For the Syrian civil war, Barack Obama's restrained approach had serious unintended consequences
© AFP

Having recently returned from a visit to Iraq — a country still suffering from a reckless decision made more than 15 years ago by the US government — the timing could not have been better for me to read Stephen Walt’s new book.

Walt makes a compelling case for a more humble, restrained and balanced US foreign policy and points to serial mistakes presidents from both sides of the political divide have made since the end of the cold war: overambitious global strategies, an insular, dysfunctional foreign policy elite (derisively referred to as “the blob”) and a lack of accountability for disastrous decisions.

Where I differ with Walt is in his shoehorning of Barack Obama in with the others. I would make the case that Mr Obama really did embrace the strategy Walt recommends. His refusal to use significant force against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria (notably after the “red line” was crossed in 2013) or his push for diplomatic agreements with Iran and Cuba are just a few examples. Full disclosure: I served as a political appointee in the state department for nearly six years, and along with a number of my “blobby” colleagues, was frustrated with Mr Obama’s reluctance to engage more substantially, notably in Syria.

The Harvard professor does not rule out military intervention: force could be used when it is “clear that intervention would not make things worse or lead to an open-ended commitment”. Yet this is precisely the reason Mr Obama did not intervene directly in Syria, even if he did provide assistance to non-jihadist rebels.

Walt recommends deploying small numbers of US forces in support of local ones, a policy Mr Obama followed in Iraq and Syria, which was core to the counter-Isis campaign (along with significant air power). This method became known as “by, with and through”, short for “by local troops, with local troops and through local troops”, to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the Syrian civil war, however, such a restrained approach also had serious unintended consequences. The conflict has been responsible for more than 500,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of half the population, many into neighbouring countries and more than a million into Europe.

At the same time, the longer the war went on, the more jihadi groups such as Isis could metastasise, plan and direct or inspire attacks across the globe, including in Europe and North America. From mid-2014, when Isis emerged as a serious force, until today, there have been more than 140 Isis-directed or inspired attacks in 29 countries, beyond Iraq and Syria. These have been responsible for the deaths of several thousand civilians.

Populist politicians were able to exploit the migration crisis and the threat of Isis for their own ends, particularly by fomenting nationalist sentiments, which contributed to the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.

A second negative ramification of Mr Obama’s foreign policy restraint was the emboldening of Russia, Iran and China to be more assertive militarily. This might have happened anyway, but he certainly gave these countries more room for manoeuvre.

Book Cover - The Hell of Good Intentions. America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy By Stephen Walt

It is hard to dispute Walt’s argument that the foreign policy elite has not been held accountable for major mistakes. There has been no American equivalent of the UK’s Iraq inquiry , with its admirable frankness in interviewing and calling to account senior politicians and officials. As Walt points out, most of the architects of the irresponsible war in Iraq were never penalised, and many were promoted or recognised in other ways.

Mr Obama may not have fully realised Walt’s vision. What sounds good in theory is often difficult to put into practice. Even an exceptional US president can only do so much, given the pressures of government, the urgency of responding to external events, as well as other factors that are beyond control of the sole remaining superpower. It would take a truly exceptional leader to finesse Walt’s recommended “offshore balancing” of regional powers to the benefit of the US, especially in today’s more interconnected world.

Nevertheless, Walt’s book should be recommended reading for all those who work on US foreign policy, even if it may, on occasion, make some of us a little uncomfortable.


The reviewer is the director-general, Royal United Services Institute


The Hell of Good Intentions. America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy
, by Stephen Walt, Farrar Strauss Giroux, $38

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