clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama's foreign policy report card for 2014

Obama looks over his 2014 report card
Obama looks over his 2014 report card
Mark Wilson/Getty

The thing to keep in mind when judging America's record abroad in 2014 is that foreign policy is really hard. That's how I introduced my 2013 report card for President Obama's foreign policy and it's still true today. There is probably no country on earth whose foreign policy has more successes than failures, and that certainly includes the US, which by nature of its role in the world takes on the biggest and most daunting challenges.

Still, even by that standard, 2014 was not a great year for Obama's foreign policy. What follows is a highly subjective and unscientific report card for US foreign policy, divided across what appeared to be its 10 highest priorities. I'm grading based on the degree to which the administration did or did not accomplish its own goals, rather than on the merits of those goals themselves or the general benevolence of U.S. foreign policy itself.

Based on these subjective grades, the U.S. foreign policy grade point average comes out to 1.94 — a high C-, which sounds about right.

Russia: A-

obama putin

Obama and Putin lock eyes at an international summit in Mexico (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty)

Russian aggression in Europe was arguably the biggest foreign policy challenge facing America in 2014; ISIS is bad, but they don't have thousands of nuclear warheads and the world's second-largest military. Russian President Vladimir Putin, as his economy and political support crumbled at home, opted to fix his problems by reviving Russia's grand imperial legacy and ginning up lots of conflict with the West.

Throughout it all, the US has done an impressive job of differentiating the real Russian threats from the hogwash, aggressively countering the former while rightly ignoring the latter. Obama personally worked with European leaders to make sure the West stayed unified and resolved against Putin - a difficult but crucially important task, especially with the conflict-wary Germans. He traveled to Estonia to signal that the US would defend this small, Russia-bordering former Soviet state as if it were its own, in effect staring down Putin's unspoken threats to do there what he did in Ukraine. He hit Russia where it hurt, organizing targeted sanctions against Putin and the loyalist elites who keep him in power.

Russia enters 2015 still a major threat, but one that Obama has managed and isolated well, while minimizing the not-at-all-fake risk of sparking World War III. The only cost was Ukraine.

Ukraine crisis: C+

Ukraine Donetsk rebels DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Eastern Ukraine's rebels patrol an office building they call their separatist capital in Donetsk (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The cold, strategic calculation that the Obama administration appeared to make is that it could isolate and weaken Russia, and it could protect the European countries that are NATO allies, but it could not save Ukraine from Russian aggression. That calculation was probably correct - any direct US intervention would unacceptably risk World War III, and the US can't accomplish much without help from the Western Europeans who deep down reject Ukrainians as non-Europeans - but the results are still ugly.

The US has offered crucial political support for the Ukrainian protest movement that toppled its pro-Moscow government, and for the new pro-West government that replaced it. And it is offering Ukraine some assistance with rebuilding its badly broken economy and its political system. But Ukraine ends the year having lost Crimea to Russian annexation, with vast sections of its east currently under Russian invasion, and a massive Russian military force parked on the border ready to roll all the way to Kiev if they choose.



An ISIS member carries the group's flag in a propaganda video (YouTube)

There are really two grades here: Obama gets a resounding F for the first few months of this crisis, but a solid B+ for the latter months, averaging to a hard-earned C-.

For its first few months, Obama's ISIS strategy wasn't really a strategy, by the president's own admission; rather, it was a sort of confused mishmash of conflicting aims and ideas about how to achieve them. Obama said he wanted to defeat ISIS but only committed enough resources to slow their rise; he moved against them in Iraq but had no ideas for hitting their base of operations in Syria. The US effort floundered and ISIS flourished. It was Obama-era foreign policy at its indecisive, stall-and-ponder worst.

The on-camera murder of journalist James Foley in late August changed that. Over the fall, the US implemented a real strategy. It's not exactly achieving overnight success, but does the most possible without putting American interests or lives at immediate risk. Pushing political reform in Baghdad and empowering Iraqi Kurdish fighters has stopped ISIS's growth there and set it up for its inevitable internal collapse. Meanwhile, Obama organized a coalition of Arab allies to bomb ISIS in Syria.

Iraq: D+

pashmerga iraq Mitchell Prothero/McClatchy Washington Bureau/MCT via Getty Images

An Iraqi Kurdish fighter patrols the desert (Mitchell Prothero/McClatchy Washington Bureau/MCT via Getty)

Obama worked hard to get the United States out of Iraq in 2009, and he worked hard to keep the US out this year as it collapsed into political chaos, sectarian killings, and the invasion of ISIS, which still controls vast portions of the country. He did succeed at that, but it came at terrible costs, and it is heavily debatable whether the US could have done more to prevent Iraq's collapse through actions other than re-invading.

The US under Obama disengaged with Iraqi politics as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slowly but transparently transformed into a dictator who systemically excluded the country's Sunni minority, which set the stage for ISIS's rise. Obama did finally come around on this, pushing out Maliki and enabling his far more inclusive and productive replacement. But it was too little, too late for the millions of Iraqis who now live under ISIS's rule and for the millions more who have lost faith in their government and the democratic process. Still, things are looking better since the Obama administration stopped ignoring Iraq's problems and got involved in political reform — and it was the right move for Obama to focus on fixing Baghdad rather than just bombing ISIS or sending US troops back into harms way.

