring prosperity to the country and strengthen its position in the regional balance. Iran’s oil capacity is likely to expand significantly in the coming years as Western oil firms bring in capital and technology. This cannot fail to undermine the Saudis’ dominant position in OPEC. Indeed, unless the Saudis and the Iranians can learn to cooperate again, OPEC itself is likely to become defunct for all practical purposes. Since a thaw in the gulf is such a distant prospect in the medium term, the price of crude is likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future.

Unlike the oil monarchies, Iran is not just a petro-state. While its GDP is only 70% of Belgium’s, the Iranian economy is quite diversified. While foreign firms may be surprised to find slim pickings and tough competition from domestic firms, Iran is likely to be one of the fastest growing countries in the world for the next few years. Rouzbeh Pirouz, a CEO of an Iranian investment firm, makes the acute observation that Khamenei is trying to engineer a Deng Xiaoping moment, not a Gorbachev one. That is, Khamenei reckons that an economic opening can be accomplished and growth secured without undermining the stability of the theocracy.

The United States can now more easily establish a working partnership with Iran to secure common interests. The Americans are unlikely to abandon the Saudis in favour of an alliance with Iran. However, the thaw with Iran frees the United States from a total reliance on the House of Saud. In particular, the United States will now have wiggle room to press the Al Saud to reign in salafist influence in the region and around the world. And the expansion of both American and Iranian capacity will bring to an end the Saudis’ extraordinary influence in the global oil market; and with it the period in which Saudi Arabia punched above its weight. The Al Saud are likely to reconcile themselves to their diminished regional status eventually, perhaps leading to another period of moderation in the gulf. We are, of course, far from that scenario and the path ahead may be quite turbulent. Much will depend on whether the oil monarchies can see off the challenge posed by the Islamic State.

The Obama-Kerry achievement may not be as strategically-significant as that of the Nixon-Kissinger duo. But it goes a long way towards securing US interests in the Middle East.

Iran: A+

If we use Columbia University’s GPA calculator (which both the President and the Policy Tensor attended), the President scores a shocking 3.19; a GPA that is sure to make any Columbia graduate wince. To be fair, some foreign policy issues are much more important than others while the algorithm gives equal importance to all grades. Bringing in Myanmar was a canny move. The openings to Cuba and Iran were nothing short of historic. The latter is likely to prove of enduring strategic value. 

Two the biggest foreign policy mistakes (Syria, ISIS) were mistakes of omission, not debacles arising from hubris (See under Bush). The third, pushing Russia prematurely into Chinese arms, showed a gross misreading of the strategic landscape. It is unlikely that Russia would ever again be interested in a balancing alliance against China. As for the other successes and failures pertaining to the task of balancing China (TPP, AIIB, Pivot), these are strategically insignificant and mostly of optical value.

3 thoughts on “Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card

  1. Indeed, U.S. did a very good job on Myanmar. However, in the coming decade, do you think that achievement could be enduring? Does an anti-China policy actually benefit Myanmar economically, and politically? Will democratization before integration in a Balkan-ish country ever work?

    If China continues to prosper in the coming decade, and brings that prosperity deeper and deeper inland, closer to Myanmar boarder, while Myanmar finds itself in a Yugoslavia/Philippine/Thailand sort of chaos and stagnation, what would happen to all these armed minorities?

  2. What would happen if not only Pivot-to-Asia becomes a dud, but TPP also becomes a dud?

    Though the recent setback at Hawaii is not final, the window of opportunity to close the deal before end of August is quite narrow now.

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