Barack Obama’s foreign policy should not be reduced to a simple bumper sticker phrase. Not even one as pithy as the “Don’t do stupid s—t” mantra that is now being bandied about.
Proof of this can be found in Susan Rice’s hands-down rejection of that term as the fulcrum of the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision-making. “Nobody that I know of—at least who speaks with any authority—ever claimed that that was the Obama doctrine,” the president’s national security adviser told The Root.
There’s also another, more compelling, reason to reject it.
As part of The Root’s series His Lasting legacy, we're taking a look back at the work of President Obama’s White House over the past eight years. This time we're examining his efforts on the international stage.
Obama has long espoused two principles that drive his thinking in the foreign policy arena.
Shortly after declaring his candidacy for president, Obama gave a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on April 23, 2007, in which he said: “I believe the single most important job of any president is to protect the American people. Whether it’s global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders or boundaries.”
Then, during a televised debate among Democratic Party presidential candidates on July 23, 2007, Obama laid out the second defining marker of his foreign policy when he was asked if, as president, he would talk to the leaders of countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba—without preconditions.
Saying he would, Obama offered this explanation: “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them is ridiculous.” The United States could accomplish a lot more, he suggested, by actually talking to its adversaries.
“From the perspective of the president, we are living in a very complex world where the nature of the threats and challenges we face is different than in the past,” Rice said. “Many of the most serious threats to national security are transnational in nature … they can arise in one part of the world and spread to another. Whether we’re talking about terrorism or proliferation of dangerous weapons or pandemic disease or climate change, these are things that affect the lives of Americans.”
The president’s critics look at his administration’s actions—or inactions—in the foreign policy arena and proclaim him feckless. Proof of this contention, they charge, is the nuclear deal Obama struck with Iran that delays for at least 10 years its production of a nuclear weapon (an agreement Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Republican allies in the U.S. Congress tried to shuttle); Obama’s failure to order an attack on Syria after it ignored his warning of dire consequences and used chemical weapons in that country’s civil war; and the president’s reference to the Islamic State group, or ISIL, the terrorist organization, as a JV team.
But those are the calibrations of people who misunderstand, or underestimate, Obama.
“I think his policy has been transformative,” said Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who ran Newsday’s foreign operation for 22 years. “His policies have gone against the grain of the flow of inertia of U.S. foreign policy. He’s one tough guy. There are a lot of people who underestimated him who are now on the ground trying to get air. From [John] McCain, to [Hillary] Clinton, to [Mitt] Romney, to Netanyahu, and even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is sucking wind, to say nothing of Osama bin Laden.”
During a 2012 White House meeting, Payne probed the soft underbelly of the relationship between Obama and some of his generals.
“Are you satisfied that the top military brass accepts your withdrawal plan?” Payne asked the president, about his decision to significantly reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan, just minutes into an hourlong conversation Obama had with 10 members of the Trotter Group, a loosely knit organization of black columnists and commentators.
“I think everybody from Bob Gates, my defense secretary, to Dave Petraeus, the commander on the ground, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, understand very clearly that starting July of next year we are going to begin a process of transitioning out of Afghanistan,” Obama answered.
Looking back at his exchange with Obama, Payne—who was an Army captain on the staff of Gen. William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War—finds evidence that Obama did not cede to his generals the most important foreign policy, military decisions of his presidency.
“The generals that stoutly opposed President Obama in the never-ending ‘war on terror’ were the most illustrious military brass of their generation,” Payne told me. “They were irreplaceable military commanders and they’ve all been replaced; and still reigning on as commander in chief is Barack Obama.”
Another sage political observer also isn’t surprised by Obama’s dominance of his administration’s foreign policy. “He seems to rely on a small number of people, but mostly keeps his own counsel,” said Mary Frances Berry, who, along with Randall Robinson and Walter Fauntroy, co-founded the Free South Africa Movement in 1984. A professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania, Berry said: “A lot of what Obama does is to minimize the number of our people who might be killed or wounded. If you keep that in mind, his foreign policy has been a success.”
There is something else that defines Obama’s thinking in the foreign policy area more than the “don’t do stupid s—t” label. It is his focus on what he perceives to be existential threats to this country and its global interests. That’s what drove Obama’s effort to broker a nuclear deal with Iran and to organize a global fight against terrorism, his supporters said. He wanted to keep nuclear weapons out of the arsenal of a country he believes is a sponsor of terrorist organizations—some of which could threaten the American homeland with massive destruction if they get their hands on a nuclear bomb.
While some of the president’s critics accuse him of being feckless (Donald Trump, the Vietnam War draft dodger who wants to be this nation’s next commander in chief, called Obama “weak” in the fight against terrorism), the bodies of terrorist leaders continue to pile up on his watch. In a September 2014 article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg proclaimed Obama “the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the [American] presidency.”
“I think he got the big things right,” Ernest Wilson III, dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said of Obama’s foreign policy. But Wilson said he also believes that some of the criticism of the president’s foreign policy results from a failure to communicate.
“So he got the big things right, but in terms of being able to articulate a particular vision and framework, which could send a message to friend and foe alike about what he would and wouldn’t do, he’s just not that kind of guy,” said Wilson, who served as the director of international programs and resources on the National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He also advised Obama’s presidential transition team on communication technology and public diplomacy.
While much of the media’s attention to Obama’s foreign policy has focused on the Middle East and the war on terrorism, there is a wide perception that this nation’s first black president has paid little attention to Africa. Although Payne said Obama “is one of the most consequential presidents in American history,” he panned his efforts in Africa.
“In terms of his Africa policy, I don’t think he’s been transformative. I think his policy in Africa has been mild, at best. I think it’s been mainly symbolic,” Payne said. He blames some of this on the unrelenting attacks that Obama has weathered from political foes at home: “I think Congress and others put Africa and Kenya [the birthplace of Obama’s father] around his neck as an albatross, and as a result he didn’t treat sub-Sahara Africa as an urgent affair.”
Rice sees it differently. Among other things, she points to the help the Obama administration gave Africa in the fight against the Ebola epidemic and the administration’s push against government corruption across the continent.
“Recall all that we’ve done to empower civil society and build young leaders’ networks in Africa,” Rice added. “A lot of the work people don’t see every day, but it’s nonetheless important to our diplomacy and our development work.”
She also could have mentioned Power Africa, the multibillion-dollar campaign Obama launched in 2013 to dramatically increase electrical power to people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the president’s strategy for enhancing trade with African nations.
While Africa has not been a front-burner issue for Obama’s foreign policy, it hasn’t been ignored.
The most important thing for people to remember about Barack Obama’s foreign policy is that it was forged by a president who spent eight years in the Oval Office leading this nation in a borderless war. Asked to grade Obama’s foreign policy, Wilson said: “I think in terms of doing the stuff he needed to do, he probably gets a B-minus.” Then he made this pivot: “When historians look back at Obama’s foreign policy, I think they’ll say he didn’t do stupid [s—t].”
Also in the His Lasting Legacy series on The Root:
DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist, as well as a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He is also dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.