Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



A decade from now historians will begin making an assessment of President Obama's foreign policies over eight years in office. A political scientist has more latitude to weigh data already available and offer a tentative assessment of the president's efforts to advance the country's national interests. Any assessment must start with the challenges Obama faced in January 2009.

Crises in 2009

The dangerous shock to the economy that erupted in September 2008 had the potential to shatter the banking system and trigger a 1930s style Depression. Draconian measures taken by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve in late 2008 slowed the decline, but the stock market continued to plummet as Obama took office. He then persuaded a reluctant Congress to pass a massive economic stimulus to help stabilize the economy. The dangerous stock market decline was halted, but recovery from the Great Recession took nearly eight years.

Obama inherited two festering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were started under George W. Bush. He sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan in 2001 to crush the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaeda. A new pro-western regime was installed in Kabul, but the war continued as Taliban insurgents, aided by Pakistan, launched assaults that were only partially contained.

The war in Iraq, launched by Bush in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein's dangerous regime, triggered insurgency and near civil war after the U.S. troop drawdown. Obama pledged during the 2008 election campaign to withdraw all the forces; but by 2010, Iraq faced political chaos without the presence of some U.S. forces to assist the Baghdad government in training a national army. At home, Obama faced a disillusioned public that wanted an end to war and a change in national priorities.

Current assessment

As president, Barack Obama shifted his priorities from foreign to domestic affairs and vowed to avoid new commitments abroad, especially in the Middle East. He sought, without success, to improve relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin. He shifted U.S. strategic priorities to East Asia where China challenges America's supremacy in Southeast Asia. Obama also wanted to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran after thirty-five years of hostility resulting from the 1979 hostage crisis. In 2015 he achieved a five-power agreement to suspend Iran's nuclear weapons program in return for lifting economic sanctions. In addition, Obama achieved in 2016 an international agreement dealing with climate change.

Nevertheless, Obama's eight-year effort to extricate U.S. military power from the Middle East turned into a major blow to his foreign policy in 2016 and may do lasting damage to his legacy.

Like many liberal-minded political leaders, Obama thought he could sustain U.S. influence abroad by emphasizing America's democratic values and support of individual freedom. In May 2009, he delivered a major speech in Cairo, Egypt, a staunch ally, and encouraged freedom-seeking groups there and other Arab countries to press leaders to give them freedom of speech and assembly.

Protest groups soon were protesting in the streets of Cairo, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down and permit elections. When Libya rebelled against a brutal dictator, Muammar Kaddafi, Obama blithely observed that it was "time for him to go." Mubarak's resignation following massive protests resulted in free elections and the emergence of the anti-western Muslim Brotherhood as the new government. It moved steadily against the freedoms that protesters had demanded earlier, and its government brought the economy to near ruin. In 2014, following protest demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt's military took control of the country and imposed a new authoritarian government headed by Abdel el-Sissi.

Tragedy in Syria

Obama's policy in Syria, highlighted by destruction of Aleppo, will be viewed is a dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. His reluctance to become involved militarily encouraged Russia to intervene with its forces in 2014, especially its air force. As a result, Moscow acquired naval and air bases in Syria and expanded its influence across the Middle East. Two weeks ago, Russia, Iran, and Turkey held talks in Moscow to arrange for peace in Syria. Washington was not invited to attend,

Although Obama's withdrawal from the Middle East is not as dramatic as the humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the 1970s, the effect on his legacy may be equally severe. However, his decision in December not to veto a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements may in time is viewed as a courageous effort to restore some of America's waning credibility in the Middle East.

File last modified on Monday, 3-JAN-2017 8:45 AM EST

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