Is Obama’s Leadership Style To Blame For His Foreign Policy Problems?

It has not been a very good month for President Obama when it comes to foreign policy. Despite his personal entreaties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay out of the Ukrainian civil conflict, photos released today by American intelligence sources indicate the Russian military is firing artillery from Russian soil on behalf of the Ukrainian separatists.  This comes on the heels of the shootdown, allegedly by those same separatists using a Russian surface-to-air missile, of a Malaysian civilian airliner that killed 298 people. Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry has had no success in brokering a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, where the Israeli invasion, about to enter its third week, has led to the deaths of at least 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in addition to the more than 40 Israeli fatalities.

While these two crises dominate the headlines for now, other foreign policy trouble spots continue to fester. In Syria, the civil war enters its fourth year and has cost more than 170,000 lives with no sign that the increasingly fractious U.S.-backed rebels will be able to overthrow the Syrian leader Bashar Assad without direct U.S. military intervention – which Obama so far has resisted. In Iraq, on the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal, unexpected territorial gains by the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq threaten to split that country into three partitions and, possibly, ignite another sectarian conflict. In Libya, less than three years after Obama helped depose dictator Muammar Gaddafi via a multi-nation military intervention, rival militias fight for power amid a deteriorating security situation and in the absence of any real civil authority. And in Afghanistan, where Obama’s three-year military surge recently wound down, there are growing doubts regarding whether the American-trained Afghan forces can beat back a Taliban resurgence, even as political infighting threatens to break apart the fragile civilian government.

Not surprisingly, conservative critics blame Obama for what they believe to be his failed leadership style which they argue has contributed to his inability to effectively address any of these foreign policy crises. Charles Krauthammer berates the “vacant presidency”, arguing that Obama’s “detachment — the rote, impassive voice — borders on dissociation.” A.B Stoddard, in urging Obama to “act presidential” writes, “He could acknowledge that Americans find it comforting and appropriate for their president to be present in a crisis, let alone during many at once, and not simply speaking to a bank of cameras stationed outside some incongruous setting.” Even Obama’s supporters wonder whether he can rescue his “sputtering” presidency, while more neutral observers debate whether he has achieved lame-duck status with unusual rapidity.

In assessing these criticisms, one is struck by how the adjectives used to criticize Obama’s leadership style now reference the very same traits that supporters praised on the eve of his election in 2008. Five years ago Obama was viewed as “pragmatic” – but now he lacks guiding principles. Then supporters praised his thoughtfulness – now he is passive. “Patient” has become “reactive”. At the same time polls suggest attitudes are softening a bit toward Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, who not so long ago left office criticized for his rash (proactive?), impetuous (decisive?) leadership style.

The real lesson to be gleaned from these shifting standards of evaluation is not that the pundits are fickle, or that the public does not know what it wants in terms of leadership style. It is that the foreign policy problems presidents confront are often inherently intractable, with no cost-free solution available. Bush invaded Iraq, successfully overthrew a dictator, and yet that decision set in motion a train of events that has led to the current crisis there. (I leave it to partisans to debate how much Obama’s failure to maintain a military presence in Iraq contributed to the current state of affairs.) On the other hand, Obama has refused to intervene in Syria, and the situation there is no less dire. In Libya, Obama chose not to go it alone and instead to operate as part of a multinational force, but results are arguably no better. In Afghanistan, he initially doubled down on Bush’s military intervention, and then largely withdrew U.S. military forces, and yet the long-run prospects for a stable government there remain grim.

Yes, each of these situations is unique in important respects. Moreover, partisans on both sides can and will argue the merits of their preferred leader’s particular choices. But to the objective observer it often seems that presidents are damned if they do intervene, damned if they do not, and damned if they opt to do both. It is hard to see how changes in leadership styles, at least as characterized in the short-hand jargon of political pundits, has had much impact on presidents’ ability to effectively address any of these international crises. Instead, the lesson seems clear – a president’s ability to “solve” foreign policy crises has much less to do with his (someday her) personal leadership qualities, and everything to do with the nature of the crises themselves. When there are no good solutions, changing leadership styles is hardly likely to matter, despite what partisans critics on both sides of the political aisle would have us believe.


  1. Professor, Not many of Obama’s foreign crises may be subject to an easy solution. But Bush 1 was able to put together a coalition on Kuwait, including some Arab states.

    Bush 2 could have just got up and left Iraq when he found out there were no weapons of mass destruction and no that one was throwing roses at our troops.

    Ike ended the Korean War by drawing a truce line in the sand…one that still remains.

    Obama has multiple crises on his hands and attends fund raisers in California.

    The optics are terrible. He should fire most of his inner circle staff and try to salvage something of his presidency. It is not so much his leadership style as it is the people he has chosen to follow him.

    Too bad you won’t have access to his public papers when you publish your book on presidential staffs.

  2. Jack,

    You make good points. But even the successes you cite seem to me to be successful only in that they made a bad situation tolerable – which might be all we should expect today! We still are dealing with a heavily (nuclear?) militarized North Korea, and Bush I left Hussein in power (and still killing the Kurds, among others), not to mention cheating sanctions including the U.N. oil-for-food program. We can certainly debate what would have happened in Iraq had Bush II declared victory after deposing Hussein and pulled the troops home. On the other hand, these outcomes (at least under Ike and Bush I) look a lot better than what we have in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan right now (to say nothing of Gaza).

