Miller Center

Barack Obama: Foreign Affairs

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In addition to inheriting an economy in severe recession when he took office, President Obama inherited two wars, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. A long time opponent of President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Obama promised during the election campaign to withdraw American troops as soon as possible. In February 2009, he announced a plan to bring troop levels down from 160,000 to 50,000 by August 2010, including the removal of all combat forces. The remaining troops, he added, would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. The withdrawal proceeded smoothly, in part because Obama was able to build on the gains achieved by Bush's "surge" of 20,000 additional troops in 2007, which had helped the government of Iraq to restore a measure of stability to the country.

Obama's other war-related campaign promise was to step up the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan in order to keep the extremist Taliban from regaining power and allowing Al Qaeda once again to use the country as a base of terrorist operations against the United States and its allies. Soon after taking office, Obama granted the military's request, initially made at the end of the Bush presidency, to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, raising the American military presence there to about 60,000.

As the year unfolded, however, Obama became convinced that a change in military strategy was needed so that the government of Afghanistan eventually would be able to defeat the Taliban on its own. In June, he appointed a new military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and asked him to recommend a new course of action. McChrystal requested 40,000 more troops and promised to deploy them to train Afghani forces to fight the Taliban instead of relying on American might. After an extended series of meetings beginning in September, Obama announced in a speech on December 1, 2009, at West Point that he had approved a short-term surge of 33,000 troops with a proviso that American forces must begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011. Although the President soon fired McChrystal for making disparaging remarks about members of the administration, he replaced him with General David Petraeus, who had developed and implemented the successful surge in Iraq that inspired McChrystal's new strategy for Afghanistan.

Obama's foreign policy goals extended beyond the wars he inherited. Determined to establish good relationships with foreign governments, especially in the Arab world, he traveled abroad more during his first year in office than any previous President. In April 2010, he signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty—called New START—with President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Congressional Republicans were much more interested in domestic policy than foreign policy, which allowed President Obama to complete the American military withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year and to proceed on course to a similar disengagement of U.S. forces, at least in terms of active combat, from Afghanistan by 2014. Buttressing Obama's credentials on military matters was the May 1, 2011, killing of Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, by a team of Navy SEALS. Intelligence agencies had concluded that bin Laden was probably hiding in a residential compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Lacking certainty on the matter, and realizing the risks attending a military strike, Obama nonetheless ordered the attack. In celebrating bin Laden's death, Americans applauded the President's decisiveness and judgment.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael Nelson

Professor Nelson is the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Miller Center. He has published twenty-three books, including:

The Elections of 2008 (CQ Press, 2009)

The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776–2007 (with Sidney Milkis, CQ Press, 2007)

How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (with John Lyman Mason, LSU Press, 2008), which won the V.O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics.