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Obama’s Legacy of Ashes

By Simon Schofield, Senior Fellow

8th June 2014

Whether it is through well-intentioned, idealistic, though incompetent bumbling, or otherwise a calculated and strategically orchestrated effort, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has brought the Western world to the brink of decline and irrelevance. Whatever grand statements he gave at his West Point speech, they do not reflect the realities on the ground of his policies. Almost every single opportunity has been turned into an abysmal failure on the international stage. Every move on the global chessboard has been countered with ingenuity by Vladimir Putin and the smorgasbord of nefarious dictatorships that have arrayed themselves against the West.

Barack Obama’s lacklustre foreign policy has been characterised by its distinct lack of strategy. The two strands one can tug at and identify are the so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ and a resurgence in isolationism and disdain for the projection of American power.

The end result has been a veritable cornucopia of catastrophe. If 9/11 was a rude awakening for the West, Barack Obama seems to have hit the snooze button. The West cannot live triumphant in the post-Cold War victory of the ‘90s forever, anymore than Manchester United can live on past glories whilst languishing in 7th place.

Whilst all leaders are prone to the odd policy disaster here and there, Obama’s foreign policy is so hapless that it is difficult to name a country with which Obama has played his cards right.


The ‘Pivot to Asia’ is the only foreign policy of the Obama administration with a distinct name and shape. The idea behind it is that, with China on the rise, Japan becoming more independent and North Korea being as truculent as ever, America’s attention should be focused more on that region. American thought seems to be taking on the broad opinion that Europe has not shared enough of its own responsibilities and burdens and that it should be taking a more active role in the world, particularly in the Middle East which is, after all, Europe’s doorstep. Consequently there has been a change in emphasis from America leading a coalition of the willing in a War on Terror to America sharing its burdens more with its partners and expecting them to deal with more issues, whilst America copes with issues in Asia.

The concrete nitty-gritty of the Pivot involves an increased US naval and military presence (focusing 60 per cent of its fleet and army in the Asia Pacific region[1]), increased cooperation and closer ties with key allies (Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea etc.) and the stationing of 2,500 US Marines in Darwin, Australia, ready for rapid deployment as necessary. Having announced this new policy in 2011, it took the US over a year to put a single American boot on Australian soil, with just 180 Marines arriving April 2012[2]. Whilst this is still on target to reach 2,500 by 2017, it does perhaps cast doubt on America’s commitment to the Pivot. Even 2,500 is a tiny number of troops to deploy, capable of carrying out special operations and joint military exercises, but no serious military engagements. If anything this deployment is more symbolic, and the fact that it will take up to 6 years to deploy 2,500 troops is symbolic of the American’s dedication (or lack thereof) to their grand strategic vision.

Not only do American actions seem to show a lack of commitment to the Pivot, some indications show that the Pivot cannot be delivered due to budgetary constraints. As Katrina MacFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition stated ‘right now the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.[3]’ Ms. MacFarland is not alone, the Commander of the US’s Pacific Air Forces, General Herbert Carlisle stated: “I would say that the resources have not followed the comment of rebalance into the Pacific for a couple of reasons. One, because we still have ongoing operations obviously in the Middle East. And the other reason is [because Budget] sequestration and the cuts in defense make it actually incredibly hard to find places to pivot money to the Pacific.[4]

Rightly or wrongly, China has perceived the Pivot to Asia as heralding a new American strategy of containment against China. Not underestimating the effectiveness of containment against the former USSR, China is opting for a two-pronged approach to ward off any containment measures. It is utilising its formidable soft power to strengthen its ties throughout the region, particularly with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to ensure that it is not isolated, as the USSR was behind its Iron Curtain. More worryingly, however, China seeks to bolster its soft power by ensuring it has a sizeable military power to maintain its assertive posture. This has resulted in President Xi Jinping announcing a massive increase in defence spending, the largest rise in three years[5].

Clearly the problem with a classical strategy of containment against China is that it has already been used and was incredibly effective. As such, China knows to fear it and also has plenty of history to refer to on how not to respond to being contained.

Whether it is because of the Pivot or despite the Pivot, China is becoming increasingly assertive within its regional sphere of influence. Beijing has escalated its dispute with Japan and Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in China and Taiwan) and with South Korea over Socotra Rock (Suyan Jiao in China) by imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. All foreign aircraft passing through the zone must adhere to strict rules including notifying the Chinese Government and obeying any orders given whilst passing through. China’s ADIZ is particularly controversial because it overlaps with ADIZs imposed by Taiwan, South Korea and Japan and is more stringent, making demands no other ADIZs make.

In addition to the East China Sea, China is becoming increasingly aggressive and proprietary over the South China Sea, asserting control over effectively the entire sea. As Hilary Clinton herself outlined in the very Foreign Policy article which introduced the Pivot she said: “Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players[6].”

