As we wait to see what shape President Donald Trump’s foreign policies will take, debate over former President Barack Obama’s legacy continues. Did Obama successfully end the war in Iraq, or did he help create the Islamic State by withdrawing U.S. troops too soon? Was it prudence or poor judgment that kept Obama from intervening in Syria’s civil war? The Obama era will have a deep impact on policy debates for years to come, serving as a template that will shape how decision-makers think about the use of military force. Getting the assessment right is crucial. Unfortunately, many seem to view it through the wrong lens.
In a thoughtful recent article here at War on the Rocks, Paul Miller reviews the most recent president’s foreign policy legacy and concludes that Obama’s “instincts for restraint” had “damaging consequences for American security.” He over-learned the lessons of George W. Bush’s hyper-interventionism, Miller argues, and as a result, he “retrenched when he should have engaged.”
Miller’s analysis is a useful corrective to many of the rosy late-term paeans to the former president’s handling of foreign affairs, most of which gave Obama’s foreign policy too much credit for coherence and gloss too quickly over its failures.
Unfortunately, though Miller lands several punches, criticizing the Obama administration for exercising too much restraint in foreign policy is both a misuse of the term “restraint” and a gross mischaracterization of what was wrong with foreign policy under Obama.
There were many things to dislike about American foreign policy during the Obama years, but too much restraint simply was not one of them.