Bacevich and Mearsheimer on Obama’s Legacy

by Derek Davison

With Donald Trump set to take the oath of office and become America’s 45th president in a matter of days, this is an appropriate time to begin to evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency. To help analyze his performance on foreign policy and national security, I spoke with two eminent foreign policy analysts: historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. In part one of our discussion, we look at Obama’s foreign policy and look ahead to what the Trump administration’s foreign policy may bring.

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.

I also think that the global balance of power has shifted against us since 2009. I don’t think this is due to anything Obama did. It was beyond his control. But the fact is that with the rise of China we have a situation now where the balance of power in East Asia, and more generally across the globe, is shifting against us. We’re still the most powerful state on the planet, but we now have a potential peer competitor on the horizon. We are facing a situation in 2017 where we have terrible relations with Russia, which has reestablished itself as a reasonably formidable military power, and where we have very poor relations with the Chinese that look like they’re going to get worse over time. This is a much different situation than the one that existed in 2009, and it’s not all for the better.

The final point I would make is that I think most people around the world, although they like Obama a lot, have all sorts of doubts about American leadership. When people watch us flail around in the Middle East and look at what we’ve done to poison relations with the Russians, they really begin to wonder if the United States is a reliable ally, if the United States is going to be there for them in the crunch. And if the United States is there for them, will it act in a strategically smart way? You especially see this in East Asia—Japan would be a good example. The Japanese understand that we have this policy to “pivot to Asia,” but they don’t see a lot of evidence that we have really pivoted, because we’ve gotten more deeply involved in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, and therefore we really haven’t been able to pivot in a meaningful way. Furthermore, when they see how we act in the Middle East and toward the Russians, they wonder whether we are really sound strategic thinkers. So, I think we face a problem in East Asia, and in other places as well, like the Middle East, where a lot of our traditional allies have serious doubts about American leadership, due to the policies of both President Bush and President Obama, who has carried on most, but not all of the policies of his predecessor. The bottom line is that in 2017 we are worse off than we were in 2009.

AB: The one thing I’d add there—and John used the phrase “asleep at the switch,” which I think is pretty apt—is that the problem predates Obama and also predated George W. Bush. If we take the example of EU and NATO expansion, that’s a program that began soon after the Cold War ended. I think it’s very true that the Obama administration failed utterly to appreciate the extent to which this eastward expansion of Western institutions would elicit a hostile Russian response. But they were certainly not the only administration to misread the implications. With regard to Asia, and again I’m agreeing with John, the rise of China has been occurring for decades now. Even with Obama’s so-called pivot, there is today in the national security community no consensus as to what the rise of China actually signifies and therefore what sort of response it should elicit from the United States.

I would also emphasize that the mess in the Middle East, to which we have mightily contributed, is more responsible than any other single factor for distracting attention from issues that are of greater importance to our own well-being.

JM: I agree with that, and what disappoints me about Obama is that, when he came into office, he gave the impression he was going to reduce America’s global commitments, in the sense that he was going to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and greatly reduce our footprint in the Middle East, which would then allow us to pivot to Asia. We were finally going to put truly important strategic concerns on the front burner. But because we’re still deeply mired in the Middle East and now we’re deeply mired in Eastern Europe, it is very difficult for us to concentrate our attention on East Asia.

Because China is a potential peer competitor, it is the most serious threat facing the United States at this point in time, and therefore we should be focusing much more attention on China than on the Islamic State [ISIS or IS], which is hardly a mortal threat to the United States. I might also add that by staying deeply involved in the Greater Middle East and using military force in all sorts of places, what we end up doing is making the terrorism problem worse, not better. What we ought to do is reduce our footprint in the Middle East, which will go a long way toward ameliorating the terrorism problem and also allow us to pivot to Asia. But that’s not what we’re doing, and therefore the terrorism problem shows no sign of going away and our Asia policy is not optimal.

AB: The one thing I would say here, is that the guy who, in 2008, said he was going to end one war and win the other one was quite naïve with regard to statecraft. On the campaign trail he said things that seemed expedient, but without understanding the implications of what he was promising.