China’s strategy here is complex and sophisticated. It aims to expand its influence and power slowly outwards, but always mindful not to cross the threshold that would require a military response. In addition, as an anti-containment measure, China is seeking to drive a wedge between the US and its East Asian allies.  The ADIZ has tested America’s commitment to defend its allies in the region, which have long been under the nuclear umbrella of the US. This umbrella has been instrumental in maintaining regional balance and ensuring there is no arms race, as all countries are either protected by the US or know they would be subject to US retaliation if they are overly aggressive.

However, the new strategy of burden sharing has been applied to Japan too. In the so called “two plus two” meeting, the US encouraged Japan to increase its defence spending, which it has. What this means though, is that Japan does not feel as secure, particularly in light of the feeble response by the US to the Ukrainian crisis currently unfolding. Being told to increase military spending as part of a more ‘robust alliance’ effectively means that the US expects Japan to take greater responsibility over its own defence. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Shenzo Abe’s tough rhetoric has served only to destabilise the region further, as both China and South Korea feel threatened by his hardline nationalism. As Dingding Chen argues in the Diplomat, there are multiple reasons for Japan to doubt America’s security assurances. America is rightly dubious about taking sides on every single regional dispute, as doing so will create divisions and hostility. Without a base on the Senkaku Islands, the USA does not stand to lose anything should China attack, though it is easy to offer verbal reassurances. Budgetary constraints and past inaction also undermine the credibility of the US in the region, one raising a question mark over their practical ability, and the other over their actual intentions to deliver[7].

As has been argued in Foreign Affairs by Robert S. Ross, one of the foremost American experts on Chinese defence policy: “The new U.S. policy unnecessarily compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington[8].” In short, the Pivot sets in motion a series of events which are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The scenario goes that the region is becoming unstable and China is becoming more assertive, prompting the US to step in to contain China and bolster the others, feeding Chinese insecurity. China is forced to react with a military build up and more token gestures of power and aggression, which provokes its neighbours into numerous standoffs, ultimately leaving the region more unstable than if the US had never engaged in the first place.

The spark that could light the touch-paper in this very sensitive and volatile political cocktail could be the recent standoff between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. Vietnam sent vessels to challenge Chinese ships after China sent an oil rig into Vietnam’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone[9]. If this standoff is not resolved peacefully, it could ignite the entire region, as all the involved nations stake their claims to the South China Sea and China maintains its claim to almost the entire sea.

This Pivot has not created a more stable or more peaceful region, it appears to have stoked tensions through a combination of inaction in some areas and excessive action in others and, having caused this, may not even be delivered due to ‘budgetary pressures’.


Meanwhile in Europe they are suffering the opposite problem of East Asia, feeling the absence of American activity as much as the Asians are feeling the presence of it.

The recent policies of defence cuts throughout NATO have also been followed by an American-led Western withdrawal, with 10,000 American troops moving West out of Europe and 10,000 British troops moving West out of Germany. America deactivated its only two armoured tank brigades stationed in Europe and has disbanded a squadron of A-10 ground-attack jets, which were key contributors to the Libya campaign[10].

This has not only had the practical operational impact that, with Russia militarily active, there simply isn’t the European military capability to respond to Russia in a military fashion, it has also had a symbolic impact. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sent a clear signal by the United States that Europe is no longer America’s problem. Having removed any capability to respond to Russia militarily in Europe, America has also broadcast its intention not to. This leaves Putin in a very comfortable strategic position as he considers his options in Syria and Ukraine and continues flexing his muscles with massive military exercises in the Oblast enclave of Kaliningrad, where short range ballistic missiles have been deployed since 2012[11].

The US has stationed fighter jets in Poland and the Baltic states, which should be credited as a level of commitment to NATO’s territorial integrity. However, as James Jeffrey notes, these are also symbolically weak commitments, because they can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice and are incapable of capturing and holding territory[12]. We can only hope that the Obama Administration acts with alacrity and strength by offering more than a token, symbolic deployment in the Baltic states. However, given the disappointing response to the Syrian crisis, and the constant drawing and redrawing of red lines, which ended with zero action from America, we ought not hold our breath. The situation in Ukraine is worsening significantly. Mysterious soldiers, believed by many to be Russian troops are operating in Sloviansk, besieging the police station[13].  These men are highly trained and are distinct from the Right Sector militia which helped topple Yanukovych. This could potentially be Russia adopting chapters from the Nazi playbook and orchestrating a pretext for invasion, as Germany did in the Gleiwitz incident in Poland. Whilst this is not America’s fault per se, it is obviously the consequence of Russian expansionism and aggression, Obama’s lacklustre response has worsened the situation and, as mentioned earlier regarding Japan, a much wider impact, in undermining trust in America’s intentions and capability to guarantee its allies’ security.

