The Problem Neither Obama Nor Bush Could Solve

The 2016 presidential campaign is turning into a mirror of the 2008 race. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton seeks to distinguish herself from the policies of the sitting chief executive, while sundry Republican candidates maintain that Obama’s incompetence has made America less safe and diminished its position in the world. No one seeking to become Barack Obama’s successor is promising to continue his approach in foreign policy, just as, in 2008, no one ran on a platform of adopting the policies of the George W. Bush administration.

As much as Democratic partisans may resent the comparison, President Obama, entering the final stage of his second term, seems to be presiding over a foreign-affairs trajectory similar to the final years of the Bush administration. Obama’s tenure has been defined by a deterioration of the U.S. position in the international order; growing anti-American sentiment as reflected in public-opinion surveys around the globe; an increased willingness of rising and resurgent powers to challenge American presence abroad; and difficulty in assuring friends that Congress will honor the key agreements the President conducts with foreign leaders. These difficulties are fomenting profound unease among the American electorate about its future safety and prosperity. According to Republican foreign-policy practitioners, the Obama administration will leave office in a year’s time stymied by the same obstacles that bedeviled his predecessor’s administration: the inability to understand Russia’s position in a post–Cold War world without alienating American allies and the struggle to set Afghanistan and Iraq on sustainable paths to peace and stability. The challenges in those areas endanger in turn a third U.S. goal—pivoting towards East Asia. Democrats today no longer enjoy any advantage over Republicans in terms of competence in foreign policy or national security. The final quarter of the Obama presidency has eroded any of the gains made by Democrats over the past ten years in that area. This is quite an unexpected reversal of fortune.

Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 amid general optimism that his administration would repair the damage done to U.S. foreign policy during the tenure of George W. Bush in the White House. The expectation was that Obama would remove the United States from entanglements in the Middle East and heal tensions with Russia. Under Obama’s leadership, Democrats were eager to demonstrate their superior skill in handling the nation’s security. Unlike their Republican predecessors, they knew how to use military force more effectively, build more lasting and comprehensive international coalitions (especially with the trans-Atlantic allies), and produce tangible results. By Obama’s second term, the European Union would become a major contributor to global security, relations with Russia would stabilize, the first seedlings of democracy would take root in Middle East and the grand rebalance to the Asia-Pacific would be within reach.

This ambitious plan was codified in the 2011 Defense Strategic Guidance, which was supposed to steer U.S. defense spending for the remainder of Obama’s tenure in office. Five years later, however, these expectations are not aligning with reality. Hopes that Washington could usher the Arab Spring into a glorious summer of democracy have been replaced by the pessimism of an Arab Winter, with states collapsing and extremism on the rise. The Obama administration is preparing to leave office with the Iran nuclear issue essentially frozen for a decade—they were potentially successful in preventing a short-term Iranian dash to weapons capability, but they have left larger concerns about Iran’s intentions unresolved. Russia’s resurgence and its unwillingness to accept the post–Cold War settlement in Europe, together with the European Union’s own ongoing internal travails, have dashed hopes that Europe could become a security provider to augment U.S. efforts elsewhere. A rising China seems prepared to test American commitments in Asia as it seeks to redefine a regional order that the United States has underwritten for many decades. The fate of landmark trade deals that would put the United States at the center of both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific economic areas remains in doubt. Polling data collected at the end of 2015 suggests that Americans feel more unsafe and believe that the Obama administration’s policies are not sufficient to ensure the safety and security of the United States in what they see as an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.

Why has this happened? Why has the Obama administration, like its predecessor, been unable to…

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