2016 is mercifully coming to an end this weekend, and the Obama presidency will end less than three weeks later. Despite Donald Trump's insistence that he'll do things differently, January 20, 2017 will be no more a clean break from the past than January 20, 2009, was, especially when it comes to the exercise of U.S. foreign policy abroad.
Both Barack Obama and Trump made a change in foreign policy part of their successful first presidential campaigns—for both, that promise of change was nebulous and uncertain. It allowed people with all different kinds of ideas about U.S. foreign policy to believe his vision would comport with their own. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just 10 months into office. He leaves office with a war in Afghanistan that's gone on longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined, a war in Iraq (and Syria) that's not quite the same as the one he inherited (the names and places have changed), and intervention-induced chaos in places like Libya and Yemen.
Trump, meanwhile, sent all sorts of mixed signals about how his administration might conduct, or frame, its foreign policy during the campaign—he was no non-interventionist but also challenged the Republican foreign policy establishment during the primaries. His freewheeling style so far has earned some dividends, while his cabinet picks, like Rex Tillerson at secretary of state and Gen. James Mattis at defense, will at their confirmations have to frame whatever the Trump administration's actual foreign policy, or foreign policy narrative, might be.
Even a foreign policy left adrift is destructive, and like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration, too, will inherit a number of conflict zones and hot spots in which the United States is engaged.
In 2009, President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, a war that at that point had entered its ninth year. "When the history of the Obama presidency is written," The New York Times reported on December 5, 2009, about Obama's decision to accelerate the troop surge and subsequent withdrawal as visualized in a bell curve chart, "that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war."
Seven years later, the Afghanistan war continues. Most recently, the putative withdrawal was pushed into 2017, with at least 6,000 U.S. troops staying through next year. In 2009, the point of the surge was to create the space for Afghan security forces to operate on their own. A concomitant "civilian surge" from the State Department was supposed to strengthen Afghan national institutions. Bureaucratic infighting and incompetence instead wasted any opportunity that the surge might have created for a withdrawal. Last year, President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner when an American gunship launched a strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
Today, U.S. forces are fighting not just the Taliban but ISIS fighters as well. Obama has slowed down the pull out in large part because Afghan forces are unprepared to fight alone. Trump, meanwhile, has argued against both nation-building in Afghanistan and setting withdrawal dates (that insurgents would know) yet in favor of a long-term military presence in Afghanistan to keep it from becoming a failed states.
By the time President Obama took office, a status of forces agreement had been negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq that would see all U.S. troops withdrawn by 2011. While Obama tried to keep a residual U.S. force of 10,000 in Iraq past that date, the Iraqi government was unwilling to extend immunity to U.S. troops who stayed in the country longer. Nevertheless, Obama campaigned for re-election in 2012 on the idea that he had brought the Iraq war to an end anyway.
By 2014, the president had changed his tune. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq compelled Obama to insist he had tried to keep troops in Iraq to prevent just such an occurrence from happening. U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 ceremoniously and started to return unceremoniously in 2014 as part of the campaign against ISIS, the terror group that was Al-Qaeda in Iraq before it moved into Syria and eventually returned to Iraq as the Islamic State.
Trump has been critical of the way the U.S. has fought ISIS in Iraq, but has been vague about what he would do. The U.S.-led coalition began an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second city, from ISIS a few months ago (reinforced Iraqi troops resumed the offensive this week). Trump mocked U.S. leaders for announcing the offensive, saying it gave ISIS leaders in Mosul the opportunity to escape ahead of it. Trump insists, as he does in other domains, on the element of surprise. Experts say a "sneak attack" on Mosul is unrealistic—the multinational coalition requires a lot of coordination and, on top of that, it's not easy to conceal the forces amassing around Mosul. Throughout the campaign, Trump and other Republicans (and Hillary Clinton, for that matter) simultaneously criticized Obama for not doing enough on ISIS in Iraq while sketching out more or less the same approach (using a coalition of regional allies to destroy ISIS).
During the campaign, Trump expressed openness to the idea that Congress would pass an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) on ISIS. Obama complained about the lack of such an authorization and what it meant for excessive executive power, but not once did he appear to consider tempering his military engagement because of the lack of authorization. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earlier this year said he was hopeful the prospect of a Trump presidency would induce Congress to reclaim its war powers. The incoming Republican Congress is poised to be pliant to Trump's agenda, yet an AUMF would be the first step to defining the role of the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS, and thus to begin to define how the U.S. might disengage from the conflict.
Although the U.S. has spent years arming various factions in the Syrian civil war, even some that have fought each other, the evolution of the Syrian civil war and foreign interventionists therein suggest the U.S. need not be the "indispensable nation" its political class likes to think of it as.
In 2013, the Obama administration pushed for U.S. intervention in Syria over the Bashar Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. Unscripted remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry challenging Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to the international community led to a Russian offer to facilitate that, averting U.S. intervention. On the campaign trail meanwhile, Hillary Clinton pushed for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Aleppo in order to force Russia to the negotiating table, admitting privately such a move would cost civilian lives.
The U.S. has continued to insist Assad must relinquish power in any peace deal. By the time Trump takes office, the crisis may be on its way to resolution. Syria and Russia announced a ceasefire earlier this week while peace talks in Kazakhstan continue. Trump's complained about the U.S. not cooperating with Russia on fighting terrorists in Syria, but the ongoing peace talks demonstrate that such conflicts need not involve the United States. While the Syrian regime has by all accounts committed all kinds of war crimes and created a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, humanitarianism should not be a sufficient prerequisite for U.S. involvement, while arming rebels, which Trump has largely condemned, isn't much better, contributing to instability without much in return vis a vis any identifiable U.S. interests.
In the last eight years, Libya is the most egregious example of the dangers of interventionism in the name of humanitarianism. In 2011 the Obama administration argued it had to intervene in Libya because of the "responsibility to protect," an international relations doctrine favoring so-called "humanitarian" military interventions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a major proponent of the intervention, insisted Col. Qaddafi, Libya's long-time dictator, was slaughtering his own people and that meant the U.S. had to intervene, not for regime change, which the Obama administration strenuously denied, but to prevent civilian deaths. Col. Qaddafi ended up being captured, sodomized, and killed by rebels who received U.S. air support to pursue him. "We came, we saw, he died," Clinton laughed before a 60 Minutes interview.
Five years later, U.S. troops are in Libya battling ISIS, which set up shop along with a variety of other extremist groups in the vacuum left behind by the U.S. intervention, while weapons and fighters from Libya flooded North Africa and the Middle East, contributing to instability there. The Obama administration has not said much about the U.S. strategy or goals in Libya. Obama admitted that "failing to plan for the day after" the Libya intervention was the greatest mistake of his presidency. On the campaign trail Clinton, meanwhile, defended her decision to push for intervention. Unfortunately, much of the campaign-related debate on Libya became about the initial decision to intervene in 2011 and not about what the U.S. military was doing there now nor for how long it would be doing it nor whether it should.
The Obama administration spent years waging the war on terror in Yemen, most often by using drones to target alleged extremists, some of whom were identified by Yemen's autocratic government. For a time, Obama pointed to Yemen as an example of the successful prosecution of the war on terror. Then rebels overthrew the government in Aden, and Saudi Arabia intervened to oust the rebels. The U.S. has, so far, at least as far as the public knows, kept its military out of the actual conflict in Yemen, although Saudi Arabia is largely armed by the United States. Efforts to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia had been unsuccessful in the Senate. Last week, the Obama administration announced it would be suspending arms shipments to Saudi Arabia because, it said, Saudi Arabia had hit too many civilian targets and caused too many civilian casualties.
Trump has had a far less amenable disposition to Saudi Arabia than Clinton so far. The globally unpopular war in Yemen offers the U.S. a good opportunity to disconnect from Saudi Arabia and stop subsidizing a war in which the U.S. has no interest. The way the U.S. war on terror in Yemen played out ought to also cause U.S. policymakers pause about pursing the same strategy in Somalia, where the U.S. has been involved for years and where an internationally-recognized government was established recently after a nearly two decade absence.
Europe has been rocked by a number of terror attacks in the last two years, most of which were claimed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or their supporters. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, eventually annexing Crimea, a historically Russian region of Ukraine, leading Europe and the U.S. to impose sanctions. Worryingly, Europe is used to turning to the U.S. for military support in such situations. Despite having no discernable national interest in Ukraine, the U.S. inserted itself into the dispute on behalf of its European allies. Similarly, while France has been more active than other Western countries in the Syrian civil war, Europeans turn to U.S. troops to guarantee their safety. European powers that pressed for intervention in Libya knew they needed the U.S. to be involved as well.
Trump, for his part, has questioned the role of NATO in the world order during the campaign. His post-election commitment to NATO doesn't preclude a long-overdue rethinking of the alliance and the U.S. role in it. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, a Europe that has not seen a war on its continent in this century ought to take more responsibility for its own security. For decades, Europe's political classes have taken up the project of political integration via the European Union. Perhaps the rise of Trump, a presidential candidate many European leaders expressed open distaste for (though they were quick to reach out after he'd won) will motivate Europeans to move away from being reliant on American military power and toward security independence.