Obama's Foreign Policy

Great Expectations, Tempered by Reality

President Barack Obama began his first term in 2009 with the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded, the committee said, for his support of multilateral diplomacy, nuclear disarmament, combating climate change, and for the U.S. to take its “share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.” Eight years later, the president can list measurable progress on domestic issues, such as health care and the economy, but abroad, between inherited challenges and new ones, has he lived up to the expectations the peace prize laid out? And can President-elect Donald Trump roll back some of Obama’s key accomplishments?



Obama's 'Good War' Becomes the Longest War

From the moment he took office, Obama prioritized what he saw as the “good” war in Afghanistan, as opposed to the Iraq War, which he viewed as a mistake. He added 30,000 U.S. troops to try to rapidly escalate the conflict with the Taliban and other insurgents, declare victory, and then leave. It didn’t work out that way. When Obama started bringing home the surge troops, the Taliban regained ground. Although he followed through on his promise to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, nearly 10,000 U.S. troops remained through the end of his term. The conflict, already America’s longest, simmers on with no end in sight.

Counterterrorism in Africa


Air Wars and Intel across the Continent

The U.S. made small, regular contributions to curb Islamist militant activity in East and West Africa during Obama’s tenure, mostly helping with surveillance. American forces have, however, taken more active roles without resorting to ground combat, notably with the killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Moktar Ali Zubeyr, the leader of al-Shabaab, in a 2014 drone strike in southern Somalia. His was the first death in a series of attacks aimed at eliminating leaders of the al-Qaida-affiliated extremist group. The previous year, the Pentagon logistically supported French troops allied with the Malian military to take on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb fighters in northern Mali. The U.S. also deployed hundreds of troops to Cameroon in 2015 to aid with intelligence and reconnaissance to roll back the Boko Haram insurgency in neighboring Nigeria. All three terror groups remain active, in some cases choosing allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Asia Pivot


A Slow Turn

After years of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, Obama took office with the ambitious goal of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. In 2011, he announced the Asia pivot. Though it wasn’t explicitly sold as a way to contain a rising China, most saw it that way, including Beijing. Under the new policy, the bulk of U.S. Air Force and Navy forces would shift to the Pacific by 2020. The U.S. would also strengthen key alliances and trade agreements with Asian countries. The success of the pivot remains unclear after the U.S. Congress abandoned support for the Asia-oriented TPP trade deal and territorial tensions continue rising in the South China Sea.

Bin Laden's Death


The Long Arc of Accountability

Obama said that shortly after taking office he had ordered then-CIA Director Leon Panetta to prioritize capturing or killing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, long sought for his role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S. “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” the president said the night after elite U.S. forces ambushed a home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 2, 2011, killing the terror mastermind.

Trump says: He accused Pakistani intelligence officials of "sheltering" Bin Laden in 2013.

Central American Migrant Crisis


Fleeing Violence Across the Border

As long as the U.S. and Mexico have had a border, people have crossed it, legally or not. But in early 2014, the numbers skyrocketed for families and children traveling alone. Border patrol agents apprehended nearly half a million people, largely from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most of them fleeing poverty and violence. The White House blamed Congress for failing to overhaul the country’s immigration system, a sticking point for a divided government in the years leading up to the crisis. In response to the humanitarian crisis at the border, where migrants sheltered in bus stations and other public places, the government designated more personnel and funds and targeted campaigns in the countries of origin to dissuade would-be travelers. Federal agents also tried to dismantle smuggling rings, and many new arrivals were deported. While the border patrol detained fewer migrants crossing illegally the next year, that number climbed again in 2016.

Trump says: He will build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, and make the Mexican government pay for it.



Best Frenemies

Obama took a pragmatic approach to China, mixing competition and cooperation to advance what he termed the world’s “most important bilateral relationship.” Areas of longstanding disagreement, such as human rights and trade, continued to present challenges. New disputes involved China’s assertiveness in the East and South China seas and its cyberattacks on U.S. companies. Beijing also bristled at Obama’s Asia “pivot,” viewing it as a containment policy. But the two countries set aside their differences to cooperate on issues such as climate change and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Trump says: He is an outspoken opponent of Chinese trade practices.

Climate Change


Science Wins

Obama’s climate change record in many ways mirrors his foreign policy record as a whole: His successes came mainly through the use of executive power, faced massive domestic opposition, and could easily be rolled back by his successor. Obama scored a big climate win in 2015 by helping secure the 195-nation Paris Agreement on climate change. Perhaps the most important part of the deal was getting China, the world’s biggest polluter, to sign on. Domestically, Obama also helped steer the U.S. toward cleaner energy and reduced carbon emissions. In December 2016, he blocked off-shore drilling from 98 percent of U.S.-controlled Arctic waters and areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

Trump says: Global warming is a “hoax"; he nominated a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency.


