Things change but US foreign policy stays the same

Things change but US foreign policy stays the same
It’s pretty much ‘as you were’ for Obama's foreign policy team as they head into the final two years of his presidency. The same countries exercise Washington and there is little sign of the pivot away from the Middle East.
5 min read
31 December, 2014
Critics say US foreign policy is one of response rather than prevention (AFP)

On Sunday, 28 December, Barack Obama, the US president, announced the formal end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan, saying that after 13 years, the longest war in American history was coming to a "responsible conclusion".

Obama was sticking to his promise to end a US military intervention in the Afghanistan war that claimed the lives of approximately 2,200 American soldiers and cost $1 trillion since the initial invasion on October 7, 2001 – in addition, of course, to the lives of some 21,000 Afghan civilians.

     Unpredictable events can often wreak havoc with lofty foreign policy goals.

Speaking at a US navy base in Hawaii, Obama said that, "these past 13 years have tested our nation and our military” and touted his own role in easing that burden. “[C]ompared to the nearly 180,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office, we now have fewer than 15,000 in those countries."

However, despite announcing that US combat involvement in Afghanistan war is over, we are likely to see the United States involved directly in the war-ravaged country for years to come. We need only look at Iraq, where Obama claimed three years ago that US combat involvement was "brought to a responsible conclusion", yet where American soldiers were involved in direct combat at "al-Assad Air Base" in the Anbar region only last week and where US combat airplanes are conducting daily bombing missions.

Indeed, unpredictable international events can often wreak havoc with American presidents’ lofty foreign policy goals, and President Obama's foreign policy in 2014 was no exception. One international crisis after another over the past year forced the United States back into the thick of several other conflicts that critics say he could have avoided with more foresight and attention.

Groundhog day

The year began with US foreign policy stuck, like a scene from the iconic Groundhog Day, where it has been for years: in a muddy puddle of wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, soon to be exacerbated by the crisis in the Ukraine. Indeed, in spite of Obama’s much touted foreign policy pivot to China, it is the same countries that continue to exercise the US: North Korea, Syria, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Cuba.

A decade after former American President George W. Bush famously coined his "Axis of Evil" phrase to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea, President Obama, who came into office promising to turn a new page in US foreign relations, six years into his presidency finds himself pretty much in the same spot, with the notable exception of the announcement of his intent to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba on 17 December.

But at his year-end press conference at the White House, the pompous and recalcitrant White House press did not bother to ask him, and he, Obama, did not volunteer a word about the many tentacles of US military involvement throughout the Middle East and Africa, or the future of US policy towards Iran.

He told the press that, sure, there were unexpected crises that the US had to respond to worldwide, but the US remains the world leader in combating evil everywhere from fighting the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) to turning back Russia's aggression, to combating the Ebola virus.

True enough, the year was marked by the rise of IS and its assumption of control over vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, almost toppling the government of Iraq after overrunning Mosul, the second largest city in the country, last June. It saw what some say is "the rebirth of an emboldened and belligerent Russia", coupled with the deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Meanwhile, there was no breakthrough with Iran in talks over its nuclear programme last November as was hoped.

A 'tough' year

It was, said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf on 23 December a “rough year”. But, she added, the US has emerged more engaged and showing more leadership.

"It’s been tough, it’s been difficult, but across the board I think you see more American leadership in more places and more issues and more areas than we’ve ever been before, period, even though a lot of challenges remain.

"My point is American leadership and success and strength in foreign policy is not about predicting when things are going to happen or preventing bad things from happening in the world,” she continued. “It’s how you respond to a variety of crises around the world and how you take action to prevent future crises."

Obama’s critics, however, say that his foreign policy is one of "response rather than prevention". They argue that the president opted to stick too closely to his script and that his attempt to pivot the country's attention away from the Middle East, failed in the process to prevent related crises as they were forming, especially when the Syrian civil war took a sharp turn for the worse.

Instead of finding a way to stop IS, they add, Obama spent most of his international capital in 2014 trying to secure an historic agreement with Iran to roll back its nuclear programme only to end the year with just an extension of an interim deal made in November 2013. They criticize the administration for extending the talks well into next year, and promise to bring together a group of bipartisan pro-Israeli politicians in both houses of Congress who fear that Washington is conceding too much to Tehran while Iran’s weapons programmes have continued unabated, and to scuttle any possible deal not approved first by Israel.

In 2015, low oil prices may provide the US with leverage in negotiations with Iran as well as Russia. But on another front, policy remains mired in the same old, same old.

The administration has already shown its hand in the UN’s Security Council in its 'no' to the  Palestinian proposal for ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by 30 November 2016. But some suggest that John Kerry, the secretary of state, is prepared to resume his shuttle diplomacy after the new year in pursuit of an alternative.

In the next few days we shall see whether Kerry can pull a rabbit out of his hat. Meanwhile, US foreign policy doesn’t look much different than it did a year ago.