Let’s look at Afghanistan in particular. [Obama] comes in and says he’s going to win the war, fires the general in charge of Afghanistan, and, to great applause, picks Stanley McChrystal to command the war there. McChrystal comes up with what he says is going to be a war-winning strategy, that is to say applying to Afghanistan the counter-insurgency techniques that David Petraeus applied to Iraq, supposedly successfully. I don’t think it worked particularly well in Iraq, but it certainly didn’t work in Afghanistan. By the fall of 2010, it was pretty apparent that U.S. military leadership didn’t know how to win the war in Afghanistan, and Obama found himself stuck with a war that he inherited and that nobody now knows how to end. John or I might say that the courageous decision would have been to pull the plug, but that’s not what he did, and so here we are, with the war in its sixteenth year with no end in sight. My point is simply to say that others must share the responsibility for the failures that we’ve been talking about.

JM: You’re certainly right that others helped set the stage for the problems Obama faced in office, and furthermore, there are structural problems over which he has no control. But as you and I both know Andy, he is the president of the United States and thus he is accountable. My view on his performance is that he was, as you say, quite naïve when he first took over—he had hardly any experience in the foreign policy realm. But I think he is an extremely smart man who has a steep learning curve, and I think he figured out pretty quickly what was going on. But the problem he faced was that the foreign policy establishment is so deeply committed to an expansive foreign policy where we run around the world interfering in every country’s business and trying to do regime change here, there, and everywhere, that it’s very difficult for him—even though he was President—to change course and adopt a fundamentally different foreign policy.

I think Obama understood, pretty early in his presidency, that the status quo was not the best way forward with regard to foreign policy. But there was very little he could do, because he was surrounded by people—inside and outside of his administration—who were deeply committed to a foreign policy that might be called “liberal imperialism.” I think you see this reflected in the interview he did with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic Monthly. He made it very clear that the United States had been operating in foolish ways for quite a while—which leads the reader to ask, “well if you thought that, why didn’t you change the direction the country was moving in?”

AB: It reminded me of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. Ike serves as president for eight years, and then a few days before he’s going to leave office he goes on TV and announces to the American people that there’s this thing called the “Military-Industrial Complex,” and it’s really bad and really dangerous. You might ask Ike, “why’d you wait until you’re leaving office to tell us?” I agree with your assessment of Obama’s native abilities—he is a really smart guy who learns quickly. In the Goldberg article you sense his disdain for the deeply inculcated habits to which the national security establishment is committed. Well, why do you wait until you’re a lame duck to announce to some reporter that you’ve got these concerns? Had he made a strong public case three years ago, the argument might have gotten some traction—not that the national security establishment would have thrown its hands up and said “OK, we give in,” but the costs and consequences of liberal imperialism might have received an airing.

So we have this election in 2016 where a liberal imperialist, who’s even more hawkish than Obama, is running against somebody who is even more of a novice in statecraft than Obama was. The novice wins, there has not been any serious discussion of foreign policy, and God knows where that leaves us today. I think one of Obama’s failures is that he saw the need for a serious debate about first principles informing our approach to foreign policy, and he never initiated that debate.

JM: What’s very interesting here, and I want to tie my point to your comments about Trump, is that public opinion would have supported Obama’s efforts to pull back in foreign policy. I’m not talking about moving toward isolationism, which is a straw man. I’m talking about a more restrained foreign policy. It’s very clear from looking at public opinion polls that there would have been a lot of support for that kind of policy, as Trump showed by running on an “America First” platform. Trump has talked about “pulling our horns in” in different places around the world, and forcing our allies do more to defend themselves. So I think Obama would have had public opinion, by and large, on his side. The problem he faced is that the foreign policy establishment is deeply committed to pursuing liberal imperialism, and he was just not willing to challenge the establishment. Obama is not the kind of guy who is going to stand up and fight hard when there’s a great deal of opposition arrayed against him.

LL: In terms of Barack Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments, what do you see surviving not just the Trump administration, but long term?

AB: It may turn out to be too little, too late, but I do think that the Paris climate change deal is a very significant achievement, and without suggesting for a second that I can read the mind of President-elect Trump, my guess is that it will survive. The new administration is not going to make fighting climate change a priority. But I think they will at least not try to roll back what Obama has achieved. We’ll see. I think that the opening to Cuba is an accomplishment, something that should have happened decades ago. It’s good, it’s useful, even if not world-changing.

