Barack Hussein Obama and the New Retrenchment

Barack Obama’s presidency marked a decided backward step from the muscular internationalism of his immediate predecessor. On its face, the US Senator from Illinois won the White House largely to reverse George W. Bush’s assertive international engagement and to refute his military interventionism. President Obama’s foreign policy, in fact, recorded the sharpest turn inward among any of the post-Cold War presidents. In some respects, Barack Hussein Obama’s international stance appeared such an acute departure from previous overseas ventures because junior Bush’s interventionism also represented a break from the overall circumspect engagement of his father and the generally conflict-avoidance Clinton presidency. During his presidential campaign, Obama’s advisers emphasized the use of “soft power diplomacy” rather than the hard power of the Bush junior era.1

Obama’s international stance, however, never matched the isolationism of the interwar period when White House occupants sidelined America’s engagement during the rise of German and Japanese radical doctrines and exuberant militarism of the 1930s. Rather, America’s 44th president scaled back American leadership in large-scale ground invasions while not

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Mark Twain, reputedly History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man. Percy Bysshe Shelley

© The Author(s) 2017

T.H. Henriksen, Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48640-6_8

completely abandoning all of America’s participation in international ventures. Hence, his restraint greatly contrasted with the younger Bush’s diplomatic and military muscularity.

Barack Obama’s retrenchment prescription for American foreign policy became known during his pursuit of the White House. He stumped for the presidency with a selective message condemning the Iraq War while endorsing the fight against al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan. His outlook resonated with the widespread war-weariness in the American body politic. He tapped into wide sectors in American society that felt a deep disenchantment with the human and monetary costs of both wars, but held a particular dislike for the conflict in Iraq. Because no nuclear production plants or chemical weapons facilities were uncovered in the Persian Gulf country, many Americans saw little rationale for the invasion or the occupation’s mounting costs in lives and resources. Candidate Obama frequently called attention to the fact that he even opposed the Iraq War before it began. In October 2002, five months prior to the US invasion, Obama, as an Illinois state senator, delivered a speech in Chicago against going to war. His opening comments defined his position: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”2

As a presidential candidate, Obama frequently voiced opposition to Iraq as “a misguided war.” In a carefully crafted newspaper essay, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee wrote in July 2008 that he even opposed the military surge in Iraq, which is still widely credited as a key factor in decreasing anti-American violence and bringing to heel the al Qaeda insurgents. In that same opinion article, he stated that his first day in the White House a new order would go out to the US military in Iraq to “safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months,” which would be by summer 2010.3

At the Democratic Convention, in his acceptance speech, the presidential nominee made plain his intentions when he declared: “I will end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” He returned to this oft-spoken theme about the Iraq War being a “war of choice,” unnecessary to combat terrorism. “You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq.”4 Earlier, the presidential candidate spelled out his views in a magazine article entitled “Renewing American Leadership.” That pre-White House perspective offered no isolationist message. Indeed, it advocated a re-seizing of the “American moment,” which he judged needed to be reclaimed by “rebuilding alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats.” Although the candidate wrote that “Iraq was a diversion from the fight against terrorists” who struck American on September 11,2001, he also dwelt on classic internationalist themes, such as calling for “global engagement,” “strengthening the pillars of a just society,” and “vibrant free societies” for citizens everywhere.5

The nation’s first African-American president rode into power on a crest of optimism with one poll showing 79 percent of his fellow citizens feeling that he could restore the economy and end the war in Iraq after two years. This initial optimism surpassed the forecasts of the five preceding incoming White House occupants, with the nearest being Ronald Reagan in 1981 at 69 percent. Outgoing President Bush in the same poll left office with just 22 percent of Americans having a favorable view of his handling of the nation’s overseas activities and troubled domestic economy, which was mired in what became known as the Great Recession. The severe economic downturn figured high in Americans’ polling decisions, too.6

One of Barack Obama’s first acts in the White House was to sign an executive order banning torture and degrading treatment of prisoners to seize the higher moral ground. Before long, he let Eric Holder, his attorney general, go after CIA interrogators of terrorist suspects on torture charges. His pledge to close down the maligned Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year ran into adverse political realities and court rulings. Removing and transferring the nearly 700 terrorism suspects raised fears that the former inmates would return to the battlefield. Politicians and ordinary citizens also feared that the freed detainees would live in their neighborhoods. Thus, Congress refused to fund a transfer of detainees to US prisons. The new White House resident gradually went about transferring prisoners to other countries. In the span of seven years, he reduced the total to slightly less than 100 by mid-2016.

Barack Obama moved quickly to set the stage for his brand of foreign policy. Here the president’s caution and hesitancy, which became hallmarks of his years in the White House, revealed themselves early on in his first months in office. His persistent questioning and requests for additional options slowed the decision-making process.7 He strove to evade committing American forces to action in the way that brought so much ruin to his predecessor’s presidency and to the image of the United States as an overly assertive military power.

President Obama’s selections for the top security spots, nonetheless, reflected a steady course. He retained Robert Gates as the secretary of defense, who George Bush selected for the position when Donald

Rumsfeld left the post after the big Republican loss of Congressional seats in the 2006 mid-term elections. He picked his campaign rival Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. For the directorship of national intelligence, he settled on Dennis Blair, a retired admiral. When the new president chose Leon Panetta as head of the CIA, the surprising choice caused a stir because the former California congressman and chief of staff in the Clinton administration lacked recent intelligence experience, since his Army service decades earlier. Panetta, an accomplished political operator, was not perceived as a reformer of the battered Agency. Rather, he was seen as a caretaker.8 The conformist cast of the new appointees belied President Obama’s plans for an emphatic break from his predecessor’s policies and his calculations to manage international affairs from within the West Wing.

The applause for his Inaugural Address had hardly died down when the new commander in chief flew to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to announce his withdrawal plan for Iraq in front of thousands of camouflage-clad US Marines. Obama’s timetable called for most of the 142,000 troops then in Iraq to be redeployed from the largely stabilized Persian Gulf country by August 2010. Those 35,000-50,000 “transitional forces” remaining were scheduled to leave by December 2011. The pullout accorded with the president’s intention to shift troops and resources from a stabilized Iraq to an increasingly volatile Afghanistan.9

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