Syria: F

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

2014 was the year that the United States gave up on Syria. Since the civil war began there in 2011 as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad slaughtered civilians en masse, the US has alternated between trying ever-so-tepidly to help end the absolute worst humanitarian crisis in the world versus trying to manage it. Both approaches had its merits; the latter, while a bit cold-hearted, could be supported as a realistic acknowledgment of the limits of US power over Syria's war.

But now the US is trying to do neither; the Obama administration has apparently given up on having any Syria strategy whatsoever, and is instead putting all of its emphasis on fighting ISIS. That's working against ISIS, but it's great news for Assad and terrible news for the Syrian rebels and families who have been fighting and dying by the thousands to bring freedom to Syria. America's strategy is freeing up Assad to focus on crushing the rebels and any remaining sliver of hope among Syrian civilians, whom he is continuing to massacre indiscriminately. Obama's focus on ISIS is putting America in an implicit alliance with Assad in that effort, further dooming Syria's people to the horrors they have endured for now three years. It was exactly the outcome that Assad steered us toward by cultivating ISIS's rise, and the US fell right into it.

Israel-Palestine: D-

kerry abbas (Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Getty)

John Kerry, who did his best, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Getty)

Secretary of State John Kerry's last-ditch effort at peace talks collapsed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is openly hostile towards Obama and the peace process. Israeli politics are increasingly right-wing and anti-peace. The Palestinian leadership looks ready to reject the US-led peace process altogether and instead work through the United Nations and maybe International Criminal Court to pressure Israel, against strong US objections.

The only thing that keeps this from being an outright F is Obama's not-horrible handling of Israel's 2014 war with Gaza, in which Obama took a largely symbolic but still impressive public stand against Israel's choice of tactics that massively increased Palestinian civilian deaths, including among children.

Iran: B

kerry zarif iran talk (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif look elated after another breakthrough meeting (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

Obama had some major accomplishments in his historic effort to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Two of the biggest: getting Iran and Western powers to agree to July's "Joint Plan of Action," a temporary interim deal that looked pretty solid; and miraculously keeping Congress or Israel from sabotaging the deal, despite their best efforts. Those were both big deals and solid steps toward a permanent deal, which would be an historic legacy accomplishment.

But: the US failed to achieve a permanent deal by the November deadline. They set yet another extension, for a framework deal by March and a full agreement by July. That's really bad, as Republicans will have enough seats in the Senate by then to pass new sanctions against Iran that will almost certainly kill the deal. Support within Iran's domestic politics is eroding as well, and Iran's ever-insecure Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might not feel like he has the credibility to overrule the growing opposition. Despite the Obama team's major accomplishments, they needed A-level successes to make this work, and it's looking like they didn't hit it.

China: A+

President Obama on the Great Wall in 2009 (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

Possibly Obama's biggest foreign policy accomplishment of 2014 was striking an historic climate change deal with China for both countries to limit emissions, which is also a big step toward a global climate deal. But this wasn't a one-off: it's a part of Obama's long-running and highly successful effort to build positive, cooperative relations with China. This matters for more than just the US relationship with China.

Over the next century, the US and China are going to face many, many more global issues on which they disagree, but on which they will both be better off if they cooperate. Indeed, the world as a whole is better served by Chinese and American cooperation and joint leadership. When Obama came into office, everyone assumed the two countries would be natural competitors. But he's worked hard to make them allies instead, which means that the US has a hugely powerful partner rather than an adversary. (You can also see that, for example, in China helping the US against its own ally, North Korea, most recently by possibly shutting down North Korea's internet over the Sony hacks.) As a senior US diplomat once told New York Times reporter David Sanger, "If we get China wrong, in thirty years that's the only thing anyone will remember."

North Korea: A-

Kim Jong Un visits a new orphanage in Pyongyang (KCNA)

Yes, the Sony hack was bad. And, yes, Kim Jong Un continues to submit his 25 million citizens to the cruelest and most abusive regime on earth. But there's very little the US can ultimately do about the North Korea problem, and the Obama administration pursed those limited options as best it could while rightly downplaying the overhyped North Korean threat and refusing to buy into Kim's propaganda that he is a serious and dangerous menace to the US.

There are only three things the US can really do about North Korea, and the US did all three this year. One is to work with China, North Korea's crucially important sponsor, to tamp down Kim's bad behavior; Beijing, while ultimately still supportive of Kim, has been receptive. Second is to build up the South Korean-Japanese-American military alliance against North Korea; that coalition, which fractured in the 1990s and early 2000s, held strong. And third is to isolate North Korea internationally: a landmark United Nations report on North Korea's human rights abuses just landed at the UN Security Council, which is a major step toward referring Kim to the International Criminal Court.

Afghanistan: C

afghanistan troops korengal (John Moore/Getty)

US troops board a transport helicopter in Afghanistan's remote Korengal valley (John Moore/Getty)

The 13-year American-led war in Afghanistan officially ended in unofficial failure just this week. You probably didn't even notice, as the war has been headed that way for years and because a number of US troops will in fact stay on to continue a drones-and-special-forces mission against high-value terrorist targets. The country is probably headed for collapse, and the Taliban has refused all offers for a peace deal, understandably believing it can now win outright. The future for Afghans is dark. But, for the US, this is the "defeat with honor" sort of slow withdrawal that Americans wanted and probably needed.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.