Diplomacy's Aversion to Power: Consequences of Retreat

Is the active foreign policy engagement and leadership of the United States essential for its own security, the security of its allies, and the maintenance of a stable world order? This is a question that would not have been asked until recent years. But we have been witnessing a sea change in foreign policy as America has gradually but unmistakably been pulling back from its customary international role. And this raises another question. Does the strategy of retrenchment and selective disengagement pursued by the Obama administration and advocated by presidential candidate Donald Trump enhance or threaten America’s own national interests and the stability of global order?

Current retrenchment in foreign policy has been driven not only by ideological considerations but also by public disillusionment with the results of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by complex policy dilemmas, the perceived intractability of regional problems, and economic and budgetary constraints. And it has been applauded by “realists” from both the academic and policy worlds.

In practice, of course, the retreat process has been uneven and more subtle in some areas and functions than in others. The United States has used force, including drone attacks against al-Qaeda and ISIS. It took part in air strikes against the Libyan regime of Kaddafi in 2011. It has returned advisers and air power to Iraq, slowed the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, and undertaken limited air strikes and Special Forces operations in Syria.

Nonetheless, the Obama foreign policy has more often than not been one of disengagement, conciliation of adversaries, and aversion to the use of American power that itself has been affected by marked reductions in the size of the U.S. military. This approach has been adopted with the aim of reducing conflict, motivating local actors to counterbalance regional threats, encouraging the international community to “step up” in assuming the burdens of regional stability, protecting America’s own national interests, and promoting global order. But the results of this policy indicate that it has failed to achieve its own objectives. As a consequence, we now face an ever more dangerous world with the rise of hostile powers, fanatical terrorist movements, and worsening regional conflicts in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Meanwhile, our allies have become uneasy and have sought to hedge their own security commitments, while senior U.S. military and intelligence leaders warn of increasing threats to America itself.

In contrast, as recently as the 1990s, at a time when U.S. primacy seemed unchallenged in the aftermath of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s international engagement was described as “indispensable.” In the following years, the phrase came to be praised, criticized, and by some even ridiculed. Nonetheless, the experiences of recent years provide compelling evidence about the adverse consequences of retrenchment. The president who takes the oath of office next year will thus face a daunting task in reasserting leadership, deterring adversaries, and reassuring allies. Although robust involvement and leadership by the United States cannot be a sufficient condition for security and world order, the evidence suggests it is a necessary one.


U.S. Indispensability: Then and Now

For three-quarters of a century, the United States was the world’s preeminent power. Its accomplishments, now surrounded by growing nostalgia, included victory in World War II, creating and sustaining the institutions of the postwar world order while guiding the recovery of Europe and Japan, Cold War leadership of the Atlantic Alliance while deterring and balancing against the Soviet Union, and active engagement in the post–Cold War world.

Notwithstanding speculation about how “history” had “ended” with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the quarter century since the end of the Cold War has seen changes that deeply affect international affairs and the environment in which America conducts foreign policy. Important among these has been a growing diffusion of power, in which major regional states have emerged as leading actors and in some cases as challengers to the United States and its allies and interests. Globalization, economic growth, the massive expansion of trade, and the digital revolution have fostered these changes among others. The results have not only affected regional security but also the economies and societies of the traditional Western and liberal powers. As a result, the relative strength of America’s allies in Europe and Japan has ebbed, while rising powers, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and others have taken on increased importance or even emerged as potential competitors of the United States.

In retrospect, the brief post–Cold War era came to a stunning end with the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The American response in Afghanistan was initially successful in driving out al-Qaeda and ousting the Taliban regime that had made that country a safe haven for jihadist terrorism. The subsequent March 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime and destroying its presumed weapons of mass destruction also enjoyed initial success, but in both countries, the vastly different tasks of securing stability and institution building proved far more difficult.

As Afghanistan and Iraq became grinding conflicts with no end in sight, American domestic support for both interventions eroded. By the time the insurgency by the sectarian forces of al-Qaeda in Iraq was finally suppressed through the successful 2007–2008 “surge,” carried out in close coordination with Sunni tribes in the “awakening” movement, the costs to America in blood and treasure left the public wary and— together with the impact of the great recession—ready for a change in political leadership. The 2008 election, brought a new president, Barack Obama, prepared to transform American foreign policy.