As the European elections have catapulted nationalist, isolationist, eurosceptic parties to power all across the continent, it would seem Europe is more disunited and fragmented than it has been for quite some time. A massive number of European citizens no longer have faith in the European Union and are favouring agendas that put each individual member state first, reducing cooperation with partners on the continent and focusing more on domestic issues like immigration, education and the economy. Europe needs bolstering by America now more than ever, at the very time it would seem to have the least amount of support from our transatlantic cousins.

The Middle East

Meanwhile in the Middle East there seems to be no end to the misery in much of the region. The obvious focal point at the moment is the Syrian crisis, with more than 160,000 now dead as a result. As of March more than 9 million Syrians are displaced. Around a quarter of Lebanon’s total population is made up of Syrian refugees, putting immense strain on the local economy, public services, food and water supplies etc. Jordan’s already severe water issues have been compounded by the influx of Syrian refugees. Egypt is suffering a lack of water too, which could be compounded further should Ethopia press on with its plans for the Grand Renaissance Dam.

In the latest elections the Egyptian people have elected Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi by a landslide of 92 per cent, on a tepid turnout of 44 per cent amongst fierce objections of imbalanced and improper electoral practices[14]. This shows a clear split amongst the Egyptian people. There are some, like the youth who were involved in the Tahrir Square protests and ousting former President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood who have either boycotted elections or supported left-wing candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who are beleaguered by conflict and exasperated by el-Sisi. Then there are those on the other side who threw their lot in with el-Sisi, many citing things along the lines of ‘Sisi doesn’t need a program, we just want security[15].’

What this means is that el-Sisi has successfully, through exasperating the hopeful and promising security to the fearful, continued Egypt’s long line of military dictatorships. The militarised Egyptian state never had the chance to develop the strong civil society and political class that would have been necessary to entrench true democracy. Like a true military strategist, el-Sisi assiduously prepared the electoral battlefield by smearing political opponents[16], smashing the Muslim Brotherhood (who admittedly under Morsi proved themselves unworthy to govern and were rightly removed), courting his allies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and ruthlessly putting down any protests with his junta. American leadership here has either retreated with its tail between its legs, or has otherwise fallen prey to Kissingerian realism and isolationism, opting to support the stability brought by el-Sisi rather than take advantage of the only opportunity that Egypt has had for a true rights-respecting, accountable and democratic government in more than a generation.

The region has become a tangled web of realpolitik, with so many actors trying to impose their will on the people. There is a cold war brewing between the Sunni states of Syria and Iran and their proxies like Hezbollah on the one hand and the Saudis and Emiratis (who are still courting Egypt) on the other. Russia has sided with Syria and Iran, presumably mainly because Syria is a huge customer and ally of Russia and because Syria houses the Tartus naval base, Russia’s last remaining naval position in the Mediterranean. This simple-sounding conflict is further complicated by a number of disconcerting factors.

First off, ISIS is carving out its own state from Syria and Anbar province in Iraq, having been unleashed on the Syrians by President Assad as a bogeyman, from which only he can save them -or so he is telling his people [17]. ISIS has since spun far out of control, suffering from what the HIC has termed the Zarqawi Syndrome in our evidence to Parliament, where external fighters with an extremist global ideology act with much greater violence and are much more difficult to control than fighters drawn from the local population[18].

A second complicating factor will arise if efforts to stymie the Iranian nuclear programme are not successful, because evidence suggests that in true cold-war style, Saudi Arabia will seek to match such capabilities themselves[19],[20], and have even approached Pakistan in order to procure a Sunni nuclear counterweight to the Mullah’s Shiah bomb. With the Pivot in full swing (no pun intended), attention (and possibly resources, depending on budgetary constraints) will be focusing away from Iran and more onto China and the Asia-Pacific region.

Much of this could potentially have been avoided if the West, under American leadership, had rallied together and stood up for democracy and human rights at the very beginning of the Syrian civil war. Let’s not forget that the Arab Spring rocked Damascus with calls for democracy and human rights long before the revolution was hijacked and radicalised by Islamists. If a military intervention had taken place, or a very credible threat of one offered, at this early stage then Iran and Russia are much less likely to have intervened on Assad’s behalf, preferring not to risk the huge military losses which would have been incurred. They would have instead done their usual sabre-rattling. Even if one doesn’t buy this argument, those fighting for democracy in Syria would have been able to do so from a level playing field against regime and jihadist forces, rather than being throttled into near irrelevance as they have been. Many who called for non-intervention said that intervention would stretch out the conflict, but non-intervention has not yielded a quick resolution with minimal blood loss, rather it has created a conflict where all actors with a realistic chance of winning are diametrically opposed to many of our fundamental values.

