As the world prepares for the U.S. presidential election, the future of American foreign policy seems uncertain. Michael Mandelbaum, author of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, serves Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman spoke with Mandelbaum to discuss the Obama administration’s legacy, the impact of a resurgent Iran, and the potential for disruption caused by black swan events and a nuclear North Korea.
DAVID ANDELMAN: I’d like to start by talking about President Obama’s legacy. It would appear that Obama entered with the aim of extracting himself from two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, neither really threatening the U.S. existentially at that point. He’s going to be leaving office in January still pursuing two wars, in Afghanistan and now in Syria—one with immediate and proximate danger to the U.S. and most of its allies. How is that possible?
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Obama did come into the office promising to end American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. He made a good faith effort to do so, and he has substantially reduced the number of American forces in both countries. The problem in Afghanistan was that the government looks vulnerable to the Taliban-sponsored insurgency, and there is the fear that if the United States withdraws completely from Afghanistan, if and when all American troops leave, the Afghan government and its army will not be able to fend off the Taliban. The circumstances that the United States went into Afghanistan to change—the Taliban government giving shelter to aggressive jihadi terrorist groups such as al-Qaida—might come back into being. In Iraq, the problem that brought the United States back to that country is the rise of the so-called Islamic State, which was hardly contemplated when Obama pulled the last American soldier out of that country.
There’s one other point to add about each of these two interventions, or in one case, a re-intervention. Obama promised to pull out American forces because the American presence in both countries was unpopular with the American public. It was unpopular because the United States was suffering casualties. Americans, in general, don’t mind where the government puts their army, as long as there aren’t more casualties than the public thinks is needed for the political aim. In this case, I believe that the deployments are small enough and the American troops are sufficiently far from the frontlines that it’s unlikely for there to be casualties on a scale that would cause the American public to say, “Get them all out.”
DA: Obama also seemed to feel he had almost unlimited abilities to work change in the world when he came in, but he didn’t. Was that a failure of his perception? What happened?
MM: Obama certainly made some grandiose promises, in retrospect. He made that famous speech in Berlin in which he said: “This is the moment when the oceans begin to recede and the planet begins to heal.”
DA: And there was that speech in Cairo, at the American University.
MM: In American University speech, he seemed to suggest that the fact that he and not George W. Bush was president would change the perception of the United States in the Arab Muslim world. He also suggested during the campaign that reaching out the hand of friendship to countries unfriendly to the United States, such as Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and China, could transform relations with those countries. Of course, that didn’t happen. The attitude toward the United States among the governments of unfriendly countries goes far beyond and far deeper than personalities. Their interests, as they understand them, are in conflict with those of the United States, and that’s why they’re anti-American. I think it’s fair to say that Obama was naive on that point, as he was in promising to begin the process of abolishing all nuclear weapons. That has not happened; he’s made no progress toward it.
Presidents, especially when they’re first elected, are often naive in this way, either because they are relatively inexperienced at foreign policy, which was certainly true of Obama, or because they have an outsized, exaggerated sense of what they can personally accomplish in the world. After all, you can see how that illusion might take hold because a person who has just been elected president has managed to get into the most powerful office in the world, be it by his or her words or personality. So, the person naturally believes that his or her words and/or personality can work miracles, but of course they can’t. Other presidents have believed this. I think Obama probably believed it more than most others.
DA: Right, but I believe the presidents who’ve had the greatest impact in the world, for good or for ill, are those who’ve arrived in pursuit of real weltanschauung—a world view. Otherwise, they risk ping-ponging from one crisis to another with no sense of real purpose and leaving little real legacy. I get the impressions that sometimes Obama has ping-ponged from one crisis to the other. I don’t get the sense of the kind of world he really wanted to leave behind.
MM: I think he wanted to leave behind a world in which there was far more cooperation and far less conflict. He has not done that, and the reason is that forces more powerful than his own will were moving in the other direction.
DA: Were there things he should’ve ignored in order to keep his mind focused on the kind of world that he wanted, instead of getting sucked in?
MM: Yes, he certainly got sidetracked in two places. One is Libya, where the European-American intervention probably made things worse. It got rid of Gadhafi, who is certainly no one to admire or emulate, but it is now a failed state and a base for jihadis. Incidentally, it has also become a base for uncontrolled immigration into Europe—Europe’s biggest problem. The other place where he misspent American time and energy was in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has no chance of being solved because the Palestinians are not interested in peace. They’re interested in the disappearance of Israel, and yet, Obama persisted in peace process efforts, which involved putting pressure on Israel, and blaming Israel when they failed. In those two ways, Obama probably made things worse. Still, I don’t think that had he been wiser on Libya or the Arab-Israeli conflict, this would have allowed him to realize his lofty but unrealistic vision of world politics.
