LobeLog: Looking back to America’s position in the world when he took office in 2009, how would you evaluate Barack Obama’s performance in terms of foreign policy?
Andrew Bacevich: I think the place to begin is to remember that Barack Obama made two promises. The first promise was to end the Iraq War, which he dismissed as “the stupid war,” and the second promise was to win the Afghanistan War, which he described as “the necessary war.” Lo and behold, here we are eight years later and he has been unable to deliver on either promise. I don’t believe that those two failures alone should fully define or inform our judgments as to his success or failure as a president, but they have to constitute two very big black marks on his record.
When I look beyond those two failures, it seems to me that the record is at best mixed. To his credit, he gave up on George W. Bush’s illusions of being able to bring that part of the world into conformity with American wishes by simply relying on American military power. He gave up on the “invade and occupy to transform” model that President Bush pursued first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. We can credit President Obama with reducing the costs sustained by the United States in terms of Americans being killed and the number of dollars being wasted.
However, he has not devised any kind of a coherent strategy to bring about the restoration of stability in the Greater Middle East. One thing he has done that may hold hope for the future is the Iran nuclear deal. That deal eased pressures from hawks to attack Iran in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. It also creates a decent possibility of bringing Iran in from the cold and thereby resetting the region in ways that could—emphasize “could,” no assurances—10-20 years from now, facilitate the restoration of something approximating stability.
John Mearsheimer: I agree with everything Andy said, but I’d like to build on it and come at it from a slightly different perspective. My position is that the United States is much worse off today than it was in 2009, when Obama became the president. Just to focus on the Middle East, where Andy focused most of his attention, I think it is quite clear that, except for the Iran nuclear deal, under President Obama we have helped create a zone of disaster in that region of the world. Obama is principally responsible for getting the United States involved in Syria—although we didn’t use military force there, we have played a key role in the effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, which has failed and has created a disastrous situation. We also played a key role in bringing down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and helped turn that country into the Wild West. And the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be basically terrible, certainly from an American point of view. So, we’ve made a giant mess in the Middle East. It started under Bush, but it’s continued under Obama.
When you look beyond the Middle East, there are all sorts of reasons for concern. I believe that the Obama administration is principally responsible for the mess that we’re now in regarding Russia, which is mainly about Ukraine. I believe the Obama administration was asleep at the switch, not paying attention to what NATO and EU expansion—and promoting democracy in places like Ukraine and Georgia—meant to the Russians. The end result of our unrelenting policy to try and make Ukraine and Georgia part of the West is that we caused a major crisis with Russia, which is not in the American national interest. It would make much more sense, from our perspective, if we had good relations with the Russians; but of course we don’t, and I think the principal reason is because of the West’s foreign policy—and the main force driver there has been the United States.
AB: One reason for optimism is that Trump will not be unconstrained. Whatever his reckless and irresponsible inclinations, he’s going to meet resistance—some of it domestic, some of it from abroad. One reason for pessimism is that Trump shows little ability or even inclination to appreciate the forces in play that are changing the international order. The world is remarkably fluid. His perspective is static—stuck in some past that doesn’t exist and may never have existed.