To the extent that an Obama Doctrine can be identified, it consisted in a set of preconceptions about foreign policy and the behavior of other countries toward the United States. Obama came to office emphasizing outreach to current or potential adversaries and offering them an extended hand. This was accompanied by a reluctance to confront countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, based on the assumption that their behavior was largely a reaction to U.S. policy. The evidence for that proposition is limited, but it has had the effect of downplaying the autonomy or agency of other actors, that is, the motivations, beliefs, histories, and self-interest that shape state actions.


Is There an Obama Doctrine?

Some have questioned whether an Obama doctrine really exists. Obama himself has described his own concept as, “Don’t do stupid [s . . . t].”1 However, there is ample evidence from his rhetoric and actions of an identifiable approach to foreign policy—whether or not the word “doctrine” is used to describe it. After more than seven years in office, the signposts of the Obama approach can be distinguished clearly.

These include, first, an innate suspicion about the use of American power and a reluctance to deploy and use it. When presented with options about the dispatch of advisors, numbers of troops to be deployed, or frequency and intensity of air strikes, Obama’s instinct has almost always been to opt for the minimal choice and to lead, if at all, from behind.

Second, policies toward adversaries are disproportionately conciliatory, even in response to flagrant provocation. The diplomatic opening to Cuba was unilateral, taking place without substantive concessions on the part of the Castro regime, and the number of political arrests dramatically increased after it occurred. In the case of Iran, Teheran repeatedly ratcheted up its terms for agreement, for example, on weapons imports that contravened previous UN Security Council sanctions and on self-provision of soil samples, with little pushback from the United States. And in the aftermath of the July 2015 nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA]), there was not even a face-saving expression of disapproval when the Ayatollah Khamenei led crowds chanting “Death to America.” Moreover, the State Department itself continued to designate Iran as a state supporter of terrorism.

Next, even while being conciliatory toward adversaries, the President’s “doctrine” has repeatedly exhibited a distancing from countries that had long been traditional allies of the United States. In his first term especially, Obama distanced himself from Europe. In the Middle East, as the administration sought accommodation with Iran, differences grew with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and diplomatic relations with Israel became more fraught than at any time in at least a generation. Distancing was evident in personal relationships too, where Obama, unlike his predecessors, failed to establish close associations with foreign leaders.

More broadly, the Obama approach has been one of retrenchment and disengagement, especially when compared with his recent predecessors. In post Qaddafi Libya, there was reluctance to do what was necessary to support stabilization. There was an ineffectual policy “reset” with Russia that allowed Putin to increase his power despite a failed economy. Diplomatic support was denied to the “green” protest in Iran; military assistance was refused for moderate rebels early in the Syrian uprising. The administration insisted on removing all U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011, rejected defensive weapons for Ukraine, and carried out deep cuts in U.S. troop strength and the defense budget.

Obama has sometimes been willing to use military force, as in the use of Special Forces and drone strikes against ISIS, the temporary troop surge in Afghanistan, and the killing of Bin Laden. Nonetheless, the impulse toward retrenchment has been evident, especially in widely reported disagreements with experienced foreign and defense policy members of his national security team, especially Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ashton Carter, CIA Director David Petraeus, and on occasion Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These differences have arisen over policies toward Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.2 For example, in his memoir, Gates later described how, in the midst of a contentious White House meeting, he concluded that Obama “doesn’t trust his [military] commander . . . doesn’t believe in his own strategy.”3

Following his reelection in 2012, Obama highlighted three foreign policy objectives, each reflecting his preference to shift away from America’s traditional geopolitical priorities in order to emphasize diplomacy and engagement. These included diplomatic recognition of Cuba, an opening to Iran based on an agreement to curtail its nuclear program, and identifying global climate change as a national security priority. Nonetheless, the urgency of crises in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine tended to overshadow these priorities, and in each case, policies of retrenchment or inaction proved damaging.



In the response to chaos in Syria, retrenchment and reluctance to commit American power even indirectly has had consequences harmful to U.S. interests and regional order.

After the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the Assad regime used poison gas against its own population. Reacting to these reports on August 20, 2012, President Obama declared, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line [emphasis added] for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation . . . [T]here would be enormous consequences.”

The statement was widely seen as an explicit warning.

