Will Obama’s Principled Pragmatism Be Emulated by His Successor?

Principled Pragmatism Implemented

One of the greatest features of President Barack Obama’s legacy is his exercise of “principled pragmatism.” Fredrik Logevall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor of International Relations at Harvard, uses this term to describe Obama’s reluctance to seek military solutions to the conflicts during his two terms. This is an umbrella phrase that also describes Obama’s unique frame of reference, or even his grand strategy, to deal with America’s allies and foes. He has made it clear to our allies that America will not fight a war that they initiate in their own neighborhoods. The United States will examine all evolving crises and determine how each of those crises is affecting America’s vital interests and then determine the course of action regarding them.

Saudi Arabia famously falls into this category. It wanted the United States to help it fight and win its war in Yemen. Even though the United States, along with UK, has been providing limited logistical and intelligence support to the Saudis, it also has been persuading the Saudi Kingdom to seek a negotiated cessation of that war. It is worth noting that both of these countries are also leading sellers of lethal weapons to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also wanted the US support in its intensifying rivalry with Iran. But President Obama’s advice to King Salman was to learn to share the neighborhood.

To Russia, the United States will remain firm if it threatens its NATO allies, but will not confront it in its adventurism in Ukraine, a country that Russia considers as an area affecting its own core interests.

To China, Obama’s principled pragmatism has made clear that it will not kowtow to its increasing assertiveness in East Asia and especially in the South China Sea. In regard to North Korea’s bluster, which it frequently demonstrates through nuclear tests or shooting ballistic missiles, the United States has clearly remained on guard by conducting periodic joint naval exercises involving South Korea and Japan. Through those exercises, the United States has clearly warned Kim Jong Un that it is anything but intimidated by those actions, and it is ready to act proactively in defending South Korea. The cumulative result of principled pragmatism has resulted in avoidance of any war during the Obama presidency.

The growing instability in Iraq, the heightened military attacks by the Taliban of Afghanistan, and the continuing war in Syria are cases that require separate analysis. In those countries, the insurgents and jihadis continue to pose serious threats to the US-backed governments. In Iraq, the combined effects of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces’ ground operations and the US air campaign has turned the tide of war against ISIS. However, the temporary gains accrued through those military moves are constantly jeopardized by the mounting hatred between the Shias and the Sunnis. The escalated participation of Iranian militias is also a mixed blessing, from the US point of view. The plus side is that there are additional and effective forces pounding the ISIS forces, both in Iraq and in Syria, but the downside is that the Sunnis of Iraq have remained hostile to the Iranian militias, which are perceived as agents of Shia brutality and dominance. Bottom-line: Iraq, even after the expected weakening of ISIS, remains a highly volatile and unstable state. Thus, it seems that President Obama must continue to rely on larger insertion of US Special Forces. Those forces, like the US Marines, primarily specialize in offensive and contingency operations and are not geared to fight the long-term, multi-frontal mounting Sunni insurgency from the ISIS side or from other Sunni groups. So, Obama’s principled pragmatism continues to face a serious test in Iraq.

Similarly, Obama’s principled pragmatism is also facing a mounting challenge in Afghanistan where the Taliban were on the offensive even before the US targeted their leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour on May 21, 2016. The targeting of Mansour has kept the future of peace negotiations between them and the government of President Ashraf Ghani in limbo. Even though the Taliban announced the selection of the Taliban Chief Justice and the head of its religious Ulama Council, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, as Mansour’s successor, there is no telling what role he will play in shaping those negotiations. The general thinking is that Mullah Akhunzada would be a symbolic Supreme Leader and the actual negotiations would be really under the mentorship of his two deputies: Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the late Mullah Omar’s son. But the future role of Pakistan’s presence and influence was not clear. There were even rumors that Pakistan itself was the source of providing Mansour’s movements to US intelligence because of the growing mutual mistrust between the Taliban leader and the Pakistani intelligence services. There is no doubt, however, that Pakistan would do its utmost to make its own presence felt in those negotiations, no matter who heads the Afghan Taliban organization. The coming days will be interesting, from the perspective of internal factions in the Taliban movement. Mullah Yaqoob, who is reported to dislike Pakistan’s role and influence on the Taliban movement, will do his utmost to minimize that country’s influence. Pakistan, for its part, is likely to use its connections and influence with Sirajuddin Haqqani to assert itself into future negotiations.

Given these dynamics in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, an important question that should be answered is whether Obama’s successor—Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—would continue to practice principled pragmatism or would radically deviate from it, because any deviation from that type of pragmatism would mean America’s increased military presence and involvement in new wars.