Carlos Barria / Reuters  

Ending the Caribbean Cold War

After five frosty decades between Washington and Havana, Obama announced in late 2014 that the two countries would mend diplomatic relations. Included in the detente were a prisoner swap and the release of political detainees inside Cuba. On August 14, 2015, the U.S. flag flew over the U.S. embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961. Hardline, anti-Castro opposition leaders and members of the U.S. Congress opposed the rapprochement; the economic embargo on the island, a punitive measure against the Castro government and subject to congressional vote, remains in place. Obama visited the island in March 2016, the first sitting U.S. president to do so since 1928. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he declared in Havana.

Trump says: He said the Havana-Washington deal was "fine," but then said he opposes the deal and will cancel or renegotiate it. He has not specified what that would look like.



Remote Control War

Obama early on promised to involve fewer ground troops in wars around the world. Instead, he embraced drone strikes as his signature counterterrorism tool, not only in countries where the U.S. was at war (Iraq and Afghanistan), but also in countries where it was not (Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya). Obama argued that drone strikes were a necessary evil, but critics say the program was arbitrary, secretive and resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. Though the rate of drone strikes has dropped in recent years, Obama will pass on to Trump an unprecedented program that will allow him to wage war on a global battlefield, with little accountability.


Abbas Dulleh / AP  

Disaster Contained

An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 prompted an international response to treat the ill and prevent the disease from spreading to more countries. The virus largely affected three countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented 28,600 reported cases and more than 11,000 deaths. The U.S. deployed more than 30,000 military, health and humanitarian personnel to West Africa to join international efforts to build treatment facilities, provide protective equipment, and aid in proper burials. By late 2014, the increase in new cases and deaths had slowed, tapering off around March 2015, a year after the outbreak was first reported.


Gerald Herbert / AP  

Full Circle

During his landmark speech in Cairo in 2009, Obama declared his intent to promote human rights and democracy. Months later, that commitment was tested, when protesters demanded the ouster of Egypt’s longtime president and U.S. ally, Hosni Mubarak. Hoping the protests against authoritarian rule were a sign of democratic progress, Obama abandoned Mubarak. When Egypt’s first democratic elections resulted in the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama cautiously embraced the Islamist group. But Morsi was soon overthrown in a military coup that was backed by many protesters. His successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has overseen a bloody crackdown on his Islamist rivals and rolled back democratic reforms. In response, Obama suspended some military aid to Egypt but has since reinstated it, restoring traditional U.S. support for Egypt’s authoritarian military rulers.

Guantanamo Bay


No Closure for Guantanamo

Closing the controversial military detention center in southeast Cuba was a mainstay of Obama’s 2008 campaign. But toward the end of his second term, he admitted defeat. “It is true that I have not been able to close the darn thing because of the congressional restrictions that have been placed on us,” he said in November 2016. Lawmakers rejected the administration’s plan, which included additional transfers outside the U.S. and moving other detainees to a facility inside the U.S. The base housed about 780 terror suspects beginning in 2002; the majority of the detainees were released before the start of Obama’s tenure in 2009, and Obama continued to reduce the number throughout his two terms. As of early January 2017, 55 prisoners remain on the base, 19 of whom are approved for release. The indefinite detention without charge or trial for Guantanamo prisoners led rights watchdog Amnesty International to call the facility “emblematic of gross human rights abuses.”

Trump says: He will not only keep the detention center open, but will "load it up" with "bad dudes."



Choosing Sides Post-Coup

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was facing internal opposition, in part over a foreign policy stance that included close ties to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Raúl Castro. In an overnight operation June 28, 2009, the Honduran military detained Zelaya at his home and flew him out of the country. The American government initially supported the Honduran leader, with Obama calling the coup illegal. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would later write in a memoir that in the days after Zelaya’s exile, she strategized with her regional counterparts “to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately,” calling into question that original support for the Honduran president. Negotiations for a power-sharing government failed in early November 2009; elections were held later that month. Since 2010, Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. That violence played a central role in thousands of Hondurans fleeing north to the U.S. as part of a massive migrant wave that began in 2014.



Diplomatic Victory in Vienna

In an Obama administration win for shuttle diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of the P5+1 (U.S., China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, plus Germany), along with the EU, brokered a deal with Iran in July 2015 in Vienna. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, agreed to by an Iranian team led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing of long-standing economic sanctions. The success of years of negotiations was seen as a majority victory for traditional diplomatic negotiations; political resistance from U.S. Congress means lawmakers have not ratified the agreement as a treaty, calling into question its survivability under future American administrations.