A year later, in August 2013, after Assad’s forces used chemical weapons causing hundreds of civilian deaths, Obama announced that he would seek authorization from congress before using military force to intervene in Syria. He also sought support at the United Nations and from Britain. However, when asked directly about his red line statement, Obama responded evasively, citing the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, and adding, “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.” After implying that force might be used, administration spokesmen then downplayed the scale of any such a measure. Obama’s hesitant initial call to action was followed by the British Parliament’s rejection of intervention, whereupon Washington backed away from using force to punish the Syrian regime and thus from any real enforcement of the President’s warning.

At this point, with the use of force now in abeyance, the Russians proposed an agreement for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons and production facilities and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. As a powerful backer of the Syrian regime, Moscow had considerable leverage with Assad. The Obama administration found the measure a welcome way out of its policy dilemma, and the deal was agreed to in September 2013. The Assad regime subsequently did hand over much of its chemical weapons arsenal and dismantled many production facilities. Nonetheless, within months of the June 2014 deadline, international inspectors reported that Assad’s forces had again resorted to using poison gas, in the form of barrel bombs filled with chlorine. Syria did so, however, at a time of other crises for U.S. policymakers, involving Russia in Ukraine, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, China in the East and South China Seas, and delicate nuclear negotiations with Syria’s backers, Iran and Russia. As a result, the Obama administration largely sidestepped the subject of Syrian chemical weapons on the technicality that chlorine had not been specified in the original agreement.

Set against the scale of death and devastation in the Syrian war, the chemical weapons issue seems only a footnote, but the broader symbolic significance of the red line fiasco reverberated widely beyond the region, calling into question America’s reliability and seriousness of purpose. It fueled a perception of indecision and uncertainty, not only in the Middle East, but much more widely, leaving the administration with lessened credibility among allies and adversaries.

Moreover, it was not only the question of chemical weapons. As early as 2012, Secretary of defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and CIA Director David Petraeus had urged support for moderate rebels seeking to oust Assad. In doing so, they argued for weapons, safe areas, and a no fly zone to protect refugees and forces. Obama opposed these measures or later favored minimal options. Whether initial efforts might have succeeded is a matter of conjecture, but the consequences of more than five years of bloody war in Syria are beyond dispute: vast areas and large populations under the control of the fanatical ISIS movement, the proliferation of ISIS fighters and aligned movements throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa, more than 400,000 Syrians dead, millions displaced in Syria or into neighboring countries, Russia and Iran as the predominant external powers in the Levant, and a flood of more than a million refugees into Europe that is triggering extreme populist movements and threatens to destabilize the European Union. In sum, these events contradict Obama’s complacent assumption that, “[T]he Middle East is no longer terribly important to America’s interests.”4



Here too, policies of retrenchment aimed at limiting a conflict and ending the American role had adverse effects. By 2009, the “surge” had produced a degree of order and a tenuous peace among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. President Obama aimed to remove U.S. troops by the end of 2011, but two decisions motivated by that objective had fateful consequences. One involved the results of the 2010 Iraqi elections. A relatively secular and multiethnic coalition under Ayad Allawi had won a narrow plurality in the vote, but the Iranian-backed Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, refused to accept the election results. Over the objections of U.S. military officials, including the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, the Obama administration led by Vice President Biden and the then ambassador Christopher Hill supported Maliki and his Shiite party in the mistaken belief it would help speed the end of the war and U.S. withdrawal.

The other fateful event concerned the final drawdown of U.S. forces. As the December 2011 target date neared, American military and diplomatic officials in Iraq recommended leaving as many as thirty thousand troops to underwrite stability and to assist the Iraqi military with training, air support, and intelligence. In June 2011, after debates among his advisers and disagreements between the White House and the military, Obama decided on a figure of ten thousand (later reduced to five thousand). As a precondition for being implemented, this decision required renewal of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) providing legal immunity for U.S. troops, but discussions to achieve it failed. The reasons are disputed, but the negotiations might well have succeeded if military and economic aid had been better used as leverage, if Obama had not insisted that the SOFA be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, or if the talks had been conducted with greater skill and determination. In July 2015, just prior to his retirement as Army Chief of Staff, General Odierno expressed the view that had the President truly wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, he could have reached a deal to do so.

In December 2011, the remaining U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq. With their departure, Maliki immediately turned to repressing his Sunni rivals and to purging the Iraqi Army officer corps of all but his most loyal cronies. The consequences proved disastrous. Alienated Sunnis turned toward the previously dormant insurgency. With the resurgence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq) and then its offensive in Iraq in 2014, much of the Iraqi army collapsed, losing a third of the country and Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, even while outnumbering ISIS forces by as much as thirty to one. In the aftermath, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has observed that if the United States had kept troops in place, ISIS would not have been able to expand into Iraq.

