Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  27 October, 2021

The Worst Presidential Foreign Policy Blunders Under Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump

Image: Susan Ruggles/Flickr

This article was first published in The Strategist on 7 September 2021.

A common intellectual parlour game is to rank American presidents in order of greatness. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt have long reigned supreme in the top four slots in C-SPAN’s survey of presidential historians. Switching angles and timeframe, although few question the US decision to exit Afghanistan, few defend how it was done. The calamitous domestic political consequences will be matched by lasting damage to the US’s global reputation and interests. This prompts the question: what were the single worst blunders by recent presidents?

Answers will vary from one analyst to the next depending on the criteria used and will be vigorously contested. As a professor with some real-world experience, using long-term consequences for the world as the chief measure, my choices would be the Kosovo intervention for Bill Clinton, the Iraq War for George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s drone policy, and Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal.

The peaceful manner in which the Cold War ended, with the defeated power acquiescing to the terms of its defeat, assenting to the new order and seeking accommodation and integration with the victors, is rare in history. Liberated from the yoke of totalitarian communism, Russians welcomed the prospect of good relations with the West. That goodwill was spurned and lost, and suspicions of Western intent and good faith were rekindled instead with the unilateral NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. It marked the moment when Russia turned from a potential NATO partner into an implacable adversary once again.

A badly weakened Russia, America’s only nuclear-weapons peer with a considerable potential for mischief, learned the lesson, bided its time and patiently worked its way back into being a spoiler in Europe and the Middle East. Assurances that NATO wouldn’t expand even ‘one inch eastward’ were betrayed in Kosovo and again in Ukraine in 2014. The West repeatedly rubbed Russia’s nose in the dirt of its historic Cold War defeat, dismissive of its interests and complaints. Yet now Western leaders act surprised that Russia carries a grievance and reacts like any great power would when strategic rivals engineer hostile takeovers in its front garden.

Even Westerners supportive of the Kosovo intervention were sharply divided over the Iraq War. The consensus now ranks it among the worst foreign policy mistakes in US history. The invasion mutated into occupation, insurgency and civil war that took a grim toll, with 4,500 US soldiers killed and a total cost of US$3.5 trillion. The US expended the most blood and treasure, but the biggest strategic victor was Iran. The war both fuelled the fire of jihadism and distracted attention from the war on terror. It painfully demonstrated the limits of hard power and greatly eroded US soft power.

My Obama selection is more abstract but no less real for that. He greatly expanded the policy of drone strikes without addressing what legal regime governs the new tools of warfare. Does targeted killing represent an extraterritorial extension of the normative authority of the state to cover gaps in the existing legal order, or is it a covert attempt to breach the limits of the legal competence of a state over conduct in foreign jurisdictions?

Drone dependency grew owing to its convenience. Drones have greater endurance, cost less, reduce the risk to US soldiers to zero, kill fewer innocent civilians and can be flown for long hours over treacherous, inhospitable terrain and vast distances. It was seductively faster, less complicated and more expedient to eliminate enemy terrorists than to capture, arrest and try them.

Several studies by the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and US news agencies CNN and McClatchy concluded that only a tiny minority of those killed in the strikes were high-value militant leaders. Most were low-level followers and innocent civilians. An exhaustive study by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities concluded that the strikes had traumatised and terrorised an entire population and violated the requirements of distinction, proportionality, humanity and military necessity under international humanitarian law.

Yet the evidence that drone strikes made America safer overall was ambiguous, for they created martyrs and acted as a recruiting motor for jihad by expanding the pool of angry and twisted young men. They undermined respect for the rule of law and international legal protection and set dangerous precedents even as lethal drone technologies were being developed by several countries. Might Beijing use them some day against domestic violent protests—which China denounces as terrorism? Against Tibetan activists holding meetings in Nepal? What if China eliminated the Dalai Lama in a drone strike?

Only time will tell if Trump made the right call in affirming the will and measures to check the expansion of China as a malign great power, or if he pushed the US into the Thucydides trap of a catastrophic war with China. From the long list of his error-strewn foreign policy decisions, my choice of the worst is the decision to exit from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that had contained Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon program. The robust dismantlement, transparency and inspections regime had drastically cut back sensitive nuclear materials, activities, facilities and associated infrastructure; and opened up Iran to unprecedented international inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which to the end continued to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal.

By jettisoning the JCPOA and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran and secondary sanctions on anyone dealing with Iran in prohibited items, Trump freed Tehran of the plan’s restrictions. In successive decisions since then, Tehran has increased the uranium stockpile, limited inspections, acquired the more advanced IR-6 centrifuges, and increased the quantity and purity of its enriched uranium to 20% instead of the 3.67% limit under the JCPOA. So much for getting a better deal through ‘maximum pressure’.

Having earlier broken unilateral assurances to Russia on NATO’s geographical limits, the breach of a six-country international agreement unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council further underlined US untrustworthiness. This damaged America’s credibility with its major European allies, China and Russia. And it undermined efforts to reach an agreement on North Korea’s denuclearisation, as Pyongyang understandably demands major and irreversible US concessions upfront and ironclad guarantees downstream.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and director of its Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order, to be published by Routledge in early 2022.