What Should American Foreign Policy Look Like?

April 27, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

As Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) says, the world is on fire.  The Middle East is awash with strife and conflict, Russia has rediscovered their assertiveness, China has become more active in the South China Sea, and the cyber domain is heating up.  The last 15 years have seen two different approaches to foreign policy, yet, some might even argue that many of the same issues remain or have been amplified.  With 2016 right around the corner, what should Americans look for in a new foreign policy?  What can be learned from the last two administrations over the last 15 years?

The events of September 11, 2001 forever changed the world.  For the United States, it propelled the nation into a perpetual state of war ballooning the national security complex and ginning up fear of the next attack to justify certain practices such as cell phone data collection.  September 11 signaled to the jihadi community that a large scale attack on the American homeland was possible and rallied their forces.  The al-Qaeda brand began to grow as well and today the jihadi community has grown to such an extent that there are internal battles over ideology and tactics.

America’s foreign policy in the Middle East since 9/11 has been largely shaped by the events of 9/11.  President Bush invaded Afghanistan to disrupt the Salafi government run by the Taliban, which provided al-Qaeda safe haven before 9/11.  The Bush administration also invaded Iraq, though, those motives were arguably under different pretenses.

President Obama’s foreign policy on the other hand has been shaped somewhat by that of his predecessor’s in the inverse; President Obama ran, and ultimately won, because he called for the conclusion of “dumb wars” and promised to rein in interventionist and foolhardy policies that cost America billions of dollars with little tangible results.  Candidate Obama garnered a great deal of support from Americans for holding the vote to go to war in Iraq over his fellow Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, who are thought to be more hawkish than him.

However, President Obama’s foreign policy has not appeared to have the success many had hoped.  His strategy of pseudo-isolationism that avoids “boots on the ground” and relies heavily on air-power and small Special Operations teams has only had marginal success.  The president has framed his current policy toward counterterrorism as targeting high-value terrorists and trying to dismantle leadership structure, which has received much criticism.

President Obama’s foreign policy in general can be summed up with two quotes; “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” the president said a year ago in Asia.  This year, he said in an interview with Vox, “You take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.”  Then of course there is the overarching doctrine that guides his decision making: “don’t do stupid stuff,” though “stuff” is replaced with a more vulgar synonym.

These views are a result of the previous president’s foreign policy.  Intervention was viewed unfavorably as the debt increased and more Americans were killed in two of the nation’s longest wars.  By contrast, President Obama’s pseudo-isolationist policy (though he has recently become more involved in the Middle East, going farther than his predecessor by waging military action without a direct buy-in from Congress) is waning in public support as well.  More and more governments in the region are falling to insurgent groups and rebel uprisings with the potential for larger civil wars and regional struggles for hegemony.  Reactionary policy – don’t do stupid stuff – is just as bad as reckless interventionist policy.  With the rise of groups like the Islamic State (IS) group and increased conflict, foreign policy is gaining more prominence in elections. Due to 9/11, the United States has been most active in the Middle East, which has largely shaped the foreign policies of Presidents Bush and Obama as well as the American people.

With that being said, what do Americans want in terms of foreign policy, what are prospective candidates and party leaders offering, and what should the focus of future foreign policy be given the nation has seen both extremes – full scale ground wars and hands-off, limited air power – for the last 15 years.  Neither of which appear to be working. 


Middle East

Typically, foreign policy is not high on the list in terms of voter driven issues.  For the most part, the numbers have stayed the same in terms of Americans who believe international terrorism is a critical concern, though, there appears to be an uptick with more attention paid to foreign affairs with all the recent action, especially in the Middle East.

By 2005, approval for America’s wars was dismal with only 39 percent in favor.  Additionally, through the years, Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with the choice to invade Afghanistan after 9/11, a decision that was made less on partisan lines, to dislodge the governing body that provided al-Qaeda with a safe haven – as opposed to the more politically polarizing Iraq War.  Despite only 25 percent of respondents saying that the war was a mistake in 2004, by 2014, that number had reached 49 percent.

Regarding troop levels, in 2009, a hefty majority of those polled believed that the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan for one year or less while a plurality wanted to keep troops in place until the situation improved or set a timetable with results of 48 and 47 percent respectively.

However, this was before the rise of IS had been partially attributed to what some describe as the premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq.  President Obama has clearly grown fearful that he will very likely be blamed again in Afghanistan if he pulls all U.S. troops out too early and the Taliban make considerable gains, as many predict, which is why he recently decided to amend his withdrawal timetable.