JM: I think the other achievement is the Iran nuclear deal, which I think is more important than Cuba. I think there’s probably 70% likelihood that it will survive the Trump administration. I think the key question is what happens in 10 or 15 years, when the deal comes to an end. It’s very important that we do everything we can to foster good relations with Iran over the next decade or so, so that when the deal comes to an end, the Iranians don’t have a great incentive to go out and get nuclear weapons. The reason countries want nuclear weapons is that they are the ultimate deterrent, which means that if a country feels threatened it makes good sense for it to get its own nuclear arsenal. That should tell us that we don’t want Iran, 10 or 15 years down the road, to feel threatened. We instead want to have good relations with Iran. So, I think over time, the key issue is not so much whether we undo the deal or not, but whether we can foster good relations, whether we can have a rapprochement of sorts, with the Iranians. I think that’s going to be extremely difficult to do.

AB: I think it will be, and when you say “foster good relations,” we should aim to persuade as many Iranians as possible that the deal is beneficial to them, thereby ensuring that life for ordinary Iranians gets better over the next 15 years. To the extent that it does, their internal politics may well evolve in ways that will be compatible with our interests.

JM: I agree completely with that, and I would add that if things don’t work out well, and Iran goes down the nuclear road, I think the ripple effects in the region with regard to nuclear proliferation will be significant. The Saudis, the Turks, and even the Iraqis will have good reasons to think about getting their own nuclear weapons.

One of Obama’s other accomplishments is that he brought us back from the brink of economic disaster in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and that was a major accomplishment indeed.

LL: What’s one thing that you’re optimistic about with respect to the Trump administration and one thing that you’re worried about?

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.

JM: The main cause for optimism is that President-elect Trump is willing to question conventional wisdoms. American foreign policy, at least since 2001, has been badly flawed. Our pursuit of liberal imperialism is misguided, and it’s about time that we rethought how we conduct foreign policy. Trump is willing to do that. He’s willing to examine conventional wisdoms, to challenge them, and to change course. Hopefully he’ll do that, and hopefully he’ll make some smart moves. With Donald Trump you’re not getting more of the same, and that could—let me underline the word “could”—be good.

The main reason to be pessimistic is that he’s not very knowledgeable about foreign policy. He’s also not a good listener, and he tends to fire from the hip. It may be too strong to say that he’s a loose cannon, but I would say that he has powerful tendencies in that direction. And finally I would say that he doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to facts and logic. He seems willing to invent facts and tell stories that aren’t true. Having studied foreign policy and international politics for a long time now, I believe that the best way to maximize your chances of adopting smart and successful foreign policies is by acting in a rational way, by paying deadly serious attention to facts and logic. Trump has demonstrated that facts and logic don’t matter much to him—hopefully that will change, but if it doesn’t, we’re going to be in for a rough ride.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Of course President Bacevich would have solved the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a jiffy. On the war front it was Libya that was by far the greatest Obama blunder.

  2. I agree completely. I’d add the explanation that not antagonizing Russia does not mean abandoning Ukraine or Georgia to Russian domination. There is the model of Yugoslavia, Austria, and Finland in the middle ground, not dominated by Russia but not threatening Russia as part of the alliance against it.

    That is also a useful model for a solution in Korea, something China could live with, assure the Koreans of independence and prosperity, and not even require the massive armaments they now must pay for on both sides of the DMZ.

    Also, while Obama did not spin the Iraq War back up to full Bush Era disaster, he did expand the Middle East wars to Libya and Syria and Yemen and South Sudan, with threats to more and to Africa too in Mali and Nigeria and more. He also expanded the Afghan War, and did not really change the model from democratization-by-conquest.

    There is little to brag about, and in time I’m sure that will become more apparent. Yes, Bush/Cheney continued would have done worse, and McCain would have done worse. Hillary wanted to do worse, and Obama held her back. That relative position is not the same as “well done.”

  3. The reason that no more than a change in rhetoric took place, is the excuse President Obama proferred to a confidante, expressing why, unlike FDR, he had not taken any action against the bankers responsible for the debacle: “I would have liked to have done something, but it would have pissed off too many powerful people.”

Comments are closed.