    Your point re: bad optics is well taken. Of course, as you know, it is the nature of elections today that under the current restrictive campaign fundraising rules politicians have to spend more time raising funds in small bills. Still, your broader point is one with which I think I agree – Obama’s current staff does not seem to be serving him well. Granted, I say this, as you point out, without the access to internal documents that one would need to really see how decisionmaking takes place in the Obama White House. But I would love to be a fly on the Oval Office wall these past few months!

  3. I don’t think the problem is leadership style per se, but rather ideas. To be fair, the problem goes well beyond Obama. I realize this isn’t an international relations blog, but sometimes it’s worth it to delve into the less scientifically advanced subfields. Most Americans in the foreign policy realm, Obama included, sympathize with some type of liberalism (liberalism as the term is used in IR). Unfortunately, the world is not populated by similar-minded figures: Putin, Assad, Netanyahu. Wendt tells us that “anarchy is what states make of it.” Just because we’ve decided we live in a post-Cold War era of triumphant globalization and “soft power” doesn’t mean that everyone else will live by those rules.

    When I see the way Obama deals with issues, I see a legal mind at work. He was a law professor, after all. He takes his time to carefully analyze each situation, weighing the pros and cons and assessing the relevant evidence. In a liberal system of international order this is clearly desirable; in a realist dynamic of great power politics it is less effective.

    I don’t agree with everything John Schindler writes (he’s certainly a colorful character) but I think he hits the nail on the head here:

    If you don’t have time to read the full argument it essentially boils down into this: modern American life disposes us to a liberal (again, IR liberalism) point of view, which doesn’t always work in the real world. It strikes me that it’s surely no accident we’ve had several memorable foreign-born National Security Advisors and Secretaries of State forged in the crucible of Nazi and Soviet Europe: Kissinger, Brzezinski, Albright.

    Sorry to take a turn into international relations, but sometimes we need a break from all the advanced scientific methodology that is the American sub-field!

  4. Max,

    There’s a lot to respond to in your post. But let me address this point – you write, “When I see the way Obama deals with issues, I see a legal mind at work. He was a law professor, after all. He takes his time to carefully analyze each situation, weighing the pros and cons and assessing the relevant evidence.” I think you are exactly right – and it is a point I made shortly after his election, when his more liberal supporters were just realizing his more judicious, moderate, pragmatic proclivities. See:

  5. If Bush was the “decider,” then I think Obama is the “deliberator.” Maybe he should pull a William H. Taft and try to get himself on the Supreme Court in a few years. Who knows if he’d get confirmed, but perhaps a job he’d be better suited for.

  6. Fascinating blog. Military history however does indicate that creating a vacuum in Iraq was a blunder. Part of the blunder rests with the Bush Administration for not requiring better terms that would allow US troops to remain. The rest of the blunder is Obama’s, who allowed first the Iranian’s to have too heavy an influence on al-Maliki, which let to the exclusion of Sunni’s from the Iranian army. That set the stage for ISIS.

    From news reports, the Iranians were begging for Obama to act against ISIS when they were just beginning, and apparently intelligence showed ISIS to be a significant upcoming threat. This may or may not be true, but we are looking at the first stage of a major Sunni-Shiite “Thirty Years War” that will decimate the population of the Middle East. Considering that Europe’s Thirty Years War resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, this may not be a bad thing. But we will all have to prepare for the fallout from this, both from a moral side (as we continue to see atrocities such as those being racked up in Syrian and now Iraq) and from the terrorism side (which will further erode US liberties – as a country we must be prepared to suffer more deaths rather than increase police state activities).

    There maybe no good solution at this point, but maybe there never was.

  7. Brendan,

    Good comments. There is some disagreement regarding why Obama was unable to negotiate a Status of Force agreement with Maliki that would have allowed U.S. forces to stay on in Iraq, thus avoiding the power vaccuum you cite. Conservative critics tend to blame Obama for not pushing hard enough, while liberals think Maliki is largely at fault. I do wonder more generally just how much influence Obama and the U.S. exercised over Maliki and whether it is even feasible to think he would resist reaching out to Iran for support regardless of what the U.S. did or did not do.

    The comparison to the 30 years war is interesting – I hadn’t really thought of that comparison – and not a little bit frightening.

  8. As they say, the time to strike is when the iron is hot. The initial blunder was GWBush’s, since we were the victor and should have, among the very few things we insisted upon, created a general immunity. That should have been a condition for the initial cease of hostilities and the construction of a government.

    Like you, the thought of a “Thirty Years War” is frightening. But I would state that it already has begun – the Middle East was held in a stasis very much like the various empires held sway for a very long time, and as that stasis disintegrates, long simmering hostilities have arisen. It hasn’t helped that the corruption of Naziism infected Islam – essentially birthing radical Islam as we see it today – over 75 years ago, and has been festering ever since.

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