Despite declining support for troop deployments and America’s wars in the past, results from a McClatchy/Marist poll taken in early March demonstrate that a majority of Americans are in favor of congressionally approved force for the current offensive against IS and an even higher majority support sending American ground troops.  This in the face of American journalists being beheaded by IS, which has caused American’s to seemingly forget their previous views toward war and support the U.S. doing whatever is necessary to defeat the group. Moreover, a new poll released by CNN and ORC found that a majority questioned believe IS is a greater threat to the U.S. than Russia, China, North Korea, and even Iran. This polling data stands in stark contrast to the message President Obama initially ran and won on – a new, disengaged approach.

The conflicts in the Middle East are not going away anytime soon.  President Obama has cemented a long term role for the U.S. in the region by leading an anti-IS coalition.  By many conservative estimates, it could take at least five years to roll back the group.  The same goes for the civil war in Syria, which is considered the worst humanitarian disaster in a generation with several Islamist groups gaining more ground.  Yemen has officially become a failed state with their president fleeing the country, Shiite rebels orchestrating an insurgency that overtook the capital, al-Qaeda consolidating land and resources, and Saudi Arabia ready to invade with a coalition of Arab nations – this after President Obama recently held Yemen up as a model for successful counterterrorism operations.  Despite U.S. military intervention, albeit on a somewhat limited basis, in these regions, conflicts persist.  Regardless the optics – large humanitarian disasters and rampant beheadings – Americans desire more, or at least, continued engagement. Contrast current views with polling conducted in 2012 in which Americans wanted no part of Middle Eastern intervention.  Americans also remained against Middle Eastern intervention in the summer of 2014.

Then there’s the Iran deal.  A majority of Americans have favorable feelings toward negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but are very distrustful that Iran will comply with parameters of a deal.  Yet, this has become another extremely polarizing issue with most on the right harshly criticizing the framework that was reached while most on the left are generally supportive of the deal specifically and diplomacy in general.  European nations had been engaged with Iran regarding diplomatic talks pertaining to their nuclear program prior to Bush administration involvement.  Though the Bush administration put in place the robust sanctions regime, largely touted as the leading factor that brought Iran to the negotiating table currently, and attempted to engage Iran, their efforts were unsuccessful.  This can partially be attributed to more radical and hardline officials at the highest level of Iran’s government such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  While President Obama made nuclear non-proliferation a key tenet of his administration, the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, a relative moderate, opened a door for better engagement, despite the fact that many are skeptical of negotiating with one of the world’s largest exporters of terror whose ultimate goals directly clash with those of the United States in the region.

President Obama’s view towards negotiating with Iran has come under intense scrutiny.  The president described in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman days after the framework was announced that the United States is “powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing…people don’t seem to understand.” He continued, “the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”

After Friedman introduced the concept of the “Obama Doctrine” the president pushed back and offered his take on what he thinks a doctrine bearing his name ultimately is; “We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.” These views line up with the president’s statements that he will use force in Iran if necessary, though, after he failed to act in Syria following his self-described “red-line” was crossed – the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons – many are skeptical of the president’s commitment to use force.

Despite this fact, many Republican presidential hopefuls have said that they would repeal the nuclear framework – with Scott Walker saying he would repeal the deal day one and Ted Cruz going as far as to say “any potential White House candidate who’s not willing to reject the emerging deal with Iran over its nuclear development is ‘not fit to serve’ as president.”

Though the issue of diplomacy versus war – the notion that the only two options are to negotiate a deal or go to war with Iran – have been overly conflated by those in government and the media.  While some more hawkish members of Congress signal war is the best option, many do not share this view.  The infamous letter sent to Iranian leaders that was authored by freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) and signed by 46 senators warning Iran that Congress has a say in a final deal has also been misinterpreted.  While it was not the best policy decision, Congressional members believe that on an issue with such high stakes – a nuclear armed Iran and a regional nuclear arms race – members want a say.  This notion was seconded by Americans in polling data released prior to world powers agreeing to a framework agreement.  Currently, a significant majority of Americans surveyed recently approve of the framework agreed upon and oppose Congress blocking it, which is not to say that they don’t want Congressional approval in general.  Moreover, another recent poll conducted by NBC reveals that the sample is more trustful of Obama handling a final deal than Republicans in Congress.

