Obama’s Foreign and Strategic Policy

When Barak Hussain Obama came to power in 2008, he was elected on the hopes, struggles and aspirations of generations of Americans, that looked to him to introduce a more progressive US approach in foreign and strategic relations, and perhaps a more magnanimous global leadership. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “promoting international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples… (and) a world without nuclear weapons”. The world effectively heaved a huge sign of relief when George W. Bush left office and the first African-American President of the United States took the oath of office. The expectation, as stated by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, was that Obama would invest in his declared vision of heralding a new era of cooperation and peace in the world. However, it was not till October 2011 that Obama announced the withdrawal of all US troops by end of the same year, and it was not till May 2012 that Obama agreed to a longer-term strategic commitment to the development and stabilization of Afghanistan.

Drone Warfare

Yet one immediate outcome of Obama’s ascent into the Whitehouse was the significant increase of the use of drone technology to target Taliban and insurgent forces, including Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. Wikipedia presents good analysis of the these drone strikes:

1) US Drone Strike Statistics estimate according to theNew America Foundation analysis of Newspaper articles.[2]
Year Number of
Number Killed
Min. Max.
2004 1 4 5
2005 2 6 7
2006 2 23 23
2007 4 56 77
2008 33 274 314
2009 53 369 725
2010 118 607 993
2011 70 378 536
2012 28 162 207
Total 311 1,879 2,887

2) US Drone Strike statistic based on months of research by a team of journalists of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:[

  • Total reported killed: 2,520 – 3,240
  • Civilians reported killed: 482 – 849
  • Children reported killed: 175
  • Total reported injured: 1,200 – 1,326
  • Strikes under the Bush Administration: 52
  • Strikes under the Obama Administration: 284
  • Total strikes: 336

Nuclear Disarmament and Cyber Warfare

One of President Obama’s key visions that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize was his declared intention of investing in global and mutual nuclear disarmament. Yet in the first two years in office, President Obama initiated little new policy and strategic approaches aimed at accelerating nuclear disarmament. Instead, in his first few months in office, President Obama ordered the CIA, working with Israel and certain European countries to significantly upscale the cyber warfare commenced under President Bush, in a cyber attack campaign aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear program. Initiatives such as “Olympic Games” and “Flame” were personally promoted by the President as a policy response to Iran’s intransigence on opening their nuclear weaponization program for full inspection. By so doing, President Obama pushed the US towards a new horizon in strategic warfare that ranked on the same level of strategic gamesmanship as the decision to use nuclear weapons by President Truman or to use chemical warfare in South East Asia; concretely President Obama laid open a new paradigm for warfare that could now easily be used by states and individuals, without the necessity of investing in armies, military hardware or governmental decision-making. A serious fallout of Obama’s decision to use cyber warfare against Iran, was the fact that Iran totally lost confidence in the ongoing nuclear program negotiations with the P5+1 (US and European countries, the same that had collaborated on operation Olympic Games). If Iran ever intended to open its nuclear program for inspection, the mis-confidence created by US’s cyber warfare initiative conclusively put an end to it, further convincing the Iranian leadership of the malevolence of the P5+1 and the US in particular. Iran remains an open dossier and in this context, it remains to be seen how President Obama will control and contain, the growing military and political independence of Israel.  The linkage between the nuclear status of Israel and the pursuit of a nuclear program by Iran might be linked and need to be considered as such in any effective negotiation (See section on Iran and Israel). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html?pagewanted=all

End Games: Concretizing the Fight Against Terrorism

Perhaps Obama’s most striking leadership move was to approve a risky mission by US special forces to take out Osama Bin Laden. Based on local intelligence and a last-minute tip-off by a Pakistani Doctor, President Obama acted on intelligence reports pinpointing the location of Osama Bin Laden, and ordered a risky mission that did not pre-consult or inform the host country Pakistan. On 2 May, 2011, President Obama took to the air to announce that the US had mounted a mission in the Pakistani city of Abbotsabad, and taken out Osama Bin Laden in a daring raid. In the process,they also confiscated valuable computer and paper documentation that would subsequently provide intelligence analysts with a wealth of information on the internal workings and deployments of the larger Al-Qaeda network. A concrete achievement of his Presidency, the killing of Osama Bin Laden is undoubtably the crown jewel of the Obama Presidency in eliminating global terrorism and in showing himself to be an active Commander-in-Chief. Since then, a number of other key high-level terrorism targets have also been taken out by targeted drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

The Bin Laden killing, however marked a serious breaking point in the US- Pakistan relationship, and from the Pakistani point of view, constituted a breach of the US-Pakistan partnership in fighting terrorism and of Pakistan sovereignty. The US, apologetic but deeply questioning Pakistani integrity in providing refuge to OBL, finally exposed the duplicity of the Pakistanis. That relationship while healing slowly, is in its final stages as both the US and Pakistan now cannot avoid the hidden lies on which that strategic military and intelligence relationship is based: the instrumentalisation of Pakistan in the decades old war in Afghanistan since the occupation of that country by the Soviet Union,  the increasing support of Pakistan to global terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, and the growing political instability in Pakistan and the growing cohesion between US and India as a counter weight relationship. All these have shifted the balance in the US-Pakistan-India relationship to disfavor Pakistan, but Pakistan could find redemption in its reinvigorated relationship with China, which includes such innovative economic aspects as China developing the Pakistani Arabian Gulf port of Gwadar (see section on Pakistan). These shifting alliances however, do not diminish but exacerbate the fragility of Pakistan’s nuclear status and the astronomically increase the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling under terrorist control. In this sense, Pakistan and not Iran poses the imminent global nuclear threat which President Obama, far from his pledge to control nuclear weapons, has made more vulnerable and susceptible to nuclear terrorism. http://www.iss.europa.eu/publications/detail/article/us-strategic-interests-in-south-asia-what-not-to-do-with-pakistan/