DA: Do you think that he ever really bought into a lot of this? Let me give you a scenario that might’ve played out. Obama comes in and decides to outsource foreign policy to [then-Secretary of State] Hillary [Clinton] because that gives him some deniability if things don’t work out. “Well, I gave it to the best person I possibly could.” She, in turn, almost immediately outsources some of the biggest and most important issues to pro consuls in different parts of the world. So, you have [Richard] Holbrooke in Afghanistan, who is supposed to work the same magic he did in Kosovo. You have [George] Mitchell for the Middle East. You have Dennis Ross for Iran, and so on. Each of the people with the feet on the ground is put two steps removed from the one guy who really could make something happen: the president. So, do you think that that was where it really all began to go bad?
MM: Organizational issues can have a significant impact on foreign policy. My impression is that, far from outsourcing foreign policy to Clinton, Obama kept it pretty centralized in the White House and kept everybody working on foreign policy in the executive branch on a pretty short leash. It was notable that they outsourced the major problems to special envoys, and I certainly agree that if you’re the Secretary of State and you allow that to happen, you’re really giving up a lot of power. And of course, Mitchell failed not because of the organizational arrangements, but because what they were trying to do was just not in the cards.
DA: Let’s start looking to the future. Let’s start with Iran, because at least one of the two candidates that might succeed Obama wants do away entirely with the Iranian nuclear agreement. Tell us if you think that is likely to happen, and what you foresee in terms of the consequences if that happens.
MM: Well, if [Donald] Trump is elected president, which does not seem likely at this point, it’s impossible to predict what he’ll do because he doesn’t have a coherent program. He’s reneged on many of the promises he initially made during the campaign, like his signature issue, immigration. It’s impossible to say which of his promises, if any, he would keep. I doubt that he’s given the matter any thought, but my guess is that whoever is elected president will not immediately withdraw from the Iran deal, but rather will try to evaluate its merits and make sure that Iranians are complying with the terms. The problem the United States has with Iran if the deal is working is not the imminence of an Iranian nuclear weapon, although that remains a very dangerous threat down the road, but rather that Iran is pressing ahead to spread its influence throughout the region with proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Iran’s ultimate goal is to dominate the region and kick out the United States. It is a resolutely anti-American government, and I think Obama’s hope is that he could conciliate the Islamic Republic. His declaration for a balance between the Shiite coalition, headed by Iran, and the Sunni coalition is both naive and wrong. In this sectarian conflict in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shiites, we do have a dog in the fight. Our interests are with the Sunnis, not because we have any opinion on the theological controversy, but because the members of the Sunni coalition, such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, are pro-American, while the members of the Shiite coalition, headed by Iran but also including Syria, are anti-American. We should be supporting our friends. These are not the most democratic regimes in the world, and in some ways their styles of governments are opposed to what we believe, but in terms of strategic alignment they are with us and the Iranians are against us. That’s what should be determining our foreign policy.
DA: In the short and medium term, that’s no doubt correct, but the question then becomes: Could Obama be playing a long game, which is to say that we may find that there are a lot of people in Iran right now among the younger generation who 20 years from now, when this agreement will either be re-negotiated or scrapped, are suddenly in power? They may like what’s happened to their country and not want to go backward. Maybe at that point we do have a chance for a real reconciliation with the Iranians.
MM: I think that conciliation with Iran depends on a change in regime. We have good evidence that this regime is not popular, so we certainly have some basis for hope that at some point it will disappear and be replaced by a regime more to our taste, more in line with our values, and less hostile to our interests. On the other hand, this is a regime that so far seems determined to stay in power and is willing to repress its citizens in order to do so. Nothing lasts forever and this regime will not last forever, but we don’t know what its terminal date will be. This regime could do enormous damage before expiring. That’s the danger.
DA: I want to talk about your last book, about on America and the world in the post-Cold War era. It suggests by its very title, Mission Failure, that we failed. So, the question is: How can the next president reverse this course and neutralize or reverse this failure?
MM: It’s not all that difficult to do. The theme of Mission Failure is that in the post-Cold War era, the United States had uniquely broad latitude to choose what foreign policy it would follow, and for a variety of reasons that I discussed in the book, it chose what I call “missions of transformation.” That is, nation building—trying to create the sense of coherent, national unity among different peoples, and state building, which involves establishing modern institutions in places where they didn’t exist. This was the initial aim of the Clinton-era policies toward China and Russia, of the policies toward Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as of the policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wider Arab world. This is different from what had been the main business of American foreign policy: coping with the actions of strong states. Here, we were trying to transform the inner workings of weak ones. This was a very different path from the one the United States had followed until the end of the Cold War.
DA: Is it doable, though?