In August 2014, with the deterioration of conditions in Iraq, Obama found it necessary to order air strikes and to redeploy U.S. military advisers and Special Forces there, becoming the fourth successive American president—following George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—to intervene in Iraq. Ironically, the 5,000 U.S. troops now operating there are deployed under an immunity agreement signed by Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, and without the kind of parliamentary approved SOFA that Obama had required in 2011.



Reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine provided yet another example of retrenchment in foreign policy and its wider effects. In early 2014, President Putin used covert and overt forms of hybrid warfare, including support for local insurgents, intelligence agents, weapons and equipment, appearance of well-armed military personnel whose uniforms and armored vehicles mysteriously lacked identifying military insignia (the notorious “little green men”), information warfare, and ultimately Russian military units and “volunteers,” to intervene in Crimea and then contrive through a dubious referendum to annex it to Russia.

The Russian president then targeted the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, with its substantial Russian speaking population. The embattled government in Kiev sought defensive weapons including body armor, night vision goggles, and antitank weapons, to resist incursions on its territory by Russian-backed insurgents. Instead of offering this modest support, the Obama administration offered only military field rations, though along with the European Union, the Obama administration did impose punitive economic sanctions on Russian leaders and businesses. The United States remained largely aloof from negotiations involving Russia and Ukraine. Instead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande took the lead in ceasefire talks—a distinct contrast with an earlier era when in 1995, the United States had led the contact group dealing with the crisis in Bosnia.

The significance of this reduced U.S. role was not lost on the Europeans. Russia’s actions in Ukraine marked the first time since 1945 that European borders had been changed by military force. Although Obama criticized Moscow, his call “to mobilize the international community to put pressure on Russia” and description of Putin’s actions as “19th century behavior in the 21st century” were perceived as empty words.


Power and Diplomacy: Restoring America’s Role

For more than seven years, President Obama has repeatedly framed foreign policy as a stark choice between his preferred course of action and military conflict. Not only in confronting real-time problems in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, but in dealing with Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, and others, Obama policy rhetoric has greatly understated and undervalued the wide range of options between nonintervention and the use of force while downplaying the costs of inaction.

In practice, aversion to the use of power undercuts the effectiveness of diplomacy. It has been said that power without diplomacy is blind, but it is equally true that diplomacy not backed by power is impotent. Skillful integration of power and diplomacy, wielded with prudence and informed judgment strengthens deterrence, provides reassurance to allies, and can actually lessen the need for military action. Moreover, in enhancing the credibility of U.S. commitments and signaling to potential adversaries, it reduces the risks of war by inadvertence where an adversary might otherwise dangerously underestimate American resolve.

Whoever takes the oath of office as President on January 20, 2017, will face a   retrenchment has not yielded peace, stability, and global order, but instead has seen growing instability, intensifying civil wars, expanding territorial control by hostile groups, worsening threats from terrorism, gross human rights abuses, and surging floods of refugees. Not all of these would have been or are solvable by American actions, but inaction or ill-considered U.S. policies have, on balance, exacerbated these problems. The next president must heed these policy failures to understand why it is necessary to adopt a more robust world role, not only to serve America’s own national interests but also for reasons of regional and global order.



1. The wording was first cited in Christi Parsons and Paul Richter, “Obama Argues against Use of Force to Solve Global Conflicts,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2014,  and quoted in Obama’s interview with Mark Landler of the New York Times, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats,” May 28, 2014. However, it was widely reported that the president privately used saltier language. See Mike Allen, “‘Don’t do stupid sh—‘(stuff),’” Politico.com, June 1, 2014.

2. For example, Leon Panetta, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (New York: Penguin, 2014); Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War  (New York: Knopf, 2014); Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hard Choices  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 90).

3. Quoted in a Fred Kaplan’s review of Duty , “Robert Gates’ Primal Scream,” Slate.com , January 14, 2014.

4. Jeffrey Goldberg’s paraphrase of Obama’s world view, in “The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. President Talks through His Hardest Decisions about America’s Role in the World,” The Atlantic, April 2016.


Robert J. Lieber is professor of government and international affairs at GeorgetownUniversity. His latest book is, Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order.

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