Promoting International Diplomacy: The Obama Wars and Interventions

The most striking outcome of the first Obama presidency has been a significant scaling up of the insecurity and instability in the Middle East. The Tunisian revolution which toppled long-time dictator Ben-Ali was welcomed by all except France, that had supported Ben-Ali’s decades old tyrannical reign. The US had little import in to the actual revolution but after its success, has cautiously courted the emergent political order in restoring democracy through elections and economic progress. The revolutions in Yemen and Egypt both, however exposed the purposeful US policy stretching over decades to support Saleh and Mubarak in dictatorial rule over their peoples. Even when the people’s revolution in Egypt was in the final stages of succeeding, the US continued to work to strengthen military rule over that country. In Yemen, the US played a less than honorable role in not supporting the opposition and pushing Saleh to step down; today, Yemen is still struggling to emerge from the control and nepotism of Saleh-era military and political elements that probably are still being financed and supported by the US.

Obama decision to work with UK and France in pushing a Security Council sanctioned NATO intervention in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, resulted in the positive in the violent death of Muanmar Gaddafi but on the negative tumbled that country into a huge governance capacity challenge. Lack of controls over huge weapons and ammunition stockpiles meant that the smuggling of Libyan weapons further south to West Africa resulted in the de facto partition of Mali into two, with the installation of an Al-Qaeda state in the north (please see section on Middle East and Africa). Next in line is the Islamic Northern Nigeria while Libyan weapons have been reported as far south as Cote D’Ivoire. The US and NATO made no attempt to support the Libyans in safeguarding their weapons and ammunitions, teasing the conditions for a domino slide of real and potential conflicts in West Africa. Syria and Bahrain are both conflicts that are still in their active phases: in Bahrain, US military and political support to the ruling dictatorship continues with total disregard for the significant human rights violations perpetrated against Bahraini people (please see section on Bahrain), while in Syria, US surrogates Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been progressively increasing monetary support to a massive insurgent war since the bombing death of Rafic Hariri on 14 February 2005, in Lebanon, and the increase in pressure on Iran to comply with US demands to shut down their nuclear program. While the aim of facilitating access of Syrian people to democratic political processes is valid and a shared objective, the current tedium of US policy in not taking direct supportive action but also not letting go of the objective of regime change in Syria, continues to result in unacceptable civilian deaths.

Today and in relation to Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, I want to question President Obama’s contribution to promoting cooperation amongst people and also enhancing international diplomacy as a means of making our world safer. While President Obama did conclusively end the occupation by allied forces of Iraq, and he has set a definitive deadline for withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, he has also initiated or directly sponsored unacceptable levels of instability in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Under Obama’s watch, the CIA and other US secret services have expanded their program of work globally but particularly in the Middle East, raising significant questions about the intentions of President Obama’s Foreign and Strategic policy.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Refocus: Asia-Pacific 

When closing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has refocused US foreign and strategic policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. This has focused attention on the emerging congruence between the US and India, Australia and New Zealand, in part as a response to China’s more aggressive Pacific military and economic policy. This also shifts emphasis from the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean to the Arabia Gulf, Indian and Pacific Oceans. While this is perceived as a challenge by China, the US is already working through its allies in the region to tease the many land and sea disputes that remain unresolved in the South China Sea and the Pacific (please see section on China and Asia). With this move, Obama has perhaps made the most definitive change in US foreign policy since the declaration of the Marshall Plan and the formation of the Dominoes theory which sparked the Cold War. It remains to be seen how this strategy will play itself out.         http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century?page=full


President Obama appeared to have a mixed start after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2009. His lack of immediate action domestically on urgent economic issues was balanced by his pronounced action in the realm of foreign policy and military strategic leadership globally, and particularly in the Middle and Near East. Far from promoting calm and increasing sense of security and peace, the Obama Presidency produced competing results in foreign policy: it has fueled a growing sense of discomfort and distrust in the intentions behind US foreign and strategic policy in the 150 countries or so that are not in Europe, and contrarily, have produced increased cohesion between US, UK and France on a host of international initiatives and issues, while distancing some others such as Germany. Not all the outcomes have been positive as indicated, but it is striking that more movement and outcomes have been forthcoming during President Obama’s Presidency then under many others, including the toppling of entrenched dictators such as Saleh and Mubarak, and the death of Osama Bin Laden and many other key  terrorist leaders. Contrary to expectations, President Obama has not invested in human rights considerations in forging his foreign policy initiatives and sometimes, as in Bahrain, acted against the best interests of the people of that country. He has not invested in international diplomacy over war, as the award of the Nobel Peace Prize had forecast, instead initiating new warfare fora, heralding the age of technological and cyber warfare. I say all this with a modicum of regret, as I look at the coming US Presidential election and note that, while President Obama has redefined the concept of “war presidency”, in comparison to Mitt Romney’s open tea party warmongering, Obama appears to be the far lesser of the two evils.

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Categories: Foreign Policy, US and the West

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