With all that being said, the details of a final negotiation are still not final. A lot can happen in the 10-15 years Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will be inspected and scaled back based on the recent framework agreements.  This means that attitudes will most certainly change especially considering the rapid pace of events currently taking place in the Middle East.  Americans’ favorable views toward negotiation with Iran are likely shaped on war fatigue, which seems to be relenting, given support for action against IS. 



President Obama has relied heavily on drone strikes against terrorists abroad as a means of taking a more hands-off approach to combating terrorism contrasted to the wars waged during the Bush years.  Drone strikes have allowed President Obama to remain tough on terrorism through expanding American involvement and intervention in other terrorist hotbeds around the world – pseudo-isolationism – while eschewing large troop deployments (though, he tried to replicate the troop surge of 2007 during the Iraq War in Afghanistan in 2009 when things were not going as the administration had wanted).  Many have reported on the limits of just using air power and more specifically drones, which were thought to be a panacea for a while given their ability to hover for up to 24 hours at a time to collect intelligence with zero risk to soldiers.

However, this overreliance and overall strategy to take out leaders of terrorist groups with drones has not been effective in dismantling terrorist networks.  In fact, reporting suggests that the drone campaign, which has been accused of causing large-scale civilian harm, has been attributed to the birth of more terrorists who want to fight an insensitive and expansive United States.

Despite that, 65 percent of Americans said in 2013 that they support drone strikes against terrorists. Support and public opinion regarding drone reform in lieu of widespread reported civilian casualties branded by the government as “collateral damage” (in the rare occasion the government acknowledges civilians were killed) has trickled. That changed when the administration announced recently that an American hostage was killed accidently in January in a strike at an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. The administration asserts they did not know the hostage was being held there. This incident has caused an outpouring of support to reform the way the government conducts drone strikes and targets certain individuals.

As conflicts are escalating and battlefield alliances are shifting, the U.S. drone campaign will get more complicated as referenced above regarding troop deployments to Iraq and Syria to fight IS.  While the drone program has done very little to accomplish the goals of the Obama administration – deny safe havens and dismantle terrorist networks – it has hindered terrorist activity and largely kept America safe.



Concerning Russia, both the Obama and Bush administrations were caught flatfooted in the face of Russian aggression.  In 2008, Russia incurred into neighboring Georgia and the Bush administration did little to intervene.  Similarly, the current conflict with Russia, in which they illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, and are now engaged in a hybrid proxy war with Ukraine providing support to rebels in two eastern provinces who are fighting for independence, appears to have perplexed the U.S.  Many in Congress have called on President Obama to act more authoritatively as they believe he has demonstrated weakness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The conflict is reminiscent of the Cold War and Russia is demonstrating aggressive behavior such as military flights over North America and military exercises not seen since the 1980s.  Despite the rhetoric from the president’s detractors in Congress, Americans polled in the summer of 2014 favored staying out of the conflict in Ukraine.


 As a result of the last 15 years of American foreign policy, two extreme views for the future have emerged; continued deployments and intervention with escalated military attacks, or total disengagement as to allow those their perspective regions to duke it out for themselves.  While the Republican field is relatively united in their position in terms of a tough and robust foreign policy that highlights an American exceptionalism forceful attitude (with the exception of Senator Rand Paul, KY, who is trying to shake off preconceived notions of his previous isolationist mentality), the Democratic field has a wide range of views.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War, is considered to be a more hawkish member of the party.  That vote was used as fodder by then candidate Obama and led to Clinton’s eventual downfall in 2008.  This issue could once again come to a head in 2016 if former senator and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee decides to run.  Chafee, who was a Republican senator, then an Independent, and now a Democrat, announced he is forming an exploratory committee for president and said he is coming for Clinton, again targeting her vote for the Iraq War (Chafee was the only Republican senator to vote against the war). Other wild cards on the Democratic side are Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Also on the left, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed interest in running. His views toward foreign policy are much more standoffish than other liberals, but is not totally averse to intervention (some have said that Sanders might have to declare as a Democrat if he runs as to be able to participate in Democratic presidential debates, which will allow for greater exposure).

Striking a balance between intervention and isolationism is much easier said than done.  One thing appears to be clear from the polling:  at the most basic level, Americans want a president who is tough on terrorism but avoids snap decisions on war.  Finding a candidate who suits these needs will likely prove difficult.  But if recent history is any indication, Americans generally desire a change after two terms of one president’s policy.