Obama’s principled pragmatism has not negatively affected America’ standing or its reputation in the world, except for the controversies it created in the case of Syria and Libya. But one has to comprehend how he envisions the issue of America’s involvement in the Arab world and in the Middle East, in general. Obama has concluded that the Middle East has a powerful tendency to suck the United States into conflicts from which extricating itself is virtually impossible without facing certain defeat. And he has been resolute about avoiding such scenarios at all costs. He watched how violent and obdurate America’s involvement became in Iraq after George W. Bush’s invasion of that country. So, when Obama entered office, he had every intention to disentangle the country from that conflict, no matter what. And that is what he did when the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to conclude a “status of forces” agreement (SOFA) to America’s liking.

However, when the highly bigoted anti-Sunni policies of al-Maliki reverted Iraq to another intense sectarian conflict—which was deftly exploited by al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) by reviving and then transforming itself into ISIS—President Obama scrambled to contain that conflict without redeploying American military forces to that country. Even in his efforts to save Iraq, he remained faithful to his conclusions about how sticky any American involvement can become in the Middle East. So, even in his resolve to help the highly inept Iraqi army fight a war, Obama has only been applying the gradual introduction of Special Forces in contingency operations and then extricating them from Iraq. His decision to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga’s (Kurdish military forces) and let them do the brunt of the ground war while pounding ISIS forces through the use of America’s awesome air power was a brilliant move. Now, we see that Iran’s militia also is taking a leading role to liberate the ISIS-occupied territory. The United States has officially expressed “concern” over it, but has demonstrated no interest in becoming an obstacle in the way. Iran’s military actions against ISIS in Syria is an integral part of its continuing war against that entity there.

But Obama’s handling of the Syrian conflict became highly controversial when it threatened military action against the Assad regime if it used chemical weapons against his civilian population. However, when those weapons were used, Obama did not take military action because of the recommendation of Vladimir Putin that, if Bashar Assad were to remove those weapons from within his borders, his regime should be spared. Assad did remove those weapons, but the fact that his regime survived despite Obama’s drawing of the “line in the sand,” was depicted by his domestic critics as a loss of face by the American President. However, Obama’s concluded that, by not taking military action against Assad, he avoided another potentially disastrous war.

Why did President Obama avoid taking military action against the Assad regime? The first reason appears to be that there was a lack of clear evidence that Assad used those weapons. In fact, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—which is an intergovernmental organization located in The Hague—confirmed that the traces of the sarin gas used in Syria were “not linked with the Syrian government’s former stockpile of chemical weapons. The report corroborates the Syrian government’s assertions that the faction responsible for the chemical attack, as well as 11 other instances of chemical weapons use, was the Syrian opposition.” Second, as closely as the US President studied the Syrian conflict, he did not see a credible alternative to the Assad regime that would stabilize and democratize that country. Finally, as stated above, he did not consider the Syrian conflict, and even the use of sarin, as an existential threat to the United States.

However, Obama’s avoidance of military action was viewed by his critics as contrary to the traditional exercise of presidential swagger when faced with third-rate brutes of the Middle East. George W. Bush demonstrated that in dealing with Saddam Hussain in the US invasion of Iraq. America’s neocons probably expected similar swagger from Obama in dealing with another Middle East tyrant. But he deprived them of that eagerly-anticipated gratification, and also pooh-poohed any suggestion that “he has undermined American credibility in the world…”

Assad not only survived but, with the entry of the Russian military on the side of the Syrian regime, the entire equation of that conflict started to favor him. Russia exploited the manifestation of Obama’s hesitancy to exercise military power, used its own military power against the US/Saudi-backed Islamist forces, and exploited that reality to emerge as a player matching the presence and prestige of the United States. America’s Gulf allies, who were used to relying on Washington’s willingness to fight wars and protect their regimes and promote their strategic interests became voluble in criticizing the United States.


The trouble with the exercise of principled pragmatism is that it sounds like a “good” or “right” thing to do when practiced and promoted during fervent academic debates by academics of the school of realism. However, from the standpoint of the actual exercise of power by a superpower, it is not likely to find many takers. In regional and global conflicts, all such events are frequently debated more from the point of view of exaggerated interests and reactions of US allies. Any lack of military response to regional conflicts is likely to be depicted as unbecoming to the power and glory of the United States, as was heard from politicians like John McCain or Lindsay Graham, both staunch advocates of deploying ground troops in the Syrian and Iraqi theaters of operation. Obama’s argument that the Syrian conflict or even ISIS does not pose any existential threat to the United States sounded more appropriate coming from staunch advocates of political realism like Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, or Stephen Walt than the President of the United States.