Obama’s consistent drawing and redrawing of red lines have been discussed and analysed at length, but it is important to include them in the litany of the Obama administration’s mis-steps. President Obama’s red lines on Syria have emboldened the Assad regime, assuring them that there will be little, if any repercussions, for their continued butchery of Syrian citizens. They opened the door for Russia, one of the powers feeding the civil war by arming and funding Assad, to seize the initiative and make political capital out of the sham chemical weapons deal that emerged. Not only this, but it will have undermined the credibility of the US in the future. If American Presidents have to threaten future despotic regimes which are engaged in deplorable acts of oppression, genocide, international aggression, they may well have to do much more to convince such tyrants that they mean business.

Had we been able to bring this conflict to a swift conclusion at the beginning, ISIS would not have had the opportunity to gain the foothold that it has and many of the 160,000+ casualties could have been saved. The dire situations in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraqi, Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt and beyond that have arisen as a result of demographic pressures stemming from refugees could have been avoided. And, of course, without all of this misery, jihadist forces would have found it much more difficult to garner support.

West Point

At West Point Obama made several telling statements about his real stances on foreign policy. For starters he made reference to America being ‘stronger relative to the rest of the world’. This is not the rhetoric of a leader of the free world, championing liberal values. This is a calculating, mercantile term, which shows he is more concerned about making the USA stronger, even at the expense of his own allies. He then goes on to say ‘when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine – it is America that the world looks to for help’.

This is entirely accurate, insomuch as America was asked for help in all of these cases, but what did America actually do for these? For the Philippines, struck by Typhoon Haiyan, America conducted a humanitarian effort called Operation Damayan, offering, according to a US Government infographic, a total of $86million in aid[21]. Whilst this is noble and appears to be showing great leadership and charity, the United Kingdom actually spent around $131 million (£77 million) on assistance. Whilst one cannot criticise the Americans for helping the Filipino people in their time of need, the fact they put less in than the UK, whose total government spending is approximately one sixth that of the US, does not credit them as acting as leaders of the free world particularly. This is not an argument that Britain should be taking on the mantle of leader of the free world, rather that it is clear that America is no longer stepping up to the task. America benefits much from international trade and international trade benefits much from the security and stability that America has previously provided.

In Nigeria, the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls by Al Qaeda affiliated Boko Haram has provoked an outrage on Twitter, causing the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to erupt in recent weeks. The most visible sign of American involvement in this affair so far has been First Lady Michelle Obama posing for a selfie with the hashtag. On the ground, whilst some in America’s special operations circles fear they are on the verge of being ‘tweeted into combat[22]’, there has been no order to prepare for their rescue, let alone launch any such operation. This has been criticised by Washington Post journalist Nia-Malika Henderson as  perpetuating a ‘perception of weakness’, with CNN Host Jake Tapper further pointing out the opinion that these constraints are Obama-imposed, as opposed to being genuine difficulties. Tapper also commented scathingly about the hashtag campaign ‘it’s as if it’s just the couple next door talking about how much they wish they could do something and not the guy with the most powerful military in the world under his command’[23],[24].  The Americans have offered little more than the Israelis, by sending experts from the military and law enforcement agencies to offer advice to the Nigerians on finding the abducted girls. Again this falls behind the British commitment of ‘hundreds’ of troops to assist the Nigerians in fighting Boko Haram and, if circumstances permit, to potentially help take part in rescue efforts[25]. The British are widely considered these days to be a relatively small player in international affairs, but if the Americans are lagging behind their commitments on these major issues who are they to claim leadership of the free world? Again this is not to say that the British should be leading, but that those who should be leading are doing as much as the smaller players are on the world stage – if not less.

On Ukraine America has rattled its sabres, but they have stayed sheathed. As mentioned above they lack the military resources in Europe now to enforce any warnings Obama has issued or will issue in future. These have been backed up with laughably impotent sanctions, which are worn as badges of honour according to one Russian gas trader[26]. Russia is highly vulnerable to sanctions from the West if they were imposed with teeth and, as the Economist reports, the mild winter we have had and the fact that it is the warmer months means we would be harmed much less badly in relative terms by tit for tat sanctions than Russia would be in the short to medium term[27].

American international leadership is little more than a phantom mirage under President Barack Obama. Putin knows that. Assad knows that. Khameini knows that. We can only hope his successor is willing to step up when he or she takes office on January 20th 2017.

Simon Schofield is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Schofield, S. (2014). ‘Obama’s Legacy of Ashes’.

Human Security Centre, Security and Defence, Issue 2, No. 1.

About Simon Schofield

Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow at the HSC and the Assistant to the Directors' Office. His main research interests lie in the fields of national security, intelligence and counterterrorism.