by Matt Raab
As the Obama administration enters its final months, Georgetown government and international affairs professor Robert Lieber has published a book evaluating and critiquing the full-body of President Obama’s nearly eight years of foreign policy experience. In Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Lieber criticizes what he views as dangerous rhetoric and policies that have damaged U.S. credibility globally and harmed its ability to defend the international order and norms it has historically worked to protect. Lieber discussed his book at an event hosted by the Mortara Center for International Studies on September 6.
For Lieber, the problems in Obama’s foreign policy began in a focus on Iraq, an issue that dominated the 2004 presidential election cycle.
“He came to office with a view of Iraq, which was that Iraq was a disaster, [a] misapplication of American resources, never should have been done, and was the fault of the American foreign policy establishment,” Lieber said at the event. “Obama reduces the meaning of US foreign policy and strategy to that single case, and everything is sort of refracted through that lens.”
Lieber cited Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article on the ‘Obama Doctrine’ to highlight disconnects between Obama’s vision and foreign policy necessities in specific areas like Syria, where Obama’s failure to uphold his statements on the ‘red line’ of chemical weapons usage by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad revealed uncomfortable truths about American commitments to allies and strength against opponents.
“If you talk to anyone who deals seriously with foreign policy in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, whether they are friends or foes of the United States, they all drew the same conclusion,” Lieber said. “It shocked and disheartened America’s allies and emboldened our adversaries, not just in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang, but among groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. It damaged U.S. credibility badly.”
The issue of credibility is prominent for Lieber, who sees it as an essential component of American commitment to international security and stability. He extrapolates from several specific case studies to build an image of a retreating United States, which is reluctant to act assertively.
“I note that in recent years the U.S. has pulled back from a longtime role of international leadership,” Lieber said. “And that in doing so, the Obama administration has sought to conciliate adversaries, showed indifference or worse to allies, called upon the international community to step up, proclaimed and disavowed red lines, and preferred to lead from behind.”
Lieber lays out the type of leadership the United States has pulled back from in his book. It consists of a variety of elements, including “creating and sustaining international institutions, supporting regional stability, providing deterrence and reassurance for allies … and–often but not always–encouraging human rights and democratization.”
American leadership in those areas is “unique,” writes Lieber. “It effectively served not only as the leader, defender, and promoter of the liberal democracies and market economies, but also of the rules and norms of the existing international order, the durability of which so many take for granted.”
Commitment to America’s leadership in this area is shared by figures across the foreign policy political spectrum.
“We’re talking about a view of world affairs that reflects what used to be a shared consensus but that is now very much embattled, shared by liberal internationalists and conservative internationalists,” Lieber said. “They often disagreed about how you apply it, where the U.S. should be engaged and how, but nonetheless they agree, perhaps in this case with Bill Clinton, that America was the world’s indispensable country.”
Lieber believes that without that commitment, the door is left open for adversaries to the United States and its allies to make a pronounced impact, and the consequences have been severe, with crises in Libya and Syria spilling over into and affecting the political and economic stability of Europe.
“A stable, prosperous, democratic Europe has been a longstanding historic American national interest,” Lieber said. “But the difficulties Europe now faces have been worsened by America’s unwillingness to act early in the Syrian Crisis, one of the spillover effects.”
Further, in the Baltic States and Ukraine, slow and underwhelming responses to Russian aggression, hint at the threat to the world order posed by an absence of U.S. commitment to organizations like NATO.
“The U.S. retains the capacity to lead but unless it resumes a more robust role, the world is likely to become a more dangerous place, with mounting threats not only to our own security but also to international order,” Lieber said.
Ultimately, Lieber cautions the future president of the United States to carefully consider the importance of credibility and American leadership in the future formulation of foreign policy.
“The last seven and a half years have seen increasing threats to America and the international order which we did so much to construct,” Lieber concluded. “As a result, the president that takes office on January 20 will face a daunting task in restoring the capabilities and credibility on which America’s security, its values and the safety of our friends and allies depend.”
Professor Bob Lieber’s book, Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2016), is available for sale online.