During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Obama said very little that was new on foreign policy. That is unfortunate because, in his sixth year in office, many of his foreign policy choices are having disconcerting repercussions that he likely did not anticipate. Time still remains for the commander in chief to change course, but doing so will require that he adopt a new national security agenda.
In Afghanistan, President Obama is considering a plan to leave 10,000 troops in place beyond the full transfer of responsibility for security to Kabul at the end of this year. However, these few follow-on forces could reportedly draw down to near zero by the end of 2016. While 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are better than none at all, the Institute for the Study of War concluded in a study last year that it will require roughly triple that number to effectively carry out the president's plans to conduct counter-terrorism operations and train the Afghan security forces.
Leaving too small a residual force of U.S. troops — or completely withdrawing — risks overturning the military, economic and political gains that the United States, the NATO-led coalition and Afghanistan have won over the past 12 years. As Obama said, the danger still remains that terrorists in Afghanistan could launch attacks against the United States. Unfortunately, the commander-in-chief missed an opportunity to further detail that danger to the American people when he stated:
If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.
The present situation in Iraq illustrates the risks of withdrawal. After U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, the United States lost its influence over Iraqi politics. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki then proceeded to accrue more power for himself and shut out his political opponents. Now, al-Qaida's forces in Iraq have resurrected themselves, and 2013 was the most violent year in Iraq since 2008.
Moving forward, the Obama administration must make every effort to reverse this decline, including providing training and arms to the Iraqi security forces. The United States, at the same time, must do what it can to help ensure that this year's Iraqi parliamentary elections are free and fair, that Sunnis and Kurds can fully participate, and that mainstream political opponents are allowed meaningful posts in a new government. Having seen the consequences of withdrawal over the past two years, President Obama will hopefully be compelled to take appropriate actions to reverse this disturbing decline.
Syria, meanwhile, continues to swallow the Mideast into its vortex of violence. Since the uprising against Bashar Assad began in March 2011, more than 130,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that nearly 2.5 million Syrians are refugees in other countries, and more than 6.5 million are internally displaced.
Not only does the humanitarian situation deteriorate the longer Assad stays in power, but the security situation as well. Syria now has as many as 11,000 foreign fighters – outpacing even the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Obama was, however, correct in saying that the Syrian people deserve "a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear." He should do everything possible to hasten that future's arrival. This means accelerating the deployment of weapons to moderate rebel groups that "reject the agenda of terrorist networks," and considering providing heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry that will allow them to defeat the Assad regime and prevent extremist Islamist groups from rising to power.
In Iran, the Obama administration has substituted a diplomatic process for a sound policy. The president's claim that American diplomacy "has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade" is belied by the actual details of the agreement. As Christopher Griffin and Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative observed, the deal:
does not require Iran to dismantle a single centrifuge for uranium enrichment, ship abroad a single kilogram of uranium, start dismantling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, or to stop stonewalling international investigations into its nuclear program's potential military dimensions.
A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that, to ensure the Islamic Republic does not have a capability to produce nuclear weapons on alarmingly short notice, Tehran would have to remove 15,000 enrichment centrifuges and permit a 20-year regime of intrusive inspections. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that Iran will not dismantle any centrifuges "under any circumstances." In a telling remark, Zakaria subsequently characterized Rouhani's position on centrifuge dismantlement as a "train wreck."
What might aid diplomacy and help to avert this looming "train wreck"? Perhaps something that the Obama administration has so far opposed: the threat of more pressure on Iran.
Here, the bipartisan "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013," co-authored by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and co-sponsored by 57 Senate lawmakers, could end up playing an important role. This measure would conditionally impose sanctions on Iran to enforce any violation of the interim nuclear deal that entered into force on January 20.
The bill's congressional supporters argue that it would not "threaten to derail" negotiations with Iran, but rather give diplomats critical leverage to ensure their success. If Iran scuttles negotiations, the measure would automatically impose a new round of crippling sanctions on Iran, making Obama's vow to "be the first to call for more sanctions" if diplomacy fails all the more credible.
It's worth recalling that the White House has established a record of initially opposing Iran sanctions legislation that it later embraced. Time will tell whether or not past is prologue.
Upon his inauguration, President Obama framed his foreign policy agenda as a contrast to his predecessor's, declaring that the time had come to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." As the president enters his sixth year in office, the consequences of a minimalist U.S. foreign policy are becoming clear. It is not too late to change course and seek to do more to influence and shape world events. It's often said that "less is more," but in matters of foreign policy, sometimes less is less.
Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.