Never before did a sitting president avoid military action by so narrowly defining the existential threat. On the contrary, American history has several examples of presidential proactive advocacy of the use of military power, some of which was based on flimsy evidence or even lies to justify the use of American military power. For instance, President Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly but carry a big stick” toward South America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s powerful advocacy for America’s entry into World War II, President Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 to push the United States into the Vietnam conflict, Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, and, most notoriously, George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam Husain was in possession of weapons of mass destruction to justify invasion of Iraq.

President Obama reluctantly decided to use military force against Muammar Qaddafi of Libya in 2011. However, the emergence of post-Qaddafi Libya as a failed state and a breeding ground for ISIS further persuaded him that his refusal to topple Assad was the right move, because, if anything, Iraq has already remained a highly unstable country, and the ouster of Assad without having a credible alternate government also was likely to transform that country into another failed state. As Obama introduced a new twist in his tactic of dealing with the Syrian conflict by rearming the Saudi-backed “moderate” Islamists, there was no evidence that he was certain that such a move would lead to the emergence of a stable Syria, while Russia and Iran were focused on ensuring that Assad stayed in power. Even regarding Libya, President Obama did not question his decision to oust Qaddafi; in fact, he called it “the right thing to do.” However, he admitted that not taking state-building type of measures after Qaddafi’s ouster as his “worst mistake.”

The Implications of Obama’s Principled Pragmatism for His Successor

The US national security policy community is already getting ready to deal with the post-Obama world. It is hard to make any reasonable judgment about what the Republican Party’s prospective presidential nominee , Donald Trump’s foreign policy outline would look like at this time; however, he is described by a blogger at the Brookings Institution as a “realist nationalist.” It is easier to make reasonable conclusions about the Democratic Party’s prospective presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy outlook.

The United States envisions the Middle East as a hopeless region, which the US should refrain from deploying troops to in order to fight future wars. This means that Russia and Iran would envision it as a region where they could expand their presence by entering into the ongoing conflicts as partisans and expand their presence as a way to create enduring spheres of influence. Some would argue that Iran already has come to that conclusion.

The United States is relying on the Kurdish foes to fight ISIS both in Iraq and in Syria, thereby providing credible evidence for ISIS’ propaganda that the Kurdish forces, in reality, are permanently going to occupy Arab land. Such an argument might turn out to be the basis for the Sunni forces to join ISIS as defenders of Sunni Arab territories. The sustenance of that perception is likely to make it well-nigh impossible for the US to argue that its own air war against ISIS is really aimed at liberating Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria.

If Hillary Clinton were to win the US presidency, she would have a difficult time convincing the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria that the United States is not covertly working to create a greater Kurdistan while pretending to fight ISIS. About the only way the United States under Hillary could persuade the Sunnis that it favors their strategic interests in Iraq and Syria is by sending in US ground troops, and thereby totally abandoning Obama’s principled pragmatism.

Since Hillary Clinton has long been portrayed as a hawk of the Obama administration while she served as his Secretary of State, she should have no problem harping on the liberal interventionistic aspect of her worldview, largely because Obama’s principled pragmatism does not have a large constituency. Instead, the neocons’ perspective, which was dramatized by Robert Kagan’s controversial essay, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” is likely to remain popular, simply because, as a bumper-sticker statement, it promises to restore the imaginary greatness that the United States had and supposedly lost. Since ordinary voters are not serious students of US foreign policy, they, more often than not, tend to get highly sentimental about slogans, such as “make America great again.”

Since the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election campaign is largely devoid of serious foreign policy debates, chances are that the choice of the American people remains between Hillary Clinton’s “unapologetic liberal interventionism” rhetoric and that of Donald Trump, who “is a modern-day descendant of the 19th-century “Know-Nothings,” a man who seems unconcerned by his own ignorance and who probably thinks Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would make a good U.N. ambassador.” Clinton is eager to embellish her foreign policy experience, whose chief characteristic is demonstrating bad judgement in her backing of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in her eager support of US military strikes against Muammar Qaddafi in 2001. Today, Iraq and Libya remained hellish places, but Hillary “appears to have learned little from the experience.”

Goodbye Principled Pragmatism, Hello Liberal/Neocon Interventionism?

So, President Barack Obama is likely to get major credit for his commitment to principled pragmatism, which kept America out of new wars in the Middle East and his success in containing the conflict in Afghanistan but defeating the Taliban. However, after his successes, the United States appears poised to enter into new wars, against Syria, Iraq, and Libya; and maybe even against Iran. The neocons have already prepared their new recipe of pushing the US into war. If you have any doubt, please read the report Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand US Engagement in a Competitive World Order.

The neocons are poised, indeed eager, to put to rest the contentious argument of America’s decline. Since the United States has the undeserved “reputation for driving the course of world affairs,” that reputation has to be restored, regardless of the cost.