Trump says: “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran" (March 2016).



Pulled Back In

Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq War, a conflict he famously referred to as “dumb.” But in the end, the Iraq War refused to go away. In late 2011, Obama fulfilled his campaign promise and brought home the last U.S. combat soldiers from Iraq. But the ensuing security vacuum and a divided Iraqi leadership led the country again into violence. Sunni extremists, many of whom had been fighting the U.S. for a decade, merged to form the Islamic State group and seized much of northern Iraq and western Syria. In response, Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq, ostensibly as advisers, and carried out regular airstrikes against militants.

Trump says: U.S. military involvement in Iraq looks likely to expand, as he has vowed to quickly defeat Islamic State.

Islamic State


The JV Squad That Wasn't

Obama famously belittled the Islamic State as a rookie sports team, after the then-little-known militant extremist group gained ground throughout 2013 and 2014 in Iraq and Syria in a violent land grab. On August 8, 2014, the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq against the group, calling on traditional Western military allies to join an international coalition including  Arab partners. The next month, the air campaign extended into Syria. As of October 15, 2016, the U.S spent $10 billion in a largely air-based campaign. In two years of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. has avoided the massive military causalities seen in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s, after Obama mostly kept his pledge to avoid American military “boots on the ground” in combat roles (the work-around is the so-called “train-advise-and-assist” mechanism, whereby U.S. soldiers support local military forces in Iraq and armed rebel groups like the Kurdish YPG and Syrian opposition fighters), but the conflict continues. IHS Conflict Monitor reported in October 2016 that Islamic State has lost 16 percent of the land it held at the beginning of the year, and overall 25 percent of the land it controlled in January 2015.

Trump says: He has a secret plan to defeat Islamic State. That plan remains a secret as of December 12, 2016. But he has also said the U.S. would work with allies in the Middle East, use coalition military operations, and defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism - three tenets of the Obama administration's strategy.

Israeli/Palestinian Conflict


No Olive Branch

Obama entered office vowing to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He followed through, holding peace talks near the start of each of his terms. When those efforts failed, Obama instead helped manage the existing reality, in part by upholding U.S. support for the two-state solution and helping mediate when hostilities erupted. Obama also criticized Israeli settlements, but under his watch the number of West Bank settlers increased dramatically, calling into question the viability of a future Palestinian state. In 2016, Obama cemented U.S.-Israel ties with a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package, the largest ever of its kind. But before leaving office, Obama abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, angering Israeli leaders. 



Mission Creep

Earlier this year, Obama was asked what he considered the worst mistake of his presidency. His answer? Failure to plan for the aftermath of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The stated aim of the NATO no-fly zone mission was to protect civilians from Libyan government forces, but the goal soon expanded to toppling longtime dictator and U.S. foe Moammar Gadhafi. After Gadhafi was killed in 2011, chaos reigned. Militias divided the country, and two rival parliaments and governments were formed. The instability was exploited by Islamist extremists, who seized large parts of the country and in 2012 killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The U.N. has failed to broker a peace deal between the two governments.



Embracing the Generals

When Obama took office, Myanmar was run by one of the world’s most repressive and longest ruling military dictatorships. Two years later, the junta unexpectedly handed power to a semi-civilian government, beginning reforms that would open it up to the outside world. Eventually, thousands of political prisoners were freed, state censorship was loosened, and credible elections were held. The Obama administration encouraged those reforms, restoring diplomatic relations and leading the West in rolling back longstanding sanctions. Longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi – a key U.S. ally – became Myanmar’s de facto leader. Challenges remain, including government abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority, ongoing ethnic conflicts, and an underdeveloped economy.

North Korea


Waiting It Out

In his first inaugural address, Obama offered an open hand to U.S. foes if they were willing to “unclench” their fists. Months later, North Korea greeted the new president with a nuclear test, a provocation that set the tone for the next eight years. A breakthrough briefly appeared in early 2012, when Kim Jong Un agreed to halt nuclear activities in exchange for food aid. But less than a year later, Pyongyang broke its promise, carrying out another nuclear test. In total, the North would conduct four nuclear tests during Obama’s terms. Obama helped implement tough U.N. sanctions in response as part of a “strategic patience” philosophy, but that did not prevent North Korea from becoming all but a full-fledged nuclear-armed power during his tenure.

