Was Obama’s Foreign Policy a Success? Most Members Say Yes
October 23, 2017

At Members Weekend 2017, panelists debated the question, "Was Barack Obama’s foreign policy a success?" The debate was moderated by Mr. Dan Schnur, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles Region.

Mr. Robert C. O’Brien, managing partner at Larson O’Brien LLP, and Dr. Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, argued that Obama’s foreign policy was not a success. 

Dr. Matthew Spence, the William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Ambassador John Emerson, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, argued that Obama’s foreign policy was a success.

Watch the entire debate below and read about key highlights:

Members Weekend attendees voted on the debate question in both a pre- and post-debate poll on the Pacific Council mobile app. Before the debate, 56 percent voted "yes" and 44 percent voted "no." 

Spence laid out the differences in terms of America’s standing in the world between when Obama took office and when he left:

  • On the major issues affecting that matter most, President Obama left our nation much stronger and safer.
  • In 2008, Osama bin Laden was at large and was plotting every day to launch attacks against the United States, and we had no plan to get him. By the time Obama left office, Osama bin Laden was no longer around and al Qaeda had been decimated.
  • When Obama took office, Iran was about to get a nuclear weapon and the only serious plan to stop them was to start a war. America was in the middle of two major wars in the Middle East without end in sight. By withdrawing troops and negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, Obama turned these situations around as well.

O’Brien argued that the world Obama left behind was more dangerous, not safer:

  • Obama weakened our military and his ‘strategic patience’ and ‘leading from behind’ approach didn’t work.
  • Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in response to the drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe.
  • China annexed the South China Sea because the Obama administration did not engage in freedom of navigation patrols.
  • Iran learned there was no behavior they could exhibit that could stop America from appeasement with the JCPOA and they cemented their hegemony over the Middle East.
  • Assad crossed the chemical weapons red line without penalty.
  • The United States withdrew from Iraq against the best advice of our generals and ISIL created a caliphate the size of Great Britain.
  • Kim Jong-un has busied himself building at least 60 nuclear weapons and the ICBMs to threaten the region.

Emerson argued that Obama restored America’s voice as a moral authority in the world:

  • Obama was able to rebuild our alliances and reengage in multilateral relationships that had in many instances gone fallow.
  • Instead of a Coalition of the Willing going into Iraq, we have a real coalition of 73 nations to defeat and degrade ISIL.
  • Obama was able to work with Russia, China, and our European allies to not only impose back-breaking sanctions on Iran but to develop an agreement to curb their nuclear weapons program that is looking better and better every day.
  • Obama worked to strengthen NATO.
  • At COP21, Obama worked with Xi to get the Chinese for the first time to agree to a ceiling on carbon emissions.

Schake laid out what the world would have looked like if the United States had eight years of a different foreign policy than Obama’s:

  • If Obama had not drawn a red line in Syria and then failed to enforce that red line, we might not have had 11 million Syrian refugees.
  • The hard work of winning the war in Iraq was done before 2008.
  • If it weren’t for Obama, ISIL would not have gained such a ferocious foothold in Iraq and Syria.
  • We would not have North Korea on the brink of having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could attack this beautiful city [Los Angeles] if Obama had not averted his eyes from that problem for eight years.

Answering the same question after the debate, "Was Barack Obama’s foreign policy a success?",  61 percent of members voted "yes," and 39 percent voted "no."


Justin Chapman is the Communications Associate at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Read more about this year's conference at the Members Weekend 2017 website. Watch videos and read summaries of Representative Karen Bass' keynote address, the plenary on the future of automation, Jerry Green's remarks on the Iran deal, an interview with General Robert B. Brown, and insights from other Members Weekend discussions. Check out photos from the conference on our Flickr page.

Members Weekend is the West Coast’s premier forum on global affairs, convening business, civic, government, and academic leaders to exchange ideas and collaborate on pressing global issues. Take a closer look at this year’s event, and read all Members Weekend analysis now in our Newsroom.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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