MM: My argument, based on my analysis of all of the cases that I mentioned, is that it’s not doable. We cannot transform these countries and these societies from without. Transformation takes place all the time. Nations get built, but it has to be done by the people directly concerned. It can’t be done by an outside power, and it doesn’t have to be done by the U.S. What happens in these countries is not central to American interests. What happens in the Western Pacific with China, in Eurasia with Russia, and in the Middle East with Iran—those things really do matter and they should be the principal concerns of the next president.
DA: Except, you then have some fringe players like North Korea developing a nuclear bomb and deciding they are going to hold much of East Asia hostage. There are sort of black swan events that could come along and derail that strategy, no?
MM: There are, but North Korea wouldn’t qualify as a black swan, because we’ve been focused on it for the last 25 years.
DA: Right, of course.
MM: There are a variety of reasons that I explain in the last chapter of Mission Failure. We have not been able to stop the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and certainly not for lack of trying. I would say that the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons is a subset of the China issue, because China has the power to shut North Korea down. North Korea gets food and fuel, on which its survival depends, from China. If China decided to cut North Korea off, the Pyongyang regime would collapse. China, for its own reasons, has declined to do that, but if there is to be a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, then it would have to involve active Chinese participation.
DA: The Chinese don’t want a dysfunctional North Korea on its borders. For that matter, the South Koreans don’t want a collapsed North Korea that they will have to take over, as West Germany did East Germany, with considerably fewer resources and more chaos involved. Evan Osnos talked with some people who had recently come back from South Korea, and they said that Donald Trump’s comments about nuclear self-sufficiency have raised suspicion—and I suspect in Japan as well—among the conservative factions that they need nuclear weapons. Is the next president going to be faced with another round of the nuclear arms race, but in Asia this time?
MM: If South Korea and Japan conclude that the American nuclear umbrella, which has protected them against nuclear-armed neighbors Russia and China, has been withdrawn and the nuclear guarantee is no longer credible, then the incentive to acquire nuclear weapons of their own would be considerable. For decades, the American alliance system has been the most effective antidote to nuclear proliferation. It’s been far more important in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons than the non-proliferation treaty. Trump seems to think that an alliance is like a real estate deal—you shouldn’t enter into it unless we come out ahead. Well, alliances bring a number of benefits and one of them is non-proliferation. If Trump is elected and convinces the Japanese and the South Koreans that the United States will no longer protect them, they will take whatever steps they need to protect themselves. They’re both perfectly capable of producing nuclear weapons on their own, as is Taiwan.
DA: That’s interesting. What is to prevent North Korea from suddenly saying, we can’t attack the United States directly, but we can give a device to people who can come knocking on our doors, like the Islamic State? Let them do the work that we don’t our fingerprints on and give them a weapon. Then the whole system comes unstuck.
MM: That is a nightmare scenario and one of the reasons the United States is so committed to a non-nuclear North Korea. The problem we have is that our priorities differ from those of North Korea’s immediate neighbors, China and South Korea. They don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. The Chinese would prefer that the North does not have nuclear weapons, but they fear that if they applied the kind of pressure necessary to have any chance of getting North Korea to give up its bomb, North Korea would collapse. They would prefer to have an intact North Korea with nuclear weapons than a non-nuclear North Korea that has fallen apart, creating a failed state where people are streaming across the border. Our preferences are the reverse because we will not have to pay the cost of a North Korean meltdown. We don’t have to take any refugees. The South Koreans and the Chinese do. So, it’s not that they are for North Korean nuclear weapons; it is that preventing North Korea from having nuclear weapons is not as high a priority for them as it is for us. One other point about this nightmare scenario, which certainly seems plausible, is that I don’t see any reason why the North Korean regime would not sell a bomb to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida would have some difficulty deploying it, as it does require rather sophisticated infrastructure, so its not clear what the group would do with such a bomb or whether it could conceal it, but we don’t want to run that risk. It’s just too dangerous. But if there is a bomb that originates in North Korea and is set off somewhere else by somebody else, it’s probably going to be possible to track it back to North Korea.
DA: Right, it has a signature of some kind, presumably.
MM: Yes, I believe there is some signature. So, North Korea could incur some punishment, but if an event transpired that required punishment, it would be awful.
DA: One final thing: what are your greatest hope and your greatest fear for the world four years from now?
MM: My hope is that Russia, China, and Iran will make no further progress in their efforts to dominate eastern Eurasia, the Western Pacific, and the Middle East. I suppose my greatest hope, although I don’t have great confidence that this would happen, would be for regime change in all three countries. There are forces that put the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian regimes under pressure, and I don’t think they will last forever, but we do not have the capacity to change those regimes. When regime change comes is anybody’s guess. It could be next year or it could be decades from now. That would be my greatest hope, and my greatest fear is that countries with nuclear weapons will behave in such a way that we will see the second nuclear war.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of Pete Souza]