Nuclear Weapons


Blasted Promises

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons was one of Obama’s main foreign policy goals, but he failed to make much progress. A 2010 deal with Russia to cut strategic arms brought some early success, but renewed tension between the Cold War foes eventually stymied progress. He did succeed in putting nuclear disarmament back on the agenda, in part because of his biannual international nuclear security summits, which resulted in improved global nuclear security. But according to Pentagon data released last year, the Obama administration made fewer reductions to the U.S. nuclear stockpile than any other president since the end of the Cold War. Obama also moved forward with sweeping plans to augment and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Trump says: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes"



Crisis on Land and at Sea

Nearly six years of civil war and the violent rise of Islamic State displaced millions of Syrians. Camps opened in neighboring Jordan and Turkey. Syrians with enough resources to pay for passage on often rickety, overburdened boats made their way to Greece, pressing into Western Europe. Joining them were so-called “economic migrants” from Africa and South and Central Asia, triggering a humanitarian crisis on the Mediterranean in which thousands died at sea. In 2015, the U.S. responded with the executive decision to increase the refugee ceiling, designating at least 10,000 spots for Syrians. Though the U.S. is the leading country for permanent refugee resettlement through UNHCR, those elevated numbers fall dramatically short of worldwide need. Obama appealed to world leaders at a sideline event during the U.N. General Assembly in September to do more for refugees, but foreign governments have done little to answer his call; the same month, Obama increased the number of refugees to be accepted by the U.S. this fiscal year to 110,000.

Trump says: Citing unproven security concerns, Trump said he will stop Syrian refugee arrivals, at least temporarily.




Obama’s relations with Russia started on a high note in 2009, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a large red “reset button” meant to symbolize a fresh diplomatic start. It didn’t last long. The two Cold War foes quickly disagreed over the strategy to handle civil wars in Libya and Syria. When Vladimir Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, ties worsened. Recent disputes have centered on Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Moscow’s alleged attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Trump says: Ties could improve under Trump, who has praised Putin and said the U.S. can work with Moscow to fight Islamist extremists.



Blurred Red Line Between U.S. and Assad

Syria’s civil war began in 2011, pitting rebel groups throughout the country against President Bashar al-Assad and government forces. Obama, then in his first term, stated infamously that the “red line” Assad would need to cross to prompt U.S. intervention was the use of chemical weapons. That was in August 2012. A U.N. investigation has shown that Assad’s forces used chemical attacks at least three times since 2013, but the U.S. has not taken direct action against Assad. Russia joined Syrian military airstrikes under the pretext of taking on terrorist targets, including Islamic State, but critics of that alliance allege the Kremlin is complicit with state-sanctioned violence against opposition forces during the ongoing civil war. The U.S. avoided a “boots on the ground” intervention, but the catastrophic toll on civilians is a sore point for Obama, who said in his final news conference of 2016: “I cannot claim that we’ve been successful.”



Trans-Pacific Breakup

The free trade deal was meant to be one of the cornerstones of Obama’s economic policy and a key part of his “pivot” to Asia. In Obama’s view, the deal would have spurred economic growth by loosening trade barriers between the 12 TPP nations, which make up 40 percent of the world economy. The TPP also had important geopolitical implications, allowing the U.S. to write the “rules of the road” for international trade, and serving as a counterweight to a rising China, which it excluded. The deal was completed in 2016 but never ratified by the U.S.Congress.

Trump says: He will keep the U.S. out of the TPP, making most aspects of the deal dead for now.



Crossing the Border, Over and Over

Following the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, appropriating the Crimean Peninsula as part of the Russian Federation and souring diplomatic relations with the EU and U.S. Today, Crimea remains under Russian control, though Ukraine and much of the international community do not recognize the annexation; the U.S. and Europe placed sanctions on Russia as a result, and Russia countered with a similar decision, banning food imports from Australia, Canada, the EU, Norway, and the U.S. The war in Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, also continues between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.



The Overlooked War

When Houthi rebels overran the capital Sana’a in September 2014, and pushed Yemen’s president into exile in Saudi Arabia, there were a few months when it was Yemeni against Yemeni — uncertainty about the country’s future, but not much in the way of a death toll. By the end of March 2015, however, Riyadh began airstrikes against the Houthis and eventually established a naval blockade. Yemen, long the poorest country in the Middle East, was crippled economically and physically. The U.S., while not directly participating in the airstrikes, provides logistical and intelligence support, including offshore refueling for Saudi warplanes. (Additionally, Obama’s administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, military equipment and training, the most of any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance, according to Reuters.) Repeated negotiations to broker a truce between pro-government and pro-Houthi forces have failed. Analysts and media labeled the conflict a regional proxy war between Iran (supporting the Houthis), and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. (supporting forces loyal to the exiled Yemeni president). The humanitarian crisis continues unabated; the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 civilians have been killed. In December 2016, administration officials said the U.S. would block the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits, out of concern over civilian casualties in Yemen, though a Saudi official disputed that report.