Not quite nine months into his new presidency, Barack Obama woke to the news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize – not for anything yet accomplished, but for the promise of what he would do on the world stage.
Yet beyond Iraq, his first-term accomplishments from that list are sparse. In a fractured world, Obama struggled to define a grand strategy for America’s role, apart from preserving its pre-eminence while relying increasingly on a changing cast of partners.
As Obama begins his second term, he is acutely aware that his ambitious agenda to restore America’s influence and image in the world stalled almost as soon as the prize was awarded. But the president has indicated that he plans to return to his original agenda, though he has hinted it may be in a different, less overtly ambitious way.
Bitter experience – from getting the most modest arms control agreement through the Senate his first year, trying and failing to engage Iran and North Korea, discovering his lack of leverage over Egypt, Pakistan and Israel, and finding Afghanistan to be a costly waste – is driving him to a strategy reminiscent of one of his Republican predecessors, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It is a strategy in which Obama will try to redirect world events subtly, rather than turning to big treaties, big military interventions and big aid packages. “The appeal of the Eisenhower approach is that it had a big element of turning inward, of looking to rebuilding strength at home, of conserving American power,” said one of Obama’s senior national security advisers. “But there’s also the reality that some of the initiatives that seemed so hopeful four years ago – whether it’s driving down the number of nuclear weapons or helping Afghanistan remake itself – look so much harder now.”
Obama's early forays into covert action and lightning quick strikes – like the fast war in Libya or the cyberwar against Iran – have set back adversaries, but the satisfactions of striking with a “light footprint” have usually been temporary at best.
His promises of transformative change are now viewed around the world with more suspicion. Obama’s questions during Situation Room sessions, some of his aides say, seem to reflect a concern that his first term was spent putting out fires, rather than building lasting institutions.
Obama’s biggest accomplishments have been largely defensive: A complete withdrawal from Iraq, and devastating strikes against the core leadership of al-Qaeda.
The president’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, has argued in speeches since Obama’s re-election that in the first term the president built a broader alliance against Iran than any of his predecessors; that is true, but so far it has not moved the Iranians to limit their nuclear drive.
The U.S. has variously offered to bolster aid to Egypt or restrict it if the country heads off on an illiberal path. So far neither approach has given Obama leverage in influencing the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government. A promising start in building an economic and political partnership with China has devolved into an argument over whether US is seeking to contain China’s ambitions.
“He wants to be something more than a pure manager for the next four years,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, one of the architects of the “rebalancing” toward Asia. He added that Obama “understands that being a transformative president on a global stage is about more than good intentions and good plans. It’s about finding places where you are not dependent on adversaries who refuse to budge, or who benefit from demonstrating their hostility to the U.S.”
If there is a big strategic bet in the Obama second term, it may be that Asia is that place.
The huge, unexpected burst in US oil and gas production has bolstered Obama’s conviction that the U.S. has an opportunity to extract itself from an overdependence on events in the West Asia. In Asia, he has found a region more welcoming to U.S. influence, largely because a greater U.S. presence – meaning more naval ships and more investment – can quietly counterbalance China’s rising power.
Just as Obama has privately worried about being manipulated by generals who were trying to lengthen the US involvement in Afghanistan, Eisenhower left office warning of the “military-industrial complex” that he feared would dominate US decision-making.
At the same time, those who work with Obama, and parse his questions in Situation Room debates over the ability of the US to influence events on the ground in places like Syria or Mali or North Korea, say they sense in him a greater awareness than he had four years ago of the limits of US’s influence.
He asks more detailed questions about how sending 100 troops, or 10,000, might influence long-term outcomes. Paraphrasing the president, one aide said he is more likely to ask, “So if we put troops into Syria to stabilise the chemical weapons, what can they accomplish in a year that they couldn’t accomplish in a week?”
New York Times